Senators argue over civil forfeiture, fentanyl, child sex abuse

March 15, 2024, 5 p.m. ·

Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

Listen To This Story

Friday in the Nebraska Legislature, senators sparred over police powers to take money from motorists, citizens’ rights to sue governments, and government’s powers to prosecute people for fentanyl-related deaths.

Officially, what was listed on Friday’s agenda was a series of noncontroversial bills. But most of the discussion centered on controversies yet-to-come concerning the state’s judicial system.

Sen. Justin Wayne, chair of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said he was frustrated about a series of bills that are stuck there without enough votes to advance to the full Legislature for debate. Among them is a proposal by Sen. Tom Brewer, LB916, to reform the civil forfeiture law, under which law enforcement agencies can seize someone’s property even though they may not be convicted or even charged with a crime. Wayne described how he said some law enforcement agencies are using the law.

“Literally they are pulling people over on the side of the road saying ‘Well, I think there's an issue here. We're gonna have to maybe make some charges here, you know pull you out your car and search your car and see if there's any drugs or whatever. Or we noticed that you have 500 bucks on you. Just sign over the 500 bucks and you can go on your way,” Wayne said.

Wayne cited a 2023 Flatwater Free Press article that said Seward County had hauled in $7.5 million in forefeited cash in the previous five years. Brewer said it’s not what he expected to be happening in this country, and compared it to what he had seen on an Army counternarcotics task force in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

“This what I saw overseas in Third World countries, where the police had the ultimate power and there wasn't a process to try and get back items they seized when they stopped you on the road. And so it just seemed like we weren't being the country we could be with the way they were doing it,” Brewer said.

Brewer’s bill would still allow civil forfeitures, but would require them to be handled by the county attorney’s office, not individual law enforcement officers. Wayne said he would try to amend it into other proposals moving forward.

Another bill Wayne favors is LB341, a proposal by Sen. Steve Halloran that would allow people to sue local governments, including schools, if they are negligent and allow children to be sexually abused.

Sen. Rick Holdcroft, a member of the Judiciary Committee who opposes the bill, explained his position.

“There is no statute of limitation on going after the perpetrator and that's the person who should be punished. So that's certainly available to the individual who's been assaulted. And you don't have to sue people and get money to hold them accountable,” Holdcroft said.

Sen. Terrell McKinney said victims need a way to pay for the treatment they need.

“It's not a money grab. The families have medical costs that they have to take care of. If this happened, those kids and those families deal with this situation really for the rest of their lives,” McKinney said.

And Halloran said victims were more likely to get money from the institutions that employed the perpetrators than from the individuals themselves.

“Certainly the parents of that child can sue the perpetrator -- can sue the teacher. But guess what? We all know what teachers get paid. They don't get paid enough. So that teacher’s judgment-proof in regards to a liability case. They don't have enough money to compensate for that molestation. So that's a fallacious argument that we can just sue the perpetrator. The institution that is responsible for that employee should also be held liable,” Halloran said.

Later Friday, the Judiciary Committee voted to advance Halloran’s bill, keeping it alive for possible consideration.

One bill that was on Friday’s agenda that senators did not get to was a proposal by Sen. Carolyn Bosn to enhance penalties for someone who provides someone else fentanyl that results in that other person’s serious injury or death. Wayne has previously vowed to filibuster against the bill. His taking time to discuss bills that were not on the agenda prevented senators from getting to Bosn’s LB137, a delay she noted sarcastically in an exchange with Wayne.

“I didn’t know you knew 137 was on the agenda today,” Bosn said.

“Yeah I did,” Wayne said.

“Yes, that is on the agenda today,” Bosn confirmed.

Wayne later acknowledged his delaying tactics, while trying to cast them in a positive light by postponing the upcoming fight.

“People are probably wondering “Why am I doing this and blah, blah, blah.’ It's Friday. And I don't want to end on a sour negative note. I'm just being honest. I want my weekend to be fun. I don't want to think about negative comments and things being personal. And the honest truth is -- and that's why Senator Bosn brought up, or I brought up (LB)137. And we kind of talked about it, is 137’s on the agenda. It'll go four hours. And I know, we haven't necessarily all the way moved forward for some other votes that we took, and it's going to turn real negative,” he said.

Senators adjourned for the weekend without beginning debate on LB137. But Speaker John Arch indicated it would be on the agenda for Monday. That’s when senators are also expected to have the first of a series of night sessions as they try to complete their work before their scheduled April 18 adjournment.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed the quote about no statute of limitations applying to the perpetrator. That was spoken by Sen. Holdcroft.