As law enforcement officers continue to ramp up use of a controversial practice known as civil forfeiture, police are seizing cash, cars, houses, and other assets in the name of drug enforcement without ever having arrested or charged their owners with a crime. Funds collected from these seizures frequently go directly back into law enforcement, creating a dangerous profit incentive for police and other law enforcers.
Both the New Yorker and ProPublica have new investigations of this practice, in which officers seize property they believe is connected to drug or other illicit activity, with a much lower burden of proof than when charges are filed against a person. Below are five of the most egregious incidents to emerge from these reports.
- Nelly Moreira, a stout, curly-haired custodian who lives in Northwest D.C. Moreira relied on her 2005 Honda Accord to drive from her early-morning job, cleaning Trinity Washington University, to her evening job, cleaning the U.S. Treasury Department. In March, 2012, her son was driving her car when he was pulled over for a minor traffic violation, and, after a pat down, was found to have a handgun. He was arrested, and her car was seized. Moreira, who grew up in El Salvador, explained in Spanish that she received a letter in the mail two months later asking her to pay a bond of one thousand and twenty dollars—which she took to be the fee to get her car back. Desperate, she borrowed cash from friends and family to cover the bond, which is known in D.C. law as a “penal sum.” If she hadn’t, the car would have been auctioned off, or put to use by the police. But all that the money bought her was the right to a complex and slow-moving civil-forfeiture court case. She was left struggling to make her car payments each month as her Honda sat in a city lot, unused and unsheltered from the elements. The bond, the loans, and the public-transportation costs added up. “There were days I didn’t have a good meal,” she told me in February, sitting beneath her daughter’s quinceañera portrait in her narrow fuchsia-painted row house.
- Police in Philadelphia are seeking to seize the home of an elderly couple with health troubles because their 31-year-old son allegedly sold small quantities of marijuana for $20 each to an informant. The Adamses were able to defend the forfeiture action only because of a University of Pennsylvania law school clinic that provided free legal services and had experience with similar cases. “Even lawyers don’t know about these defenses unless they’ve worked on forfeiture specifically,” said Louis Rulli, who runs the clinic. Such seizures of homes for alleged drug offenses committed by children or grandchildren are widespread in Philadelphia, where nearly 2,000 forfeiture actions were filedagainst houses between 2008 and 2012. ProPublica’s review of these cases found that only 30 ended in judges rejecting seizure.
- Virginia state troopers seized funds collected from church donations when church secretary Victor Ramos Guzman was pulled over on the highway. Because the Guzman is an immigrant from El Salvador who was living in the United States under temporary protected status, the police department stood to gain 80 percent of the proceeds by reporting the money to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Guzman, who said he was on his way to buy a property for the church with the funds, spoke limited English, and was unable to combat the seizure until he gained pro bono representation from a lawyer who served as Deputy Chief Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture Office during the Reagan administration.
- Police in Tehana, Texas, seized for several hours the infant of a Washington, D.C. couple traveling through the town, who said they were using their cash to buy restaurant equipment. Dale Agostini, a Guyanese man who runs an award-winning Caribbean restaurant, and his then-fiancee, a nursing student, were put in jail for the night. In police surveillance footage, an officer recounted that when Agostini asked if he could kiss his son goodbye, the officer responded, “No, kiss me.” The couple was one of the original plantiffs in a class action against the town for its rampant seizures of cash from those driving through on the highway, without other evidence of contraband or illegal activity.
- In Johnson County, Texas, an officer seized cash from an out-of-state driver possessing no contraband, in exchange for a receipt that contained no information about who seized the money or how he could get it back. These sorts of actions are fueled by a Texas system in which officers directly profit from these seizures. In Hunt County, officers earned bonuses of up to $26,000 a year that came straight from forfeiture funds.
In Washington, D.C., the Metropolitan Police Department has “seized cars by the hundreds,” including when a child driving a vehicle is suspected of criminal activity. Owners must post a bond of $2,500 simply to challenge the seizure, which can take months or years to resolve. The D.C. Council is now considering a bill to change the law, after the city’s Public Defender’s Service filed a constitutional challenge to the practice last year. Here’s one story from the New Yorker about how these seizures work:
Federal forfeitures have been reined in relative to some local and state practices with the passage of the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000. But DOJ proceeds have nonetheless skyrocketed over the years, from $27 million in 1985, to $500 million in 2000, to $4.2 billion last year, a record. At both the local and federal levels, report after reporthas borne out the concern that police overreach and misbehave when they gain a direct financial reward for seizing more assets. Even where officers are following the letter of the law, civil forfeitures by their very nature impose a minimal burden on officers, requiring them to prove only that the property is suspect — not the individual who owns it. The burden is on the defendant, by contrast, to prove their money was improperly taken from them. This is a significantly lower burden than in the lesser-used practice of criminal forfeiture, which only allows seizure once someone has been convicted. Advocates such as the ACLU’s Vanita Gupta question why law enforcement officers should ever be permitted to use civil forfeiture instead.
Nicole Flatow is the Deputy Editor of ThinkProgress Justice. Previously, she was Associate Director of Communications for the American Constitution Society. Nicole has also worked for several legal and general circulation newspapers, including The Daily Record and The New York Law Journal, and was a legal fellow at Bread for the City, where she represented low-income D.C. residents in housing and public benefits matters. She received her J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law, and her B.A. in Philosophy, Politics and Law from Binghamton University, where she was editor in chief of her campus newspaper.