The D.C. Council on Tuesday agreed to overhaul the city’s civil asset forfeiture program with a bill that would give property owners new rights and eventually require that seizure proceeds go into the city’s general fund rather than to the police department.
The council’s unanimous vote caps more than a year of debate over the department’s use of laws that allowed police officers to take millions of dollars in cash, cars and other property without charging the owners with crimes.
Advocates such as the District’s Public Defender Service said the bill is needed to curb police power and protect working-class property owners. Law enforcement authorities said it would create an administrative burden for the city and affect the department’s budget by reducing seizure revenue.
“It defangs the government’s ability to take money, cars and other assets with little to no due process,” D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, said in an interview. “We now have a model, I believe, for the country to follow.”
The council is set to take a second and final vote on Dec. 2.
Wells said a Washington Post series about civil asset forfeiture provided an impetus for the bill’s approval. The Post articles in September showed that more than $2.5 billion in cash had been seized under federal law from almost 62,000 people across the country since Sept. 11, 2001, without warrants or indictments.
On Sunday, The Post reported that D.C. police have made more than 12,000 seizures under city and federal laws since 2009, according to records and data obtained through the District’s open-records law. Half of the more than $5.5 million in cash seizures involved $141 or less, with more than 1,000 involving 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 vehicles’ owners, documents show.
The Civil Asset Forfeiture Amendment Act of 2014 aims to cut back on such seizures through a host of administrative changes. It requires the District to inventory everything that is taken and notify the owners. Each notice must explain how to challenge the forfeitures and provide directions on how to retrieve property that was seized.
Car owners would have the right to drive their vehicles pending final forfeiture action, and people whose cash had been seized could appeal if the money was urgently needed to pay for food or rent.
The bill would also eliminate a requirement that property owners post a bond of up to $2,500 or 10 percent of the value of the property before they could appeal.
The bill would effectively end the District’s involvement with a federal asset forfeiture program at the Justice Department called Equitable Sharing. Under the program, police agencies that make seizures under federal law can keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds, but only if the money goes toward a law enforcement purpose. The bill requires any proceeds from seizures to go into the city’s general fund.
But that provision could not take effect until 2018 because the D.C. police department has already made plans for Equitable Sharing revenue until then. The city has allocated $670,000 each year to a special police department fund used to pay informants and rewards, according to the city’s budget and spending plan.
Chief Cathy L. Lanier told The Post that the department is not building its budget with the proceeds from civil seizures but is using them “to augment the reward pool of funding and confidential fund programs (witness protection, rewards for information in homicides).”
In a statement Tuesday, Lanier said that the city’s chief financial officer “develops revenue estimates for all of the funds that come into the District government, including taxes, fees, fines, and asset forfeiture. This revenue estimate and the resulting financial plan are both required by District law.”
Lanier said she supports the goals of the bill and has been working with her department for more than a year “to review and revise our policies” to minimize circumstances in which civil asset forfeiture is used.
“This greatly reduced the use of civil asset forfeiture,” her statement said.
In a letter to the council, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Institute for Justice said that if the money is not formally budgeted, then the Equitable Sharing provision should take effect immediately instead of waiting until 2018.
“We think a four-year delay in implementing this important reform is unconscionable,” the letter said.
Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), a lawyer who has long opposed civil asset forfeiture, said the bill was overdue.
“This practice undermines the public’s faith in our justice system because it gives the appearance that the District is seeking to take property merely for financial gain,” she said in a statement. “Because of the bill before us today, residents will now receive prompt notice of a seizure, are guaranteed interim hearings to challenge the seizure, and will no longer have to wait prolonged periods without their property.”
Steven Rich contributed to this report.