The District of Columbia will have one of the best asset forfeiture laws in the nation if council members pass the recently introduced Civil Asset Forfeiture Amendment Act of 2013 as is. Current law allows the city to seize peoples' property without bothering to convict them of the crime that gave rise to the forfeiture. Many suspects are never even charged.
Property owners seeking the return of confiscated property have the deck stacked against them from the outset. It can take months for owners to get a hearing before a neutral arbiter—and when they do they are presumed guilty. Those who can’t afford an attorney may have to conduct a trial themselves.
The bill, which eight of 12 council members either introduced or are sponsoring, would shift the burden of proof to the government and would require the city to provide a hearing within two days of a challenge—or automatically restore the property to its owner.
Currently, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) keeps 100 percent of forfeiture revenues, an enormous incentive to police for profit. The bill would redirect all forfeiture proceeds to the city’s general fund—even for cases the MPD turns over to the federal government.
Importantly, the bill undermines a federal program called equitable sharing, which allows local police to sidestep state law containing strong protections for property owners and still retain 80 percent of forfeiture proceeds by turning their cases over to the Department of Justice.
The bill also eliminates a fee the MPD charges to a property owner challenging a forfeiture, one that can sometimes exceed the value of the property. The bill requires the MPD to improve recordkeeping, notification procedures, and, in most instances, to return forfeited vehicles while an owner's case is being adjudicated.
For a taste of the District’s forfeiture regime in action, check out this story via The Newspaper, in which MPD refused to return a resident’s car after he had been acquitted of all charges at his criminal trial.