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Poor Neighborhoods Hit Hardest by Asset Forfeiture in Chicago, Data Shows

Here’s a map of 23,000 times over the past five years that police in Cook County seized property and cash.

Asset seizures in Cook County, IL, 2012-2017 // ReasonAsset seizures in Cook County, IL, 2012-2017 // ReasonPolice in Chicago and its surrounding suburbs seized $150 million over the past five years. Those seizures were heaviest in low-income neighborhoods, according to public records.

Law enforcement in Cook County, which includes Chicago, seized items from residents ranging from a cashier's check for 34 cents to a 2010 Rolls Royce Ghost with an estimated value of more than $200,000. They also seized Xbox controllers, televisions, nunchucks, 12 cans of peas, a pair of rhinestone cufflinks, and a bayonet.

Altogether, police in Cook County performed 23,065 seizures between 2012 and 2017 using asset forfeiture, including 5,939 vehicles. Chevrolet Impalas, among the most popular rental cars in the U.S., were the model most often seized. About three-quarters of all seizures occurred in Chicago. The average estimated value of a seizure was $4,553, while the median value was $1,049. About three-quarters of all seizures were cash, not property.

Lucy Parsons Labs, a police accountability nonprofit in Chicago, obtained the data from the Cook County State's Attorney's Office (CCSAO) through a public records request and provided them to Reason. The data are unique because they include not just when and what police seized, but addresses of where those seizures occurred.

Civil liberties groups have often claimed asset forfeiture disproportionately impacts poor and minority communities. When these police seizure locations are mapped, it shows that, although seizures happened nearly everywhere in Chicago and the surrounding area, low-income neighborhoods like the South Side and West Side were more frequently the targets of asset forfeiture.

"This data shows what we already know, that the seizures tried by CCSAO overwhelming steal the possessions of poor people," Lucy Parsons Labs says in a statement to Reason. "The data shows that the seizures are clumped in the South and West side, overwhelmingly African-American neighborhoods. This provides more evidence that the war on drugs is a racist policy that must be ended."

Under asset forfeiture laws, police can seize property connected to a crime. However, civil asset forfeiture also allow police and prosecutors to take property on the mere suspicion that it is connected to criminal activity, even if the property owner is never convicted or charged with an offense.

Law enforcement groups say asset forfeiture is an essential tool for disrupting lucrative criminal operations like drug trafficking. However, civil liberties groups—such as the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm that has challenged civil forfeiture laws in several states—say it creates perverse profit incentives, since forfeiture revenue often goes right back into the budgets district attorney offices and police departments.

In Illinois, police and state prosecutors keep up to 90 percent of asset forfeiture revenue. The Institute for Justice gave the state's asset forfeiture laws a "D-" grade for their lax property owner protections, low standards of evidence and expensive bond requirements to challenge seizures.

Those profit incentives and lack of safeguards, civil liberties groups contend, lead police to fish for petty seizures. For example, roughly 11,000 seizures in Cook County over the five-year period were for amounts lower than $1,000. Nearly 1,500 were for amounts under $100.

Filtering out higher dollar amounts shows those petty seizures were even more tightly clustered in the South and West Side of Chicago. Here is what the map looks like when seizures over $100 are excluded:

ReasonReason

While the list of seized items contains common tools of the drug trade such as safes, digital scales, and money counters, it also contains things like flashy jewelry, flatscreen TVs, and a copy of the Call of Duty: Ghosts video game.

"Not only has law enforcement in Chicago snatched a staggering amount of money through forfeiture in recent years, much of what they have taken is small-dollar properties," Dick Carpenter, director of strategic research for the Institute for Justice, says of the data. "Despite claims by forfeiture proponents, this is hardly the stuff of vast drug networks and crime bosses."

The pattern of seizures being clustered in lower-income neighborhoods is consistent at a smaller, block-by-block level as well, says Hilary Gowins, content director at the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative policy think-tank that supports legislation in Illinois to tighten rules for asset forfeiture.

"The North Side is known for being the affluent side, but one of the only neighborhoods that's not as well-to-do is Rogers Park," Gowins says. "It's got a lot of problems with crime. In that area, you'll see a lot of dots."

