New media investigations show that the asset forfeiture racket is still humming

Despite some recent exposure in national media outlets such as the New Yorker and “PBS Frontline,” the practice of civil asset forfeiture appears to be as popular as ever. Civil asset forfeiture is the twisted policy that lets police seize any property they believe is connected to a crime (usually a drug crime). The owner may never actually face criminal charges — and in fact, most don’t. In most jurisdictions, part or all of the proceeds then go back to the police agency.

First, from WPRI in Providence, R.I.:

Police departments across Rhode Island have seized millions of dollars in cash, cars and other assets in recent years using a common law enforcement practice that doesn’t require a conviction for the individuals involved in the case.

All told, law enforcement officials throughout the state hauled in nearly $15.7 million from 3,786 incidents since 2003 using the state’s asset forfeiture law, according to a Target 12 review of data obtained through multiple public records requests. Nearly all of the incidents were drug-related.

Every police department in the state reported at least one case where it obtained cash or property through the seizure process, from Providence to the tiny force on Block Island. The assets are often sold and the proceeds are used to boost public safety budgets.

In 2013, 22 departments took in more than $1.3 million from 306 incidents, with 138 cases leading to a conviction. But while nearly half of last year’s incidents remain tied up in court, 26 cases saw charges dismissed or dropped.

“I would say that probably happens, if I had to quantify it, I would say 25-30% of the time,” Providence defense attorney John Verdecchia told Target 12.

The report then looks at how difficult it can be for an innocent owner to get back his or her property. These laws are often justified as a critical tool that police and prosecutors need to bring down high-level drug distributors and to prevent them from keeping “ill-gotten gains.” But as with previous studies in other states that have actually looked at the numbers, the WPRI investigation shows that isn’t how the practice is primarily used in Rhode Island.

Since 2003, 12 incidents have led to seizures worth at least $100,000, but most forfeitures are significantly smaller. The average case during that period brought in $4,142; in 2013, 38% of seizures were for $1,000 or less.

So in most cases, the value of the property seized will be less than what it would cost to hire an attorney to go to court to win it back.

A second recent report on forfeiture comes from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. One part in the multi-part series focuses on a recent drug bust at Texas Christian University. Nearly all the suspects were college students. The police seized laptops, smartphones, iPads, automobiles, student loan checks and bank accounts for alleged drug offenses that for the most part resulted in low-level charges and probation sentences.

“I didn’t understand why my possessions were being taken from me,” said one of the students arrested in the sting. “They left me totally out of the picture the whole time.”

Losing her car was the worst part.

“Having your parents take you to work every day — it’s like you’re back in high school,” said the student, who asked to remain anonymous because she wants to put the incident behind her. “This was your possession. You worked hard for it, and now you’re back to depending on others for transportation.”

Some people got their vehicles back in three months, but it took more than a year for others. Some were able to negotiate directly with the Tarrant County district attorney’s office; others had to go to court.

“We can’t try every case that comes before us because we just don’t have that kind of time,” said Ann Wright, the Tarrant County assistant district attorney who oversees forfeiture cases. “So in some cases, we’ll go ahead and make a settlement offer.”

There was one consistency: For the most part, seized items such as laptops and cellphones are rarely worth trying to recover. A lawyer’s hourly rate might be higher than the value of an iPhone. And many people simply can’t go months without a phone or a computer.

[Scott Lee] Anderson, though, was an exception. He petitioned to get his iPhone back, along with an Apple laptop, an iPad and his 2011 Ford F-150, according to court documents.

In August 2012, a judge ordered that his iPhone be forfeited to the state, but the iPad and laptop were returned to him. He had to pay $17,500 to the Tarrant County Narcotics Unit to get his truck back.

Most of these students did appear to be engaging in some minor drug distribution — mostly selling pot on campus. Perhaps drug-peddling college students from middle-class-and-up backgrounds aren’t the most sympathetic victims. But the story does illustrate how forfeiture policies can change how police departments allocate resources and manpower. This was a big, extensive investigation. It seems doubtful that Tarrant County is measurably safer now that a bunch of college kids have criminal records and report to probation officers due to some pot or illegal Adderall. But one thing asset forfeiture laws do very well is make these sorts of investigations a high priority for police agencies. Most of the time, investigating a campus rape or robbery won’t bring in any significant revenue for the department. A big drug investigation with asset-rich targets often will.

Despite the fact that it’s a policy and process that’s ripe for abuse, there’s often a troubling lack of transparency or accountability in civil asset forfeiture proceedings.

Trying to track seized money and assets turned out to be a lesson in frustration. Reporters working with the Star-Telegram filed more than 10 Freedom of Information Act requests with a number of agencies, including DFW Airport, to see how much was collected and where it went, but got few answers.

DFW provided a list of drug items seized but said it didn’t seize any cash. Calls to the DEA and the Justice and Homeland Security departments didn’t yield any more explanation.

A North Texas Financial Crimes Task Force, led by the Internal Revenue Service’s criminal investigation unit and composed of officers from Arlington, Dallas, Fort Worth, Flower Mound, Collin County and Denton County, can also seize assets believed to be tied to money laundering and other crimes. But FOIA requests filed with at least five agencies have not yet resulted in any details.

Denise Corcoran, public information officer for the IRS-Criminal Investigation Unit in Fort Worth, said it is “impossible” to determine how much money the task force seized in the Tarrant County area last year because of the way IRS databases are structured.

Not surprisingly, a process that is rife with bad incentives, lacks transparency and is subject to very little accountability has led to abuse.

In 2012, officials in the Texas town of Tenaha and Shelby County settled a class-action lawsuit alleging that they stopped at least 140 drivers, mostly black and Latino, and threatened them with criminal charges before seizing an estimated $3 million in cash, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

None of the plaintiffs was arrested or charged.

Tenaha was just one example, although it was a particularly egregious one. But there are lots of others. More on forfeiture coming soon.
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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