Don't Look Now But Washington D.C. May Actually Reform Civil Asset Forfeiture

Washington D.C. city council members are considering a bill that would give D.C. residents the strongest protections against the abuse of civil asset forfeiture in the country. Currently, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) seizes millions of dollars of property from thousands of people each year—and keeps 100 percent of the profits.

Unlike with criminal forfeiture, where the government seizes assets after convicting someone of a crime, with civil forfeiture there is no legal requirement to prove a crime was committed or even to file criminal charges. Instead, once police confiscate property, the burden is on the owner to prove innocence. Property owners who can’t afford a legal battle or whose property is worth less than court costs often simply relinquish their property by default.

In 1981, when D.C. enacted its civil forfeiture program, officials said they had given police a tool to take down drug lords and other high-profile criminals. Instead, MPD frequently, if not exclusively, uses civil forfeiture to seize property from the poor—be they small-time offenders or completely innocent.

At a hearing last week, Councilman Tommy Wells acknowledged problems with the District’s civil forfeiture regime, saying “it doesn’t look fair.” But any reform will have to survive opposition from law enforcement. D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan argued the bill “would unnecessarily create major new problems in the civil forfeiture system, rendering it effectively inoperable.”

An inoperable civil forfeiture system would mean falling back on the criminal forfeiture system. Would it be the end of the world if the government actually had to produce enough evidence to charge someone with a crime before seizing their stuff? I submit that it would not.

But the bill doesn’t get rid of civil forfeiture.

Instead, it imposes much-needed and frankly modest safeguards, shifting the burden of proof to the government and requiring all proceeds to be deposited in the city’s general fund. Importantly, the bill also effectively prohibits MPD from turning their forfeiture cases over to the federal government—something local law enforcement agencies nationwide do regularly to evade state laws that provide more protection for property owners than federal forfeiture law does. If passed as is, the bill would make D.C. the first state (“state”) to close that loophole.

According to U.S. Attorney Renata Cooper, who also testified at the hearing, the above changes “would result in a significant financial loss to MPD.” Well, maybe. But there’s nothing stopping the city council from allocating forfeiture revenues from the general fund to MPD. The bill merely eliminates the private slush fund MPD has been running. Right now, determining the scope of MPD’s forfeiture activities is an exercise in educated guesswork. In response to numerous Freedom of Information Act requests, MPD has released only incomplete and conflicting data on its forfeiture revenue and how it is spent.

To undermine substantive reforms, Attorney General Nathan unveiled an alternate bill at the hearing that retains some important procedural reforms from the original bill (like eliminating a fee MPD charges vehicle owners just to get a hearing in front of a judge). But the alternate bill leaves the status quo—secrecy, MPD’s profit incentive, and the legal burdens on property owners—intact.

Demonstrably, where the law makes it easy and profitable for police to pursue forfeiture, law enforcement priorities shift from combating crime to fundraising.  According to Darpana Sheth, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that litigates civil forfeitures, police “should not be placed in the difficult position of having to choose between securing revenue for their department and chasing or stopping crime.” Hear, hear.

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  • Ted S.||

  • Rich||

    Mrs Johnson now has a lot of explaining to do

    Now, *this* is why we need National ID.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    Lucy, you got some 'splainin' to do!

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    People got a lot of shit, government needs shit. Why on earth would they even consider stopping the takeage?

  • Ted S.||

    On a football board I frequent, somebody asked what was basically a "why can't the NFL do [expensive thing XYZ]" to which I replied, "The NFL has a big pile of money, and that's just not fair!" (Not that I believe it; it's just that this is the "logic" many people use.)

    My goodness did my comment launch a shitstorm.

  • RBS||

    Even more OT: A slap in the face!

  • Ted S.||

  • RBS||

    He looks pretty satisfied.

  • Rich||

    So does she.

  • Rich||

    "to sign somebody for $200 million, there must be a new vegetable or fruit coming out that we don’t know about."

    That's a good multipurpose line.

    To argue that the executive and legislative branches will protect constitutional claims even in the absence of the judiciary involvement, there must be a new vegetable or fruit coming out that we don’t know about.

  • Live Free or Diet||

    Even more OT: A slap in the face!

    Getting any money for playing a kids' game is no slap in the face.
    Or does anyone care to pay me to rip 'em up the Yahtzee board?
    Don't worry. Getting picked second and getting $72,000,000 won't offend me.

  • RBS||

    Yeah, the older I get the harder it is to actually give a shit about pro sports or college sports.

  • mad libertarian guy||

    When the debate is when and under what circumstances they can take our shit, rather than whether they can take it, you know the game is rigged.

    Asset Forfeiture is fucking evil. Right behind property taxes.

  • Rich||

    At least with property taxes you get to keep your property. Asset forfeiture is just outright theft.

  • Finrod||

    It's worse than theft. With theft, you can file a police report, maybe get an investigation, and if your stuff is insured you have a good chance of getting your insurance company to replace it. With asset forfeiture you're just screwed.

