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Forfeiture victims: Gena Shade

On November 16, 2010, in states, by Eapen Thampy

Gena Shade is a woman who lives in Ray County, Missouri. She has a particularly interesting forfeiture story that I thought I’d share with you today. Gena’s story is interesting, atypical, and a good example of how even when things go right in the courts people can still be victimized unfairly.

Gena’s story begins in 2007, when she was arrested for possession of marijuana and methamphetamine. Thanks to the intervention that she went through she is now clean and sober and grateful to be alive. She did plead guilty to the possession charge, netting her a felony conviction.

I do want to highlight that aspect of her story. There is always a need for treatment and rehabilitation of people involved in the dark world of substance abuse, and in Gena’s case the system worked as well as you might hope, at least in the rehabilitation and treatment of Gena’s substance abuse problems. It is not a perfect system, and I particularly would hope that we could find good-incentive compatible ways to address these problems that don’t result in people like Gena having to bear the burden of being a felon for the rest of her life. But all things considered, this was a relatively good outcome, and Gena is on a better track for her life.

But what happened in the civil forfeiture of Gena’s property, a camper and a truck, was problematic. First, the property wasn’t really linked to Gena’s crime; her drugs were found in someone’s house, and she was a user, not a dealer. Nor was she transporting the drugs at the time of her arrest. But the local sheriff initiated civil forfeiture proceedings against her property.

In a very unusual outcome, Gena actually won her case because the state missed a filing deadline to ensure that the forfeiture went through. This is unusual because Gena won, which is an unusual outcome to a forfeiture case in the first place. Most civil forfeitures end up defaulting to the government because it is too difficult or expensive for defendants to contest them, and the ones that do get contested rarely get decided for the property claimant.

What happened afterward, however, was that the private storage company that had held Gena’s property in the interim (about a year) refused to return her property. Instead, they presented her with a bill for over $30,000. Arguing that the contract for storage only involved the State of Missouri and the storage company, she was able to get a court order for the release of her property, at which point the storage company informed her that they had sold the vehicles to recoup their costs.

Gena was actually able to locate one of the vehicles, but has been unable to claim it from the person who bought the vehicle and has it in his possession. The sheriff in Ray County has so far been unsympathetic, and the attorney Gena hired has been unable to produce any results (Gena alleges her attorney has a conflict of interest in this case and has not represented her fairly).

The letter and documentation that Gena sent us about her case are attached here.

Here is the point I wish to leave you with. Gena Shade is not a perfect person; she broke the laws of her state, and she was convicted and sentenced in a court of law. While her punishment wasn’t perfect, she was able to obtain the help she needed to rejoin society as a productive, law-abiding citizen. However, it was inappropriate for the civil forfeiture motion to be filed separately from her criminal charges; the judge in Gena’s cause weighed the totality of the crime, evidence, and the potential for Gena to be rehabilitated, and administered justice impartially and appropriately. For the state to choose to file a civil forfeiture claim against Gena was to make a decision that regardless of the punishment Gena received in her criminal trial, it was still fair to punish her again. The courts haven’t ruled in favor of this argument, but I can’t escape the sense that this kind of behavior places Gena in double jeopardy; you get punished once when you are convicted in criminal court and again when the state tries to take your property.

And worse, even though Gena won, an atypical enough result, she has been wronged by at least two other parties: the storage company that sold her vehicles in violation of its duty to comply with a court order, and the sheriff who refused to enforce the court order. It is a bad justice system where people can win their cases and still have their rights denied.

At present, Gena has no recourse in this matter. We would like to help her; the first thing we would like to do is raise some money to put this case in front of a qualified attorney. If you’d like to help in that effort, please consider making a donation here. Or if you’d like to provide us with general financial support, you can help us put this issue in front of state legislatures and the United States Congress.

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