Above the Law: An Investigation of Civil Asset Forfeiture in California
From:drugpolicy.org April 21, 2015
Above the Law: An Investigation of Civil Asset Forfeiture Abuses in California is a multi-year, comprehensive look at asset forfeiture abuses in California that reveals the troubling extent to which law enforcement agencies have violated state and federal law. Civil asset forfeiture law allows the government to seize and keep cash, cars, real estate, and any other property – even from citizens never charged with or convicted of a crime. Because these assets often go straight into the coffers of the enforcement agency, these laws have led to a perversion of police priorities, such as increasing personnel on the forfeiture unit while reducing the number of officers on patrol and in investigation units. What emerges in the new report is a picture of a handful of relatively small cities clustered in Los Angeles County that lead the state in per capita seizures (Baldwin Park, Beverly Hills, Gardena, Irwindale, La Verne, Pomona, South Gate, Vernon and West Covina). The report's analysis of fiscal records finds that many of these cities were providing false or inconsistent reports to the Justice Department, while some other cities appeared to be engaged in budgeting future forfeiture revenue, despite this being explicitly illegal under federal law.
Forfeiture was originally presented as a way to cripple large-scale criminal enterprises by diverting their resources. But today, aided by deeply flawed federal and state laws, many police departments use forfeiture to benefit their bottom lines, making seizures motivated by profit rather than crime-fighting. For people whose property has been seized through civil asset forfeiture, legally regaining such property is notoriously difficult and expensive, with costs sometimes exceeding the value of the property. With the total value of property seized increasing every year, calls for reform are growing louder, and CLRP is at the forefront of organizations seeking to rein in the practice.
There is Bipartisan Agreement on the ‘Uncivility’ of Civil Asset Forfeiture
April 20, 2015 Kanya Bennett, Legislative Counsel, ACLU Washington Legislative Office
& Nkechi Taifa, Senior Policy Analyst, Open Society Foundations
& Nkechi Taifa, Senior Policy Analyst, Open Society Foundations
This piece originally appeared at the American Constitution Society's blog.
“The FOP does not disagree that there is a need for civil asset forfeiture revision.” That is what the Fraternal Order of Police said at last week’s Senate Judiciary hearing on civil asset forfeiture. And when Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) asked if FOP stood by those words, the response was “absolutely” – even though FOP’s testimony suggested otherwise.
Grassley even offered him some advice, saying that, now is “not the time to oppose needed reforms,” in light of national headlines on police violence.
This should make it clear to everyone that the time is ripe for federal reform. Though work remains to convince some that community policing instead of “slush funds” must be law enforcement’s number one priority, we should be optimistic.
Grassley said “legislation is necessary” and Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) believes that “we can come together on a bipartisan basis to fix what is broken.”
For months there has been national discourse around civil asset forfeiture and all that is uncivil about it. Members on both sides of the aisle – and organizations across the spectrum – are demanding reform. And rightfully so.
Civil asset forfeiture gives law enforcement the power to take property away from someone who has not been convicted of a crime. And this property can be cash, cars, homes, and anything else – like a “simple gold cross” – that law enforcement believes is connected to a crime. Yes, a woman had her gold cross necklace seized when she was pulled over for a minor traffic violation!
And just how does one go about getting a necklace … or money, or car, or house back? Well, often they don’t. Due process requirements don’t require judicial hearings. More than 60 percent of federal forfeitures were uncontested over the past few years.
When property owners do get notice and muster the courage to go up against the government, they find the deck is stacked against them. Property owners bear the cost of going to court and the burden of proving their property’s “innocence.” And in almost all instances, property owners are not entitled to counsel.
So, what is driving this practice that sounds unfair, unjust, and un-American? How is it that we still have this “thorn in the side of civil liberties?” Civil asset forfeiture is big business for law enforcement at all levels – federal, state, and local. The practice generates billions of dollars annually and law enforcement is permitted to keep the assets it seizes.
Since 2008, state and local police have made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion dollars with the help of the federal government. And in 2014 alone, federal forfeiture laws were used to take in $4.5 billion dollars. This is why civil asset forfeiture has been called “policing for profit” and a “system of legal thievery.”
The price that people pay when their property is taken far exceeds the billions it generates. Civil asset forfeiture has long been used to carry out the ineffective and abusive “War on Drugs.” As has been said, “eighteenth-century maritime laws are being applied to [today’s] drugs laws and the repercussions are horrendous.” Just as the “War on Drugs” disproportionately impacts people and communities of color, so does civil asset forfeiture.
In the 1990’s, in Florida’s Volusia County, 90 percent of the drivers from whom cash was confiscated without arrest were Black or Latino. Then fast forward 20 years, to East Texas, where police seized $3 million dollars in a two year period primarily from African American and Latino drivers.
These civil rights and civil liberties concerns that generated broad support for the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform (CAFRA) Act of 2000 exist today. We all recognize that CAFRA did not go far enough. And now is the time we all come to the table and do something about it.
Victimizing Minorities for Fun and Profit
Beginning in 2006, the police in Tenaha, Texas would randomly stop, search, and would steal private property from Blacks and Hispanics traveling through the town even though there was no suspicion of criminal activity.
Typically, the police shakedown would consist of threatening travelers that if they did not turn over their cash and other identified valuables, they would be arrested on money laundering charges and have their children taken by Child Protective Services. If they turned over the cash, they would be let go. Most people would simply turn over their money. Some people actually tried to recover their money, but found they needed to hire lawyers and prove their innocence in front a judge who was profiting from the seizures, a process that was too expensive and not practical for many.
Several individuals affected by this practice joined a class-action lawsuit against Tenaha and several city and county officials, challenging these illegal stops and seizures. The ACLU joined the case, Morrow v. City of Teneha, et al., in July 2012. In August 2012, the ACLU settled a class action suit against officials in Tenaha and Shelby Counties
James Morrow was arrested and spent the night in jail as he was traveling through Tenaha, TX. Police seized nearly $4,000 in cash and threatened to prosecute him for money laundering if he did not forfeit his money. To get out of jail, he agreed to forfeit his cash and he was let go. Morrow eventually got his money back but had to pay over $3,500 in attorney fees to recover his money. Morrow and dozens of other victims contacted the ACLU. It was estimated that as much as $3 million dollars was stolen by local officials from innocent motorists between 2006 and 2008 in over 140 cases. Morrow and dozens of others were made whole over five years later.
The examples are infuriating. An elderly couple in Philadelphia had their home seized after their son allegedly sold $20 worth of grass on the front porch. A church secretary in Virginia had $28,500 in church donations confiscated by the highway patrol because he was caught speeding.
In Tennessee, along Interstate 40, the police are shaking down out of state motorists and stealing their cash and property at rates that dwarf the proven criminality of Tenaha, TX. NewsChannel 5 in Nashville, Tennessee created the following video which clearly demonstrates how police use “civil asset forfeiture” laws to steal money from unsuspecting motorists. Please note how the Deputy District Attorney admits that her jurisdiction make money from this process. Also make note of how a local Tennessee police chief admits that if officers do not seize “enough” cash, they could lose their jobs.