The CCSAO declined to pursue forfeiture in about 2,100 of the 23,000 cases brought to it by law enforcement. Of the estimated $150 million seized by police over the five-year period, only $47 million was officially forfeited into state custody. The forfeiture process can be slow, another problem area with the law. As the Illinois Policy Institute notes, Illinois state law allows for up to 187 days before a forfeiture hearing is required to take place.

One major caveat to the data is they do not distinguish between civil and criminal asset forfeiture, making it impossible to say how many of those seizures were connected to criminal convictions. On the federal level, civil forfeitures make up the overwhelming majority of cases. According to the Institute for Justice, only 13 percent of Department of Justice forfeitures from 1997 to 2013 were criminal forfeitures, while 87 percent were civil.

"It's unclear whether the bulk of seizures are criminal or civil," Gowins says, "but a concern to keep in mind is that in low-income areas like these, asset forfeiture harms residents acutely because many don't have the means to challenge property seizures."

Under Illinois' drug and money laundering laws, authorities can administratively forfeit seized property without any court proceedings if the owner fails to file a challenge within 45 days and posts a bond equal to 10 percent of the value of the seized property.

The lack of concrete data regarding how police use asset forfeiture is a common problem throughout the U.S. Earlier this year, the Institute for Justice released a report finding the majority of states had little to no transparency requirements surrounding asset forfeiture.

"This data has been kept by CCSAO for many years, in electronic format and should be published routinely," Lucy Parsons Lab says. "It has taken several month of digging and a few attempts to get the CCSAO to release this data, which should not be the case for such a controversial topic as civil asset forfeiture."

An investigation by Chicago Reader last year found the Chicago Police Department raked in $72 million since 2009 in civil forfeiture revenues, using it as an off-the-books revenue stream to fund surveillance activities for its narcotics unit.

Overall, Illinois law enforcement seized $319 million between 2005 and 2015, according to a joint report by the Illinois ACLU and the Illinois Policy Institute.

Last April, the Chicago Tribune ran a lead editorial calling on the state to reform the program. "We've heard too many stories of people whose assets were seized and felt they had no reasonable recourse," the paper's editorial board wrote. "That's no way for citizens to be treated by their government."

One of those stories reported by the Tribune was the case of Judy Weise:

Judy Wiese, a grandmother from Rock Island County, had her 2009 Jeep Compass seized last year after she lent it to her grandson, who was then arrested on charges of driving on a revoked license. Rock Island authorities took the car and refused to return it to the woman, arguing it had been used in the commission of a crime.

The 70-year-old woman, who said she did not know her grandson didn't have a valid license, represented herself in court, where she struggled to understand the legal process and was ridiculed by the judge for not having an attorney, according to local news reports. After reading about her plight, a local lawyer offered to represent her for free because property owners involved in seizure cases are not entitled to public defenders. The car was eventually returned five months after her grandson's arrest.

The Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Illinois Policy Institute have also both pressed for tightening the rules for asset forfeiture and increase police transparency, but those reform bills have all been stymied over the past few years by the ongoing budget impasse in the state legislature.

While the story the map shows—that low-income neighborhoods are more often the target of asset forfeiture—has long been told through anecdotes, the map is the first time it's been able to be shown at scale with hard data.

"It's a bigger representation of something that nobody would be surprised by," Gowins says, "but everyone should be thinking about."

The Cook County State's Attorney's Office was not immediately available for comment, as it was still reviewing the data as of press time.

Photo Credit: Reason

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Yes, the poor are both magnets and easy target for law enforcement, thanks largely to the war on drug users. Drugs give them an excuse and are often the reason these communities themselves demand greater targeted enforcement in poor neighborhoods. And they don't have the funds to fight back, even before their possessions get stolen.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    It's a Catch 222.

  • Longtobefree||

    .223

  • Tom Bombadil||

    "The data shows that the seizures are clumped in the South and West side, overwhelmingly African-American neighborhoods. This provides more evidence that the war on drugs is a racist policy that must be ended."

    Let me try.

    Gingers are 5% of the population but are responsible for 20% of spending on sunblock.
    This data shows gingers are targeted and exploited in a racist manner.

  • pan fried wylie||

    Ra-cist?

