Asset Forfeiture

Elderly Couple Files Civil Rights Lawsuit Challenging Arizona's Rigged Asset Forfeiture System

Unable to afford a lawyer, Terry and Maria Platt entered what a new lawsuit says is a unbeatable maze of laws to get their car back.

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Institute for Justice

Because of four missing words on a handwritten petition, Terry and Maria Platt may lose their car in a state they never visited, for an alleged crime for which no charges have been filed.

The Platts, an elderly Washington couple, are the latest to challenge the constitutionality Arizona's asset forfeiture laws after the Navajo County Attorney's Office seized their car. Represented by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm, the Platts filed a civil rights lawsuit last week arguing the seizure of their car was illegal and the state's burdensome and confusing rules are rigged to deny defendants their due process rights.

According to the lawsuit, the Platts had loaned their son Shea their 2012 Volkswagen Jetta in May so he could drive to Florida for a vacation. While driving through Arizona, he was stopped by police for a window-tint violation. Such pretextual stops are a common tactic for police hunting for drugs, cash, and cars to seize.

This time, the officer struck paydirt.

A subsequent police search of the car turned up roughly $31,000 in cash and a small amount of "personal use" marijuana, according to the police report. Shea was arrested for possession of marijuana and paraphernalia, as well money laundering. Months after he was released from police custody, however, there are still no pending criminal charges against him, but the cash and car were seized. Under asset forfeiture laws, police can seize property suspected of being connected to criminal activity, even if the owner is never convicted or even charged with a crime. In this case, the owners were hundreds of miles away.

The Platts soon received a letter in the mail from the Navajo County Attorney's Office informing them they only had 30 days to send a petition to the county attorney or file a challenge in court. If they did neither, their car would be summarily forfeited.

Daunted by the likely attorney fees, the Platts sent a handwritten petition under the deadline to the attorney's office. However, the Navajo County Attorney's Office filed an application in county court for an uncontested forfeiture of the car, declaring the Platts' petition "null and void." According to the Institute for Justice, the attorney's office never submitted the Platts' petition to the court or explained why it was rejected.

Responding to the Platts' lawsuit, the Navajo County Attorney's Office then filed a motion arguing their petition was invalid because they had neglected to include the words "under penalty of perjury" with their signatures.

"The implication of the State's argument is breathtaking," the Institute for Justice shot back in a counter-motion. "The State is arguing that this Court cannot review the legality of the State's actions here—actions taken under a profit incentive to take property for forfeiture—and the Court must ignore Terry and Ria's attempts to invoke judicial review of the State's decision to ignore Terry and Ria's June 28 pro se Petition."

The Institute for Justice also argues the small amount of marijuana found in the Platts' car was well below the two-pound threshold for a drug felony in Arizona, making the seizure of the cash and car illegal in the first place.

Many states have reformed their asset forfeiture laws in recent years, but Arizona ranks among the worst in the country when it comes to due process protections for property owners. Because the process is civil, there is no right to an attorney, the burden of proof falls on the owners to prove their innocence, and, in a particularly punitive wrinkle in Arizona state law, those who challenge a seizure can be charged for the government's attorney fees if they lose.

"Arizona's civil forfeiture maze is the greatest threat to property rights and due process today," Institute for Justice attorney Paul Avelar, who is representing the Platts, said in a statement. "No one should lose their property without being convicted of a crime and law enforcement should not be allowed to keep and spend what they forfeit."

According to the Institute for Justice, Arizona raked in $36 million in forfeiture revenues in 2015 alone. All of that money goes back into the budgets of police departments and county attorneys. Law enforcement groups say asset forfeiture laws are necessary to target the proceeds of organized criminal operations, like drug trafficking, but civil liberties advocates say those sort of profit incentives lead to police and prosecutors shaking down everyday citizens.

The Navajo County Attorney's Office declined to comment on the case. However, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office defended the state's asset forfeiture practices in an interview with the local Daily Courier newspaper:

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, whose office is not involved in either lawsuit, dismissed arguments that civil forfeiture should first require a criminal conviction. He said that questions of property rights always have been handled in civil court.

He has used the example of a drug cartel courier stopped by police who might thwart conviction by claiming claim he did not know about the drugs and cash in the truck. But Montgomery said that is no reason to allow the cartel to get back the vehicle and the cash […]

As to any profit motive, Montgomery said proceeds go to the county attorney who then reviews requests by the police departments involved in the seizure for a share. He also said there are federal and state guidelines that preclude proceeds from being used by an agency to buy things that county supervisors refuse to fund "so that you can't have asset forfeiture as a regular business to plus-up or round out your budget."

