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How States Are Curbing Millions of Dollars in Police Seizures

Fri, 01/22/2016 - 1:05pm
Sean Allocca, Editor

Via Wikipedia (public domain)​Ginnifer Hency made national headlines, last year, when she spoke at a Michigan House Committee Meeting about her experiences with civil asset forfeiture—the legal process that allows police to seize property or cash without ever charging owners with a crime. A medical marijuana patient, Hency’s home was raided and officers confiscated thousands of dollars of property, including televisions, her children’s iPads, and even a vibrator, ten months earlier.

“Why a ladder? Why my vibrator? I don’t know either. Why TVs?” Hency told a house judiciary meeting last May.

Since then, civil asset forfeiture has come under increased pressure from civil liberty unions, like the ACLU. States like Maryland and Nebraska are reexamining their forfeiture laws, and now Oklahoma is the latest state to propose new legislation that would raise the burden of proof to justify property seizures. Oklahoma Senator Kyle Loveless proposed a new bill that would create an oversight board to see how the confiscated revenue is being spent, and ensure property is returned promptly to owners cleared of any wrongdoing.

“I started doing research online,” Loveless said in a recent interview with Bloomberg Politics. “I started seeing terrible stories of innocent people’s stuff being taken.”

Read More: Sex Toy Turns National Spotlight on Civil Asset Forfeiture

Although Hency admitted to having illegal paraphernalia used to grow marijuana at her residence, she was cleared by a judge, and ten months later, was still trying to regain her possessions.

“They left the stuff that forfeiture laws were made for in this state, and in this country,” she told the committee. “They left my ballasts, my lights. The stuff I used to grow drugs,” she said emphasizing the last word with air quotes. 

Deposits to the United States Department of Justice's Assets Forfeiture Fund, of cash and cash equivalents, in millions of US dollars, from the fiscal years 2001 through 2008. Source: the Institute for Justice based on data from US Justice and Treasury departments (via Wikipedia)But, advocates of the practice say forfeiture laws are a necessary tool, especially in the drug trade, to allow law enforcement agencies to take cash and other assets away from criminal organizations. By stripping drug traffickers of thousands of dollars in cash, illegally acquired from the drug trade, authorities can then thwart future sales of illegal narcotics.

The Oklahoma bill has received significant backlash from police and prosecutors, who maintain that the law allows authorities to keep communities safe from drug trafficking. “I think I bit the tail of Moby Dick,” Loveless said in the interview.

According to a statement from the FBI, civil asset forfeiture “takes the profit out of the crime” by eliminating the funds needed to continue illegal activity. However, critics say it’s a quick way for law enforcement agencies to prop up their bottom lines in tough economic times, or even, a legal slush fund.

Federal law allows agencies like the DEA to keep up to 100 percent of the proceeds of a forfeited property, although it’s much harder to track where those revenues are being spent. Furthermore, owners that are cleared of wrongdoing by a judge, like Ginnifer Hency, bear the burden of proof to prove their own innocence and regain their property.

Watch Ginnifer Hency's testimony to the Michigan House Committee Meeting last May:

According to the Bloomberg article, the Oklahoma bill has bipartisan support, although its future remains uncertain. A similar bill in California died after the DA’s office provided politicians with estimates of exactly how much revenue local police departments would lose if the forfeiture-reform law passed, according to the article.

Many federal agencies inside the DOJ use the forfeiture program, like the DEA and the FBI, but some outside the DOJ also utilize the program like the US Postal Service, the Department of Agriculture, and the FDA.

For more information on the program, visit the Justice Department’s website.

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