  • junyo||

    And the laws outlawing sunblock are completely sane, fair and valid, and the method of determining who spent what on sunblock are objective and complete and thus making the point somewhat sensible.

    Oh, wait.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    The point is, just because more blacks get stuff confiscated, doesn't mean it is racially targeting blacks.

    Rape prosecutions are disproportionately against men, doesn't mean law enforcement is bigoted against men.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Racist housing segregation was government policy into the 1960s at least,into the 1970s in some places. That's not long enough ago for its consequences to still matter. While any particular locale's war on drugs may no longer be racially motivated, its roots certainly are.

    And as for the war on drugs not being racist, there's plenty of evidence that it is, as in minorities being busted at twice or triple the rate for pot when study after study has shown usage is more evenly distributed. Whether the racist attitude is at the neighborhood level or individually targeted doesn't much matter.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    That's not long enough ago for its consequences to still matter.

    Poorly worded. I mean it's recent enough that its consequences are still in effect.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    I'm not saying police and prosecutors aren't racist, I'm saying you can't prove it just by saying blacks get busted more per capita.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    When blacks and white use pot at the same rate, yet blacks are busted twice or thrice as often, what other conclusions make any sense? Whether cops are targeting blacks individually, or black neighborhoods in general, it's still either racism, or you have to fall back on claims of racial ineptitude or stupidty, and if that's not racist, I wonder what the word even means.

  • Rick Stewart||

    Another possibility is that poor people are targeted (or perhaps rich people are ignored), not blacks, and blacks are disproportionately represented in the group of poor people.

    I would still claim this makes the policy racist, but perhaps law enforcement itself is not so.

  • Rhywun||

    minorities being busted at twice or triple the rate for pot when study after study has shown usage is more evenly distributed

    I would think based on personal observation that might be because minorities are two to three times more likely to be toking up outside.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Anecdotes are pretty sorry data.

  • Azathoth!!||

    Why does everyone think this is an 'anecdote'?

    Look into studies of public drug usage.

  • Rick Stewart||

    Or perhaps poor people are more likely to be toking up outside, not having the benefit of low occupancy levels, air conditioning, nice furniture, full refrigerators, fancy stereos, etc.

  • junyo||

    Actually, the point is, if you pass a liberty violating law largely on the back of racist reasoning
    http://reason.com/blog/2016/03.....o-decimate
    https://goo.gl/Yx6vBa
    and enforce it mostly against poor/minority communities, arguing that it's not racist isn't going to hold water with anyone who's not wholly committed to not accepting that possibility.

    Unlike rape, where the crime violates a third party's person, drug laws are the state telling you that they exercise more authority over your person than you do. So your point is, it's perfectly valid for the state to outlaw sex with a person of the same biological gender, and that's not actually bigoted against gays.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    All racism is stupid; not all stupidity is racist.

  • No Yards Penalty||

    Let me try: Retards from the Federalist contribute 5% of the comments at Reason but represent 95% of the retarded comments.

  • No Yards Penalty||

    That was aimed at Tom, in case it wasn't clear who the retard was.

  • Azathoth!!||

    Nope. You made it crystal clear EXACTLY who the retard is.

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    The government is picking on the poor? But...but...how could that be? I've been assured over and over again by my progressive acquaintances that government is the source of all fairness and charity! Big Brother is the poor man's friend! Isn't he?

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Cognitive Dissonance ain't just a river in Egypt.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    How is government going to keep poor people poor, if it cannot steal the money they have?

    Cook County cannot have poor people gaining wealth and then moving away like many other people are doing. It will wreck their civil asset forfeiture "tax" base.

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    They'd better not mess with any Catholic orphanages though; they don't want to piss off Sister Mary Stigmata.

  • Bubba Jones||

    I would hope that asset seizure would correlate with crime rate.

    Was that car really seized only because the kid was driving without a license? He wasn't transporting drugs? That is insane.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    You don't have to be that regular a reader of Reason to know that this is really, really typical.

  • pan fried wylie||

    I can see the connection a car or weapons might have to the commission of a crime. Electronics and food though? "Oh, those are probably stolen peas, seize em"?

    C'mon, who BUYS 12 cans of anything at a time. Besides everyone who shops at Costco, I mean.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    "C'mon, who BUYS 12 cans of anything at a time. Besides everyone who shops at Costco, I mean."

