Asset Forfeiture Roundup

There have been some interesting new developments across the country from the world of civil asset forfeiture, the upside-down policy where police and prosecutors can seize and keep your property, often without ever charging you with a crime, and then keep the proceeds for themselves.

A quick roundup:

  • The advocacy group Americans for Forfeiture Reform (AFR) finds a June 2013 audit of forfeiture practices at the Missouri State Highway Patrol that accuses the agency of significant mismanagement, and sloppy record keeping. As AFR points out, not requiring police agencies to keep careful records of money and property seized is a sure way to encourage further abuse of an already dubious practice.
  • Two federal lawsuits have accused the Humboldt County, Nevada, Sheriff’s Department of threatening motorists with criminal charges unless they allowed him to take large amounts of cash he found after pulling them over, and promised not to attempt to challenge the seizures. This comes after another lawsuit by former officers with the Nevada state police alleged that the agency’s drug dogs were trained to make false alerts in order to provide an excuse for property seizures.
  • In Indiana, prosecutors are attempting to keep $3.4 million seized in raids of Mexican restaurants across the state. No one has been criminally charged. Prosecutors say the money was the result of criminal activity, but they won’t say what that activity was.
  • Maryland’s legislature is considering a new bill that would require police to keep better track of property seizures, including what was seized, what crimes police allege are associated with the property, and what if any criminal charges results. The bill puts no restrictions on forfeitures, it merely asks for more transparency from police agencies. Still, the state’s police agencies testified against it. A 2013 Baltimore Sun investigation of about 60 drug forfeiture cases found that in about half of them, no one was ever charged with a crime.
  • Georgia’s legislature considered a bill last year that would bring more transparency to forfeiture cases, and would have put some minor restrictions on its practice. It went nowhere, thanks to lobbying from the state’s police agencies. This year, the legislature is considering a watered-down bill that would only seeks more transparency. The state’s law enforcement officials don’t want that, either.
  • After a scandal in which the Minneapolis Metro Gang Strike Force was found to have illegal seized hundreds of thousands of dollars from innocent people, the Minnesota legislature is now considering a bill that would require a criminal conviction before police could keep the money and property they’ve seized in an investigation. If the suspect is never charged, or is acquitted, the suspect gets his property back. That what seems like a perfectly reasonable policy would be one of the boldest forfeiture reforms in the country speaks to just how far down the rabbit hole we’ve fallen on this issue. The bill is of course facing aggressive opposition by all the usual suspects.
Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko | March 10