Last year, the ACLU and the law firm Perkins Coie filed a similar suit challenging Arizona's asset forfeiture laws on behalf of Rhonda Cox, whose $6,000 used truck was seized by Pinal County after her son borrowed it and allegedly replaced the hood and cover with stolen parts. Cox initially tried to challenge the seizure, but she let her truck be forfeited after the Pinal County Attorney's Office told her that, under state law, she would be liable for the government's legal fees and investigation costs if she lost her challenge—costs that would likely exceed the value of the truck itself.

In its complaint, the ACLU and Perkins Coie noted that asset forfeiture funds were used for, among other things, the Pinal County Attorney's home security system and retirement contributions to county attorney's office employees. Earlier this year, local Arizona news outlets reported the FBI was asking questions about Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu's use of asset forfeiture funds. Babeu, who is also running for Congress, used asset forfeiture funds to pay for a "public safety newsletter" that was sent to voters and touted his public safety record.

"Arizona's unfair, unconstitutional civil asset forfeiture scheme has persisted for far too long," Jean-Jacques Cabou, a partner at Perkins Coie, says. "It's extremely encouraging to see another court challenge specifically targeting the perverse profit incentive of Arizona law enforcement and calling out the extreme barriers faced by innocent owners in this system. A broad coalition of people from across the political spectrum are working in the courts and in the legislature to reform Arizona's forfeiture laws; one way or another, we will get these laws changed."

I recently wrote about a similar case in New Mexico, where a mother is suing the city of Albuquerque for seizing her car after her son was arrested while driving under the influence in it. Even though the state of New Mexico passed a law last year essentially banning civil forfeitures, the city has continued to pursue its particularly aggressive forfeiture program, arguing the reforms do not apply to it.

Forfeiture law, it seems, always applies rigorously to parents whose children are suspected of crimes, but not to the law enforcement agencies seizing their property.

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  1. I thought Florida’s AF laws were bad. Goddamned.

    “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

    Someone needs to crank up the woodchipper.

    1. Florida actually has one of the best forfeiture laws in the country now. Just changed.

      1. I haven’t kept up. That last case from Florida I saw was the owner of a carwash having all of his property and bank accounts seized by the DA’s office because they claimed he was washing and vacuuming cars for drug traffickers. They never bothered to show that the car wash staff had any direct connection or knowledge of drug trafficking, just that some of his customers were connected to the drug trade, customers the owner did not know personally.

        In a town near where I live I told that story to a car wash owner. He told me that the cops come every few months and chop down all the MJ plants that grow in the empty part of his lot where he dumps his vacuum cleaner bags but have never threatened him.

      2. Wow. An arrest must occur, police must pay a $1000 filing fee, forfeiture filing must occur within 10 days of arrest, and filing agency must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the asset was contraband — ie, directly related to the crime at hand. Penalties for losing include a minimum $1500 award to the owner of the property and up to $2000 in attorney’s fees.

        I mean, I don’t think they should be able to seize your assets, period. But this is way better than “because fuck you, that’s why.” We’ll see what idiot FL juries do.

        1. If you are talking about the case I outlined that happened more than 10 years ago. According to Juvenile Bluster the laws have changed. I guess Florida voters got their fill of that shit.

  2. More importantly, some fat guy wore a red sweater.

    1. I just saw that on the idiot box. WTF? I have no idea what that was about. Never mind a conspiracy to create an uninformed and compliant citizenry, some dude wore a red seater. Clearly there are forces at work here that cant be understood.

      I also saw Robert De niro calling Trump a bozo/clown and he wants to punch him in the face. I don’t think that would turn out like Bobby wants and I would pay good money to see him give it a go. Also, aside from a spittle flecked ad hominem, do you have any actual argument Bob?

      That’s what I thought.

      1. Like a lot of actors, he played something once (boxer, Raging Bull) and thinks he knows something about it. Both being old farts would hurt both, but Trump is inches taller and has both reach and weight on his side. Bobby wouldn’t last past the first good punch (amateurs are never good at blocking punches, a 5-7 boxer told me that).

        1. Trump’s a soft, pudgy blowhard. DeNiro would drop him in two.

          1. Trump pays some mutt to put 2 into DeNiro’s hat…peace and quiet ensue

      2. Trump has a carry permit and a handgun. If DeNiro tried to attack him,Trump would be justified in shooting him. After all,at 70,a single punch to the head IS a lethal threat. Several people have died from a single punch to the head.
        I would do the same. There’s no “first punch is free”,self-defense is not played by Marquis of Queensbury rules.

