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To: DC Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser, DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, Memebers of the DC Council, DC Mayor Vince Gray
Stop Civil Asset Forfeiture in DC: Theft by the Police is Still Theft
Support the Civil Asset Forfeiture Amendment Act of 2014 (Bill 20-48), being moved by Councilmember Tommy Wells, which would end abusive civil asset forfeiture by the District of Columbia. Several states are considering civil asset forfeiture reforms and this legislation could serve as a model to state lawmakers across the nation.
Why is this important?
Imagine having your car seized by police without even being charged with a crime. That nightmare scenario is a reality for many District of Columbia residents as a result of the local civil asset forfeiture laws, which give law enforcement agencies broad authority to seize private property in the pursuit of criminal investigations. But these laws ultimately result in a disproportionate number of civil cases where the property itself is presumed guilty.
Cars aren’t the only property seized. The Washington Post reported that since 2009, the Metropolitan Police Department has made more than 12,000 seizures and that half of the cash seizures were for $141 or less – with more than 1,000 for less than $20. Such amounts don’t reflect the cashflow of a criminal mastermind – instead, that’s the money you might be carrying to buy groceries or pay a bill.
After seizing the property, the government tries to keep it – or sell it – often without a criminal conviction and without providing owners actual notice and an opportunity to be heard. Incredibly, no person is permitted to challenge the seizure of property in court unless he or she pays to the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) a “penal sum.” If a property owner cannot afford to pay for this neutral judicial review of police conduct, the person can apply for a waiver, but in practice these are rarely granted, and the person loses his or her property.
Even if a property owner is able to pay the penal sum, he or she still does not receive the property back; instead, MPD holds the property until the forfeiture proceeding is completed, which can take years. At that proceeding, the property is presumed guilty, and the burden is on the owner to prove otherwise. In addition, because forfeiture is a civil proceeding, property owners are not constitutionally entitled to court-appointed representation. As a result, a property owner must represent him or herself if he or she cannot afford to hire a lawyer to help navigate the complex civil court system.
Bill 20-48 would reform the District’s civil forfeiture laws and provide protections to residents before the government can forfeit the property. It would also deposit all proceeds from forfeiture in the District’s General Fund, eliminating any conflict of interest that may arise when an agency that decides when to seize assets for forfeiture directly receives the financial benefits of those forfeitures.
As other jurisdictions consider reforms to their civil asset forfeiture programs, Bill 20-48 could serve as a model to lawmakers across the nation by providing clear due process for owners caught up in seizure.
Activist Kymone Freeman laid out the case against civil asset forfeiture on an interview with The Zero Hour with RJ Eskow:
Another great explanation of the corrosive and unAmerican policy of civil asset forfeiture comes from John Oliver on Last Week Tonight: