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Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Approved in D.C. Legislature

On Tuesday, the D.C. Council unanimously endorsed a bill that aims to seriously reform the practice of civil asset forfeiture by the Metropolitan Police Department. The second and final vote on the measure will take place December 2.

Civil forfeiture laws allow police departments to seize private property, sell it, and use the proceeds to fund their operations. The real owners of seized property do not have to be convicted or even charged with a crime to lose their property. Government can seize property, such as a car, a home, or even cash if it’s found to “facilitate” a crime.

The dubious policy has led to significant abuse from police departments. As the Washington Post has uncovered in its continuing “Stop and Seize” investigation, since 2009, more than 12,000 seizures have been executed by D.C. police officers.

“Half of the more than $5.5 million in cash seizures were for $141 or less, with more than a thousand for less than $20. D.C. police have seized more than 1,000 cars, some for minor offenses allegedly committed by the children or friends of the vehicle owners, documents show.”

D.C. is not the only place where asset forfeiture is a problem. Philadelphia is notorious for raking in the most seizures in the country. Police have seized homes and cars from parents due to their children’s illegal behavior, unbeknownst to the parents. Casino winnings were seized in Iowa due to a failure to use a turn signal. Police have used seizure proceeds to purchase a margarita machine in Texas and an ice resurfacing machine in Massachusetts. This by no means is an exhaustive list of asset forfeiture misuse.

What’s in the Bill?

The bill contains significant property and due process protections for those targeted for asset forfeiture; the district will be required to inventory all taken property and notify the owner of the procedure. The notification must explain how to challenge the forfeiture and how to retrieve seized property.

The bill eliminates a bond of 10% of the property’s value, or up to $2,500, before the owner can appeal the seizure. Additionally, car owners can use their vehicles pending the police’s final actions.

The legislation also mandates proceeds from seizures go to the District’s “general funds” rather than directly to the police department. However, this will not take effect until 2018, because the police department has budgeted for seizures for the next four years under what is known as Equitable Sharing.

The Washington Post revealed the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) has planned to receive $670,000 in each of the next four years from participating in the Equitable Sharing program run by the Department of Justice. Equitable Sharing says for seizures a city or state makes under federal law, the local agency can receive up to 80% of the proceeds. But, federal law dictates these funds go directly to police departments. Because of the planned budget, and the legislation’s conflicting “general funds” provision, the MPD will not stop participating in Equitable Sharing until after 2018.

The Institute for Justice and Americans Civil Liberties Union issued a joint letterto the Council praising the measure but urging the legislature to end participation in the Equitable Sharing program immediately. Leaving the program means the funds would be diverted to the general funds as soon as the bill takes effect, rather than four years down the line.

“The proper response to a conflict of interest is to end it, not to endorse it for four more years. If a D.C. Administrative Judge were found to be sitting on cases involving companies in which he or she owned stock, the judge would not be told to stop doing so in 2018, but immediately. If a District official found to be accepting gifts from a contractor whose work the official supervised, the official would not be told to stop accepting gifts in 2018, but immediately.”

Overall, the bill appears to be a major advancement to protect people against unlawful seizures and private property violations by police departments.

“This is absolutely a model for other states and cities,” said Institute for Justice Attorney Darpana Sheth. “Ideally, it would be eliminated, but reform is welcome.”