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When law enforcement see you as an ATM

On November 29, 2012, in states, by Scott Alexander Meiner

Excellent reporting from Isaiah Thompson, of Philadelphia’s City Paper. Thompson chronicles the disturbing and pervasive forfeiture practices in Philadelphia, PA:

“The letter baffled him: His arrest had occurred way back in 2007 (at the time, he insists, police took $281 off him, not the $81 listed by the DA and recorded on a police property receipt that Rogers says he’d never seen before and that does not bear his signature). What’s more, the case against Rogers had been withdrawn at trial. Rogers says he was entirely innocent; the law would seem to agree. Only now, five years later, the money had resurfaced.

Why had the DA suddenly decided, after five years, to pursue Rogers’ $81? The simple answer is that these cases originate in a factory-like process that produces an incredible volume of cases at an incredible rate — but with little initial review.

Forfeiture cases involving cash are generated directly from the property receipts filed by police, which are reviewed for certain loose criteria: generally, the involvement of drugs, gambling or prostitution. The information on the receipts is then copied into a series of form letters that serve as the basis for legal service, for the petition for forfeiture and as an affirmation that “the facts of the case set forth in the foregoing petition are true.”

It’s a system that allows a tremendous number of cases — and ultimately, a vast amount of revenue — to be generated by a relatively small number of people at a rapid pace. (Just two assistant district attorneys typically work on civil asset forfeiture cases, according to Beth Grossman, chief of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Public Nuisance Task Force, which includes the forfeiture unit.)

And once a petition is filed, the DA’s advantage over the erstwhile property owner (here, called the “respondent”) is extraordinary, and often overpowering.

Whether these cases have merit or not is a question rarely determined by a judge or jury. Instead, the DA can rely on one primary, brilliantly simple means of winning its cases: default. Default judgments, in fact, account for the bulk of the DA’s successful forfeiture. Roughly 80 percent of the thousands of cases filed annually will begin and end on a single day, the case’s first listing in court, usually when the property’s owner fails to appear.

The abundance of no-shows surely speaks, in many instances, to the strength of the DA’s case. But there are other reasons that many people may fail to fight for their property.

For one thing, whether those being relieved of their property by default are even aware of the proceedings is an open question. Grossman says that all respondents are given proper service via certified mail, and if the letter comes back unsigned, they are served personally by process servers. But certificates of legal service — usually included in standard civil dockets — are not included in physical court files of these cases….”

“Another reason for the DA’s advantage is the simple fact that requiring respondents to appear in court multiple times to prove ownership of relatively small amounts of money simply isn’t worth their time. Likewise, hiring a lawyer is often a losing financial proposition from the start. Most individuals who do pursue the return of their property do so pro se — that is to say, alone.

Given the high rate of defaults, the majority of forfeiture cases are filed and concluded long before any related criminal proceedings have been resolved. Some of these alleged criminals — the same whose property is being seized in a default judgement — will eventually be found not guilty, or have charges against them withdrawn, dismissed or nolle prossed, that is, voluntarily not prosecuted.

In an interview, Grossman pointed out — correctly — that state statute allows her to proceed with forfeiture without regard to any criminal conviction (or charge). But whether doing so is fair is a different question — one CP put to Grossman and DA spokeswoman Tasha Jamerson.

“You’re hinging on these people who say their money was taken away from them, and they were found not guilty of X, Y and Z,” Jamerson said. “But the important part of that statement is the X, Y and Z.”

Asked whether she was implying that guilt should be assumed based on charges, Jamerson responded, “Every [person] isn’t pulled over and arrested. … They’re not being pulled over because they’re a soccer mom.”

Jamerson is right about that. The majority of those affected aren’t white, suburban, middle-class women; they’re generally black or Hispanic, working-class and poor.

But whether or not they’ve committed a crime — and whether the property seized from them was a proceed of any crime — is another question.”

Excerpted from Isaiah Thompson, The Cash Machine: How the Philly D.A. seizes millions in alleged crime money — whether there’s been a crime or not., The City Paper, 29 Nov. 2012.

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