(ACLU) American Civil Liberties Union

Requiring law enforcement agencies to report data on civil asset forfeitures, reforming the law enforcement officers bill of right (LEOBR), and legalizing marijuana are all on Maryland’s  American Civil Liberties Union’s 2015 legislative agenda. “Civil asset forfeiture is rife with potential conflicts of interest,” explained Toni Holness, public policy associate for ACLU MD during an interview with the AFRO, “because you have a system wherein local law enforcement agencies are funding themselves . . . with assets that are taken from everyday Marylanders, and the standard of proof for taking assets is really low, it’s just a preponderance of the evidence.”

According to Holness, a law enforcement officer can seize property from citizens if they believe the asset – whether a car, or cash found on a citizen – could have been used in a crime. Proceeds from the sale of these assets are often used to bolster law enforcement agencies’ budgets, even though no criminal finding regarding the property may ever occur.

Currently, there are no reporting requirements with respect to the practice, making it impossible to know how often assets are seized; what process exists for confiscating and, if no crime is found to have been committed, returning seized assets; or who is most affected by the practice.

“Based on what we’ve seen in other criminal justice arenas, it would be reasonable to suspect that persons of color, communities of color are being disproportionately targeted, and so that is just another reason why we need greater data about what’s going on, because we can’t be sure,” said Holness.

ACLU MD will be advocating for legislation that will requires greater reporting of data, and contain substantive provisions to insure greater accountability by law enforcement regarding any assets seized.

Holness said ACLU MD will also be engaged in another criminal justice arena with a disproportionate effect on communities of color, the criminalization of marijuana. ACLU MD will take a two-pronged approach to this issue, working to strengthen the decriminalization law passed in 2014, and removing the exception for paraphernalia, that makes possession of paraphernalia a criminal offense.

“Folks on either side of this issue recognize that the law that was passed is a bit flawed,” said Holness. “Pragmatically it’s not one that lends itself easily to law enforcement to implement. So I think on both sides of the aisle you’ll find folks if not eager, at least amenable, to fixing the law that was passed last year.”

The ACLU MD will also be working with Del. Curt Anderson (D) of Baltimore City’s 43 District to pass a legalization bill to tax and regulate the sale of marijuana in the state. In early December, Anderson told the AFRO his bill would likely contain a provision granting expungements to anyone convicted of simple possession for some period, perhaps 10 years, prior to legalization.

Anderson indicated those convicted of distribution or intent to distribute would not receive similar consideration, since the unlicensed sales of marijuana would still be illegal under a tax and regulate measure.

According to Holness, the preference of ACLU MD would be for any expungement provision to be extended to those with distribution convictions as well. “When people have a criminal record, it really marginalizes them from employment opportunities, and not only employment opportunities but scholarship opportunities; so we’re talking about academic opportunities, employment opportunities, and the impact is not isolated to that individual. . . . ecause we know that communities of color are disproportionately criminalized, what you’ll see is entire communities – communities of color in particular – be impacted by criminal records,” said Holness.

Reforms to the LEOBR are also on deck. Holness says the organization will use its experience and expertise to assist those community members and groups who have taken on the fight to reform a statute many consider a roadblock to accountability for abuse by law enforcement officers. Holness says their principal focus will be on legislation requiring public reporting of police misconduct and reforming the LEOBR’s provision preventing police misconduct from being investigated by anyone other than law enforcement. “It’s the issue of who is policing the police,” said Holness. “They cannot police themselves. The conflict of interest in cases of police misconduct and brutality is very clear.”