Three Years Ago, D.C. Passed Strong Transparency Laws For Asset Forfeiture. Nothing Happened.
"Without this information, we're all left in the dark."
Three years ago, the District of Columbia joined a growing number of jurisdictions that were reforming their civil asset forfeiture laws amid civil liberties concerns. The District enacted strong new protections for property owners, as well as transparency requirements that police show exactly how much they were seizing from residents every year.
But three years later, D.C. residents, journalists, and advocacy groups have no idea how the reforms are working. The District's law enforcement has illegally dragged its feet, and not a single required annual transparency report has been released. The department says it's still compiling its first report, as it says it has been doing for the past two years.
In December of 2014, the D.C. Council unanimously passed an asset forfeiture reform bill that, among other things, mandated the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and the D.C. Attorney General's office post annual reports of asset forfeiture activities to their websites, as well as submit those reports to the Council.
Lack of transparency is one of the biggest challenges to monitoring civil asset forfeiture, a practice that allows police to seize property suspected of being connected to criminal activity without convicting, or even charging, the owner.
A report last year by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public-interest law firm that has challenged asset forfeiture laws in several states, found that a majority of states had little to no transparency or reporting requirements surrounding the practice.
The District's new transparency requirements went into effect on Jan. 1, 2016, but the annual reports for the past two years are nowhere to be found. They don't appear on either MPD or the A.G.'s websites. Likewise, the D.C. Council has not received any.
The Institute for Justice filed public records requests with the D.C. Council and the A.G.'s office for the required reports. In both instances, the Council and the A.G.'s office said they had no responsive documents.
"These transparency requirements are extremely important, because without the data these reports provide, lawmakers and the public are really not able to hold law enforcement accountable for any of their forfeiture activities," Jennifer McDonald, a research analyst at the Institute for Justice, says. "This type of data allows us to make decisions about forfeiture policies. It would show us how often forfeitures actually advance criminal investigations. Without this information we're all left in the dark, and when you consider that all of these forfeited properties become public property, the fact that the public has no information on property that belongs to it is particularly concerning."
In response to questions from the D.C. Council last February, the MPD projected it would release its first report in the summer of 2017. The A.G.'s office testified that it couldn't complete its report without MPD's numbers.
In response to a press inquiry, an MPD spokesperson said the department is still compiling its first report.
"After further evaluation it was noted that additional data was needed before publishing asset forfeiture activity on our website," the spokesperson said. "We are currently in the process of analyzing and organizing the data, in hopes of releasing it in the near future."
That's what MPD told the A.G.'s office last year, too.
"OAG's Civil Enforcement Section has been in contact with MPD regarding these obligations, and MPD's General Counsel indicates that the police department is currently preparing the list of all property seized in 2016," the A.G.'s office told the Council last February.
In the meantime, MPD isn't following the law, dragging the A.G.'s office along with it, and no one can evaluate what sort of impact the new requirements have had on asset forfeiture activities in D.C., or if civil asset forfeiture laws are being abused.
The D.C. Council will again ask the MPD about the status of its asset forfeiture reports in the coming weeks. However, like many transparency laws, there's little to no consequences for flouting the requirements, and the Council has limited power to prod MPD into action.
"The committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety has requested from MPD and the Office of the Attorney General their annual reports on asset forfeiture, but it hasn't been provided," Erik Salmi, a spokesperson for Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, says. "In the next four weeks, the Committee will be conducting annual oversight hearings of both offices where we'll have a conversation about this topic among others."