    2. Bread and circuses until the Vandals sack DC.

      1. Too late.

  3. “Fuck you and Fuck your property rights. You only have what WE allow you to have under the delusion of “ownership”. WE will take what we want when WE want it and there is little you can do to stop us. That, Pleb, is POWER – Unbridled, unmitigated and unrepentant POWER”

    1. Uhmmm

      pwned!

      In case it’s necessary-

      /sarc

  4. Was that in Navajo County or Padukgrad County?

  5. However, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office defended the state’s asset forfeiture practices in an interview with the local Daily Courier newspaper

    I mean, if that paragon of virtue and truth that is the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office says it’s ok, who am I to argue?

    If I become dictator for 24 hours one of the first things I’m doing is locking up every officer and state attorney involved in a “civil asset forfeiture” for armed robbery.

  6. Cue creepy Wizard of Oz music – “I’ll get you my pretty and that little car too.”

  7. Asset forfeiture was the single issue that got my anti-political wife interested again and pushed her over the edge into full-blown libertarianism. It’s fun to watch her in action now when she gets wound up.

    For this alone, I am grateful for these laws.

    1. Trump’s rude comments are the single issue that has re-ignited my wife’s latent team-blue progressivism and pushed her over into full-blown MSNBC-viewing fanboyism. It is painful to be in the room when she gets all wound up.

      For this alone, I am filled with malevolence for Trump.

      1. You married a prog? Zod bless you, man. I have no idea how you make that work. I don’t even have any progressive friends.

  8. Don’t steal, the government hates competition.

  9. While driving through Arizona, he was stopped by police for a window-tint violation.

    Arizona in May? Was the violation, “Sir, you don’t seem to have enough tint, you might get skin cancer or die of heat exhaustion?”

    1. Probably more like “our cops can’t get away with saying they see contraband in cars if the windows are tinted, so we made tinting illegal.”

  10. RE: Elderly Couple Files Civil Rights Lawsuit Challenging Arizona’s Rigged Asset Forfeiture System
    Unable to afford a lawyer, Terry and Maria Platt entered what a new lawsuit says is a unbeatable maze of laws to get their car back.

    What nonsense.
    The Arizona asset forefeiture system isn’t rigged just because it favors the state.
    It’s just that the state of Arizona has all the advantages is all.
    What’s wrong with that?

    1. What’s wrong with that? The Constitution prohibits it,period,end of story.
      The Bill of Rights is a CORE CONCEPT of America.

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  12. When and where will this crap, this Theft Under Color of Law, aka Civil Asset Forfeiture be stopped. That is a question that our Elected Things, Employees of The American Populace need to be beaten with, until they produce proper answers and appropriate action, the above mentioned being conspicuous in their absence.

  13. It’s not surprising that a state which elects unamerican scum like Babeau and Arpaio would have a theft racket like this.

    1. “unamerican scum” Please prepare and add as a comment some of these unamerican activities.

  14. since the car was from out of state, stopping it on the basis of violating some Arizona law about equipment is an invalid excuse for the initial “contact”. And we don’t know HOW things went from window tint to a full blown search of the car. That 14th Article of Ammendment says that something permitted in one state can’t be actionable in another. Many cars with Fed lever smog equipment drive in California, violating their stupid “clean air laws”…. but can’t be dealt with the same way a California registered car can. Thus, the enire bust AND seizure are illegal.

    Arizona can’t prove culpability on the part of the OWNERS of the car, and the CAR committed no crime. The $30K can’t be taken either, as the original stop was baseless, and unless the kid was dumb enough to LET them search the car, the search was as well.

    WHEN will the CITIZENS rise up and say ENOUGH ALREADY NO MORE to this sort of abuse? King George Three had nothing on these clowns.

  15. socialists targeted education in the early 1900’s;
    they’ve been working at it a long time,have been wildly successful at gaining control of it,and now we’re seeing the effects of that,all across our society.
    Legislators, JUDGES, doctors, scientists, MEDIA, teachers,etc, all a product of a socialist education system. All indoctrinated in socialism,and applying it in their everyday lives.
    Never forget that the socialists have a dominance at nearly every university,and at most every public grade school.
    socialist indoctrination begins at an early age and continues throughout high school and college.
    THAT is what is really hurting America,and I’m not so sure we can overcome it,it may already be too late. it took a long time for the commies to become entrenched in education,and it will take a long time to weed them out,if it can be done at all. America,IMO,does not have that much time left,not enough to do what needs to be done.

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    1. Shhh… the state will be after Uncle Alex’s car faster than you can say asset forfeiture.

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