  • RBS||

    Assest ForfeitureProperty Taxes. Although they are both pretty shitty and defy any concept of ownership.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    But any reform will have to survive opposition from law enforcement.

    How can this be? The police are merely unwilling pawns of the legislature. They don't *want* to enforce unconstitutionally unjust or ill considered laws but they are powerless to resist. They would never lobby for the introduction or retention of unjust laws.

    That's why real people (unlike the bigorati, cough cough) revere and admire them.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    According to U.S. Attorney Renata Cooper, who also testified at the hearing, the above changes “would result in a significant financial loss to MPD.”

    Boo fucking hoo.

  • Metazoan||

    Wow, not stealing anymore would result in having less shit. Shocker, and still not a justification for theft.

  • ||

    Word. Asset forfeiture is one of the most abused aspects of the war on drugs. As much as we see abuses in the war on domestic violence, at least it doesn't result in asset forfeiture like the WOD does.

    "How can this be? The police are merely unwilling pawns of the legislature. They don't *want* to enforce unconstitutionally unjust or ill considered laws but they are powerless to resist. They would never lobby for the introduction or retention of unjust laws.

    That's why real people (unlike the bigorati, cough cough) revere and admire them."

    Nice strawmen and misrepresentation of my position. Many cops of course support the WOD as well as asset forfeiture, but THEY did not pass those laws, and thus hold no blame for them.

    But you are right, most people in the real world do admire and respect us. Polling data proves this. I love that your cop hate is just a tiny minority opinion. THe love and respect we receive from the public is a big part of why the job is so rewarding. The outpouring of support during a cop funeral is especially amazing. People line the streets and salute. They take over bridge overpasses and the love is great.

  • Dweebston||

    For the moment. So long as your lot closes ranks around thugs, thieves, dog killers, and murderers, you're doing our work for us.

    Showing up for funerals is an observation ripe with selection bias. But I'm sure a clever fellow like you knows that, as well as knowing that polling data is horseshit with biases baked into the phrasing, and that hating cops and distrusting cops is not indicative of the same milieu. I don't hate cops for the same reason I don't hate the strangers with whom I brush shoulders on a daily basis, but at the same time I'm not willing to open up my home to the police without a warrant.

  • ΘJΘʃ de águila||

    A lot of cops wage the WOD and forfeit [steal] assets with great gusto.

    They get paid for supporting state theft and state ultra-violence.

  • JW||

    D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan argued the bill “would unnecessarily create major new problems in the civil forfeiture system, rendering it effectively inoperable.”

    Nothing gets by you, does it Irvin?

  • ||

    This sounds like a good step. I've testified at asset forfeiture in WA state, and here we also have the burden of proof.

    Btw, I am not sure what sloopy is talking about where committing an assault while armed = felony. I think he is confusing assault WITH a deadly weapon (where a weapon is used IN the assault). I've been a cop in 3 states and studied over a dozen penal codes and in none of those states is assault WHILE armed = felony. Being armed raises the penalty on robbery and burglary charges in many states, even if the gun is not used, but not assault

  • The Late P Brooks||

    THEY did not pass those laws, and thus hold no blame for them.

    They routinely lobby vigorously for laws which strip us of our freedom as they expand police power.

    Die in a fire, Fosdick.

  • ||

    Many cops do, many cops don't

    Cops don't pass laws.

    Smooches and thanks for your support for modern society's working class heroes - cops

    We will continue to serve you and share the love

    *mY* union lobbies for no such laws btw.

  • Dweebston||

    Good on you. I hope you keep it up, if true.

    That said, I'm not shedding tears that some minority among cops are lumped into the majority who pilfer the civilian populace. Or, for that matter, that the majority of good cops is lumped in with the minority of bad. Root and branch, root and branch.

  • PH2050||

    I really hope you're joking irt "modern society's working class heroes"

  • ||

    Btw, we conducted a vote on MJ legalization when WA state's MJ legalization initiative was about to be voted on, and the majority of line cops (union members are line cops - ofc's and sgt's) supported legalization of MJ

    The vast majority of cops do not support the legalization of "hard drugs" but that's consistent with society at large who is also strongly against legalization of hard drugs

    Personally, I support the legalization of hard drugs

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Cling to that Nuremberg Defense, goosestepper.

  • ||

    No nuremberg defense here. I don't believe asset forfeiture is unconstitutional (as long as the burden is on the state, as it is in WA), I just believe it's very bad POLICY

    Just like the war on drugs in general

    hth

    smooches

  • Emmerson Biggins||

    It's messed up that there is all this hand wringing over having federal oversight of gerrymandering, cause 'DATS RAYSIS', but obvious in your face unconstitutional stuff like double jeapordy vioaltions and abuse of the takings clause goes on all the time. Pisses me off.

  • ||

    Props to the ACLU for coming out AGAINST de facto double jeopardy in a federal prosecution of Zimmerman. They weren't as strident abpout it when it was the rodney king beatin cops being double jeopardied, but it's refreshing nonetheless

  • Emmerson Biggins||

    Agree. Glad to see they have their brain on

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