Williams: The system collects lots of cash, but “real” property like houses and cars relatively infrequently: “In fact, about 80 percent of what we collected in 2014 through the forfeiture process was cash, and that’s generally cash seized directly from drug dealers. It’s the lifeblood of their illegal, soul-destroying business.”
The real critique: We’ll agree that prosecutors mostly collect cash from suspected drug dealers. But there’s still a lot of property flowing through the system. Per the Institute of Justice: “From 2002 through 2012, Philadelphia seized and forfeited 1,172 homes and other real properties, 3,290 automobiles and other vehicles and over $44 million in cash.” That’s not a problem if you think the process is working fairly. If, on the other hand, you think a mom shouldn’t lose her house because her son sold and possessed $180 worth of weed, or a family shouldn’t lose its house over charges filed by rogue cops, you might still be troubled.
In order to seize cash, police typically pulled drivers over for minor traffic infractions. During the stop, police would look for “indicators” of suspicious, criminal activity. Tinted windows, air fresheners, trash in the car, “a profusion of energy drinks,” “a driver who is too talkative or too quiet” and signs of nervousness have all been considered indicators. For one Florida sheriff,“cars obeying the speed limit were suspect—their desire to avoid being stopped made them stand out.”
Uh-oh, this isn’t going to work out well for women driving on Oklahoma highways.
On the grounds that a driver is sufficiently suspicious, police then have the authority to search the car with a drug dog. If the dog alerts (and there are significant concerns about their accuracy), police then have probable cause to seize property owned by the driver. After police seized cash, the government usually wins: The Washington Post found that out of nearly 62,000 cash seizures since 9/11, in only 4,455 cases—seven percent—did the government agree to return at least a portion of the money taken.
It’s time to end civil forfeiture. No one should lose their property to law enforcement without being convicted of a crime, and the police shouldn’t profit from taking property.
The Institute for Justice filed its lawsuit after months of observing the courtroom, four years after it published a report on how civil forfeiture meant “property is guilty until you prove it innocent,” two years after Philadelphia City Paper reporter Isaiah Thompson published a lengthy investigation of the process, and one year after a blockbuster New Yorker piece about forfeitures around the country. The basic argument, in the articles and in the lawsuit, was that Philadelphia’s use of forfeiture was wildly out of whack. Thompson’s reporting found that the city brought in “upwards of $6-million a year” from forfeitures, or about five times as much as Brooklyn. Those numbers, and Thompson’s subsequent reporting, are cited in the Institute for Justice’s filing.
“If you fail to show up in 478, they call your name and prosecutor marks your case for default,” said the Institute for Justice’s lead attorney on the case, Darpana Sheth. She’d previously worked on a forfeiture case in Massachusetts, which the group had made famous — George F. Will even wrote a datelined column about it. “If you tell average people on the street how this works,” said Sheth, “it sounds so foreign to the American system, they can’t believe it.”
Update: Now on CNN
Back in March, Chris’s son was caught selling $40 worth of drugs outside of the home. With no previous arrests or a prior record, a court ordered him to attend rehab. But the very day Sourovelis was driving his son to begin treatment, he got a frantic call from his wife. Without any prior notice, police evicted the Sourovelises and seized the house, using a little-known law known as “civil forfeiture.”
Philadelphia law enforcement has transformed a once obscure legal process into a racket that treats Americans as little more than ATMs. Every year, the city collects almost $6 million in revenue from forfeiture. According to data collected by the Institute for Justice, between 2002 and 2012, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office seized and forfeited over 3,000 vehicles, nearly 1,200 homes and other real estate properties and $44 million in cash. Altogether, Philadelphia has generated a staggering $64 million in forfeiture proceeds, which equals one-fifth of the DA Office’s entire budget. Forty percent of those funds—$25 million—pay law enforcement salaries, including the salaries for the prosecutors who have used civil forfeiture against families like the Sourovelises.
Incredibly, property owners battling civil forfeiture have fewer rights than those actually accused of committing a crime. Unlike in criminal cases, the government does not need to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” to prevail. Instead, once prosecutors show merely that there was a link between a property and some alleged criminal activity owners must prove their innocence. Moreover, since these cases are in civil court, owners facing forfeiture do not have a right to an attorney.
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