    People who have figured out that buying 12 cans of tuna once every 3 months is more efficient than going to the store weekly to buy one can of tuna.

  • Longtobefree||

    Nasty right wing preppers, that who! Lock 'em all up without a trial.

    Cops don't steal stuff because it was related to a crime, they steal it because they want it, just like other thieves.
    If it was related to a crime there would be arrests, trials and convictions first.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    It would be fun to correlate cop spouse shopping lists with cop confiscations.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Start prosecuting officers for armed robbery. It's the only way to be sure.

  • One Last Caress||

    Jesus man I happened to watch a couple minutes of that Live PD show. Stay away from that show unless you want your fucking ripped heart out by the way. Anyway these Texas cops were looking for a fugitive and were working off a confidential informant's tip when they thought they had there man in a vehicle parked out in front of a house. The vehicle drives off and these cops swarm it screaming threats and pointing guns. The captured guy gives up his license, tells his name and within seconds the cops realize they have the wrong guy. Instead of immediately apologizing to this guy the cops interrogate him. The chief cop asked the guy if he had anything in his vehicle. You have to realize that this was all happening in seconds, guns, screaming threats, realization of mistaken identify and then the interrogation. So the guy says, and I cringed, "yeahhh, there's some marijuana in my car" and the cops asked to search and he said yes. The cops found his weed. The weed probably less than an ounce from what I saw was split into maybe three different sandwich bags. The cops then claimed it was distribution of weed. The guy denied it and said it was different named strains of bud that he kept apart for the same reason you don't pour your Skoal vodka into the container holding the good brand vodka. Anyway, that chief cop basically said fuck you and took the guys car.

    they misidentified the fugitive and pulled over the wrong person.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    Did anything bad happen?

    /Dunphy

  • Rhywun||

    Maybe the show will open some eyes as to the nature of our overlords.

  • WoodChipperBob||

    Unfortunately, the average person will say, "He shouldn't have been breaking the law with his weed" rather than "why didn't the cops apologize and send him on his way when they realized he wasn't the guy?".

  • gaoxiaen||

    I can't get a credit card or checking account so I use cash. Every bill says that it's good for public or private transactions, or words to that effect. Is there something that I misunderstand?

  • gaoxiaen||

    Or misread?

  • Rhywun||

    You'd think if this was a fishing expedition they'd hit the rich neighborhoods where most of the money is. Or... could it be that the poor neighborhoods are where most of the crime is?

    I'm as anti-drug war and asset-theft as anyone but just saying "racism" is the cause of everything bad is really, really lazy.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    Everything I was thinking.

  • No Yards Penalty||

    Betweehn Rhywun and Bombadil it's tough to tell who the figure authoritarian, racist, statist cunt is.
    Too close to call.

  • Azathoth!!||

    Nope. You made it crystal clear EXACTLY who the authoritarian, racist, statist cunt is.

    Damn you're good at this.

  • Lowdog||

    They aren't fishing in rich neighborhoods because they could inadvertently hit the mayor, or someone who knows the mayor, or a lawyer, or someone who has a good lawyer, etc. So it's not necessarily that they're targeting minorities, it's that they're targeting poor neighborhoods where they know they can get away with it.

    I hate all the race-baiting crap, too, but if it helps people get pissed, then maybe it's not all bad.

  • Rhywun||

    Actually, all it does is turn off people who refuse to believe that everything is so simple. This includes large chunks of America. Ensuring that nothing changes.

  • Lowdog||

    Maybe. I have an acquaintance, though, that is swayed by these arguments. When I pointed out how many dogs the police kill, she was floored, because, as an animal lover, she deplores such behavior. Made her start realizing that my distrust of the police may have merit. Unfortunately, she does seem to believe that police kill many more minorities, and so thinks it's racism, and doesn't realize that they're just murderous and violent thugs that even white folks shouldn't trust. Pointing out how racist asset forfeiture can be may be another strike against police in her eyes.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Not everyone can afford a William Kuntsler. PBUH.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    PBUH: Peanut Butter Und Haagendazs

  • Fuck You - Cut Spending||

    All this asset theft and yet the state claims the pension funds are all broke.

