Boston City Council resolution urges state to reform civil forfeiture laws

The Boston City Council on Wednesday urged the State Legislature to update a system that allows law enforcement to seize, and keep, money and property confiscated as part of a suspected drug crime in Massachusetts.

The council approved a resolution in support of legislation that would reform this system, known as civil asset forfeiture.

The current statutes allow law enforcement to take assets, even if there is no charge or criminal drug conviction. Police and district attorneys have few limitations on how they spend this seized cash.

The resolution comes after a WBUR investigation revealed Boston police purchased controversial cell phone surveillance equipment using forfeiture funds, circumventing any review by the city council.

Massachusetts has the lowest legal bar in the country for prosecutors to keep property as part of a forfeiture case. They can also hold onto the assets indefinitely, as detailed in the WBUR series.

City councilor Julia Mejia, who offered the resolution for a vote, said her goal was to spur action at the State House.

“I’m hoping that this will encourage communities across the commonwealth to speak up, so that we can move the needle forward in passing these reforms,” Mejia said in an interview.

The resolution supports two forfeiture reform bills pending in the state Senate Committee on Ways & Means. The  legislation would raise the legal standard for forfeiture in Massachusetts, and require more disclosure and reporting on how law enforcement seizes and spends these funds.

Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem, a Newton democrat and a sponsor of one of the bills, in a statement said she appreciated the council’s support.

“In addition to raising the standard of proof and dollar threshold required to seize assets, the legislation will promote much needed accountability and transparency in our civil forfeiture laws,” she said.

Advocates for civil forfeiture reform said it’s time the laws on the books were changed.

“We view forfeitures as an unacceptable form of legalized theft by police that enables them to spend money without public oversight,” said Alex Marthews, who chairs Digital Fourth, a nonprofit that opposes government surveillance.

While any change would require an act of the Legislature, Mejia said the council’s resolution was a way of sounding an alarm on the issue.

“Our hope is to get our colleagues on board [at] the State House as well, to fight alongside with us,” Mejia said.