A news report from Alabama offers two textbook cases of how sweeping powers of civil asset forfeiture allow police to seize people's property with near impunity.
Under civil asset forfeiture laws, police can take property suspected of being connected to criminal activity, even if the owner is not charged with a crime. Law enforcement and prosecutors say the practice is a vital tool to disrupt drug trafficking and other organized crime by targeting ill-gotten gains. But in state after state, horror stories have emerged of regular people having their possessions expropriated and their lives turned upside down.
In the Alabama case, around 20 heavily armed officers raided Frank Ranelli's computer repair shop in Ensley in 2010, on a tip that Ranelli was selling stolen goods. Police seized roughly 130 computers from the shop, most of them belonging to customers.
The Alabama news outlet Al.com reports what happened next:
Nothing ever came of the case. The single charge of receiving stolen goods was dismissed after Ranelli demonstrated that he had followed proper protocol in purchasing the sole laptop computer he was accused of receiving illegally.
Yet none of the property seized by police that summer morning more than seven years ago has been returned to him.
"Here I was, a man, owned this business, been coming to work every day like a good old guy for 23 years, and I show up at work that morning—I was in here doing my books from the day before—and the police just f***ed my life," he said.
Ranelli has been fighting ever since to get his property back. But at least he got to keep his house. The same story documents the case of Cherie Marceaux, whose boyfriend was arrested in 2005 for selling marijuana to an undercover police officer. A subsequent search of their house turned up more pot. Marceaux pled guilty to possession and received probation, but police weren't done with her:
"They broke into my house and took my horse trailer and didn't give it back," Marceaux said.
"They stole my daughter's—at the time she was just a little girl maybe six, seven years old—they stole her money that she had in the top drawer of her dresser in a piggy bank, $70….They took $4,000 I had been saving."
And they seized the house she owned and the more than 25 acres of land it sits on, none of which was ever returned, nor was her money or other items. Marceaux lost her home and thousands of dollars, all without being convicted of anything more serious than marijuana possession.
These stories are not unusual. I reported on one case last year where sheriff's deputies in Hinds County, Mississippi, stripped the furniture from a woman's apartment, including paintings and lamps, because her boyfriend was a suspected drug dealer. After a multi-year legal battle, the Hinds County prosecutors agreed to return all of the furniture except for one white couch, which presumably occupies a county municipal office today.
In Chicago, asset forfeiture data revealed that roughly 11,000 cash seizures over a five-year period were for amounts lower than $1,000. Nearly 1,500 were for amounts under $100.
In response to the alarming number of stories like these, more than 20 states have passed asset forfeiture reform laws. Illinois enacted laws strengthening protections for property owners this summer, and earlier this year the Mississippi legislature passed new reporting and transparency requirements for state and local police.
But state and local police can still go through the federal courts and the U.S. Department of Justice to pursue asset forfeiture cases, a loophole that allows them to bypass stricter state laws. Marceaux's case, for instance, was funneled through federal court. In these cases law enforcement agencies typically keep 80 percent of the forfeiture proceeds; the other 20 percent goes into the Justice Department's Equitable Sharing Fund.
As part of President Donald Trump's directive to reduce violent crime and drug trafficking, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded an Obama-era directive this July that limited so-called "adoptions" of local forfeiture cases by federal law enforcement.
Alabama police received more than $2.2 million in asset forfeiture payouts from the Justice Department's equitable sharing fund in 2016. That's a drop from 2014, when they collected $4.9 million.
On Tuesday, Sessions—a staunch supporter of asset forfeiture—announced he was ordering the Justice Department to hire a "director of asset forfeiture accountability," noting the department's forfeiture program "has received certain criticisms."
"The American people and Congress must know this program is being administered professionally, lawfully and in a manner consistent with sound public policy," Sessions wrote.
But the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm that has challenged asset forfeiture laws in several states, said in a statement that Sessions had merely "appointed the fox to guard the henhouse."
"No amount of government bureaucracy can substitute for basic respect for Americans' constitutional rights," Institute for Justice attorney Robert Everett Johnson said.