  • Robert||

    Why does a cashier's check for 34 cents even exist?

  • Linux||

    I'm guessing that it's the interest on a security deposit. I don't know about Chicago but in New York when you landlord keeps your security deposit in a bank account they're legally not allowed to keep the interest because it's not their money, so if you're a tenant you wind up getting these really small cashiers checks in the mail a couple times a year.

  • Jr12||

    C.J. No one needs an excuse to oppose exploitation. Using disparity impact on a politically correct demographic as evidence of injustice is a liberal tactic; implicit in this argument is the infamous and highly profitable leftie polarization between the privileged and the unfairly oppressed. This is the argument that _validates_ precisely what you argued against...unequal distribution of protective social services resulting in lifestyle disparity. You can demand enforced privileges for any group by oppressing the rest, but neither you, nor any other leftie scum can use enforced inequality to create equality.

    The _libertarian_ argument is an equal opportunity opposition to all forms of exploitation, because individuals, not collectives, (such as the poor) are the real victims.

  • TGoodchild||

    A D- isn't an F: there is still room to worsen.

  • No Yards Penalty||

    The pigs are evil.
    Let's not let that reality overshadow the fact that sometimes they specifically target poor minorities.
    Christ, sometimes the cross-pollination on these threads from Federalist retards is enough to drive a guy to the assholes at Goobertarians.

  • Azathoth!!||

    Those seizures were heaviest in high crime neighborhoods, according to public records.

    FTFY. The race and class baiting only pisses people off.

    People outside the leftist bubble look at this and--no matter their stance on confiscation--see the racist 'blame whitey' position held up over all things.

    Leftists masquerading as liibertarians here say 'oh, well, it's okay if it raises awareness....'.

    It's not though. This reflexive 'take the leftist side' thing pisses everyone off, it short circuits any attempts at reform--and it keeps the leftist status quo in place--and yes, confiscation is the leftist status quo--in places where it's worst, Republicans don't get elected.

  • Devastator||

    Because someone doesn't agree with you doesn't make them a leftist. Not everyone swallows the libertarian/anarchist kool-aid in every flavor. Some of us step back and think about what makes sense and what doesn't. Some things make sense and some don't. Zealotry is always bad whether it's progressive, libertarian, or Tory. Libertarianism in it's proper form is about thinking, not blindly assuming everyone else is wrong and you're the only one that's right.

  • Azathoth!!||

    Ah. Thinking, eh?

    Okay, how's this--I didn't accept the racism/classism line that's routinely fed to us in articles like this. I thought about it and did some checking into things and it turns out that these ARE high crime areas.

    See that? YOU 'blindly accepted' the terms of the article. I didn't. Because everyone has an agenda. Mine is trying to get people to think for themselves.

    This is what a libertarian does.

    A leftist accepts what they are told, being collectivists, and accepts the collectivist view that society wants to steal from people who have nothing to steal(this get you allies among people too stupid to note the problem inherent in stealing from the poor). This foments class and race resentment--two things the left needs in order to exist

  • Simon Prophet||

    Does anyone suspect that civil asset forfeiture will target the real big time drug dealers, criminals and fraudsters? Like the drug wars civil asset forfeiture keeps competition down. The real big time criminals are not affected. If you suspect someone then don';t think that you can use civil asset forfeiture? It's a closed club. If you think I'm wrong then report these two suspects to Attorney General Jeff Sessions to see how the door is slammed shut in your face. The suspects are in these YouTube videos. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UELj1jLBcOU and https://youtu.be/d634wEZPImI

  • Devastator||

    Of course it affects poor neighborhoods more; when people can't make money one way they'll find another way. Anyway, with that out of the way, this is illegal under the Constitution. I can see holding stuff in escrow until a trial is over but then it has to be released if the person isn't found guilty. You don't have to prove where you get money from, you just have to pay taxes on it. Fuck the po-po and their underhanded techniques. Obviously this is what we get from a prison system set up for -only- punishment and not rehabilitation, which would be a lot cheaper. The private prisons want to keep the revolving doors going, and the local DAs and cops what their cut of the loot whether you are guilty or innocent.

  • Rath||

    Try overlaying those dots with crime reports. See what correlations emerge.

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