CHARLESTON - Bills introduced into the state Legislature could make assets gained through criminal acts as well as any equipment used in the crime subject to seizure and sale in order to pay back the victims of the crime.
House Bill 2713 and Senate Bill 223 would establish general rules for forfeiture of property and assets used in, acquired, gained or flowing from criminal activities, its sale and how the money would be divided up among the victims and others.
Delegate Dan Poling, D-Wood, said a similar bill was passed through the House of Delegates last year, but did not make it through the Senate before the end of the session. The bill was sent to an interim committee for further work and was recommended to be resubmitted this session, he said.
''It has a good chance of passing this session,'' Poling said.
The original bill came about from an incident in Wood County resulting from an elderly person who was conned out of money in a driveway repair scheme, said Delegate John Ellem, R-Wood, one of the co-sponsors of the current bill going through the Legislature.
''The people who scammed them were eventually tracked down to the southern part of the state and were found to be living in nice houses and driving expensive cars,'' he said. There was nothing in place, upon conviction, to seize any of that property to pay back the victims, Ellem said.
Many times victims could not understand why they could not get their money back, said Sen. David Nohe, R-Wood, who is a co-sponsor of the Senate Bill.
''This bill addresses that,'' he said.
Some driveway repair scams have involved people using a bulldozer and other equipment, Poling said. Under this bill, those kind of assets could be seized and sold off because they were used in committing the crime, he said.
The money from those sales could then be used to reimburse the victims.
It has an added benefit of once the criminals serve their time and get out, they can't use that equipment again immediately in another scam, Poling said.
Once the victims were reimbursed, additional money made in crime could be distributed among the agencies that had a hand in investigating or prosecuting the case.
Wood County Sheriff Jeff Sandy met with legislators in both legislative houses to discuss what happened and how such a forfeiture bill could be put in place in West Virginia.
''We are only one of eight states that didn't have a forfeiture bill in cases of fraud,'' he said. ''All of our local legislators are overwhelmingly supporting this.
''For many it is a no-brainer. Why should these people be able to get out of jail and be allowed to keep assets from illegal activities?''
The federal government has laws to allow for forfeiture of assets in drug cases. Lawmakers wanted to do something similar in cases involving scams.
Ellem was part of the interim committee, which did additional work on the bill.
''The assets have to tie into the crime,'' he said. ''The law is designed so you just can't go in and seize anything.''
Protections were added for innocent parties who may have ties to the criminal who committed the crime, but did not take part in the crime themselves.
A hearing process was added so such people could have an avenue to appeal seizures. Protections were added for people with liens on property.
''A number of safeguards were added so the bill is not as broad as the bill introduced last year,'' Ellem said.
Nohe said the bill is "loaded with safeguards" so it can be reviewed by a judge and innocent parties will not be victimized.
''Once it goes through the system, a victim can get their money back,'' Nohe said.
Both bills are being worked on in the judiciary committees of both houses.