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Reason’s John K. Ross posted recommended reading on the District of Columbia’s civil asset forfeiture racket and the D.C. City Council reform proposal:

Jerrie Brathwaite was not in her car when Washington, D.C. police seized it in January 2012. She had lent her 2000 Nissan Maxima to a friend, and that friend was pulled over, searched, and found to be in possession of drugs. A year later, Braithwaite—who has never been charged with a crime—still doesn’t have her car back, and no one from the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) will return her calls.

Brathwaite, 33, is knee-deep in the murky world of civil asset forfeiture, where confiscated cars, cash, and other property disappear into police coffers, and where legal recourse for owners is confusing, slow, and expensive. Under civil forfeiture, police can seize property from people who are never convicted—much less charged with—a crime. Unlike criminal forfeiture, where the government must prove property was used in the commission of crime, civil forfeiture law presumes an owner’s guilt.

According to Brathwaite, a single mother of three living in Southeast Washington, D.C., a police investigator told her in June that the car was no longer needed as evidence in the case against her friend, and would be released. “He told me…to make sure I faxed him all the necessary paperwork…. I faxed everything and I just haven’t heard anything,” she says. “I’ve been calling. I called in the past three months I know at least 10 times and left voicemails and no one has called me back.”

Brathwaite’s situation—and the MPD’s behavior—are not uncommon. Civil forfeiture is a national problem. Law enforcement agencies seize millions of dollars worth of property each year with little or no due process for owners. In all but six states property owners are considered guilty until proven innocent. State law typically allows law enforcement to keep most or all of the proceeds from forfeiture—an enormous incentive to police for profit. 

In court filings, MPD claims to have sold over 200 forfeited vehicles at auction in the last three years—and to have returned 16 to 20 vehicles a week to property owners during that time. MPD says it collected $358,000 from civil forfeiture in fiscal year 2011, according to court documents. Over the same period the department received $529,000 from federal equitable sharing, a program in which local law enforcement turns cases over to federal prosecutors. The feds process the forfeiture and then return 80 percent of the proceeds to the seizing agency. It’s a finder’s fee of sorts for local cops…”

“Last October, D.C. City Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Council Member Mary Cheh introduced legislation that would substantially improve protections for property owners. The bill, which has been reintroduced for the 2013 session, would shift the burden of proof to the government, eliminate the bond requirement, and mandate the return of confiscated property if the District fails to provide a hearing before a neutral arbiter within two days of a challenge.

Perhaps most important, the bill would direct all forfeiture proceeds, 100 percent of which currently go to the MPD, into the city’s general fund—regardless of whether the MPD or the federal government handles the case. That’s significant because state laws that do not address the federal equitable program sharing do not eliminate local law enforcement’s ability to police for profit. Local police routinely use equitable sharing to evade state laws that limit the share of forfeiture proceeds returned to the seizing agency.

If passed as is, the 2013 bill would provide D.C. residents with some of the best protections in the country and would provide state legislators with a model to follow. A hearing on the bill has yet to be scheduled, but the legislation has the support of eight out of 12 council members. That’s all to the good but, in the meantime, Jerrie Brathwaite still doesn’t have her car back.”

Excerpted from John K. Ross, Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Washington, D.C.’s Civil Forfeiture Racket: Policing for profit in the nation’s capital., Reason, 19 Jan. 2013.

It is ludicrous that such lawless forfeiture schemes are still permitted in the District of Columbia. Under such a scheme, if you are not so fortunate as to be able to do without your car during the years that litigation might take, the District can either extract a settlement from you, cause you to just give up, bury you in fees (often outpacing the value of the car) and delays (shamefully even if you pay the cost-bond–which ought to be illegal), and irreparably jeopardize your ability to go to work.

We wish Ms. Brathwaite the speedy return of her vehicle, hope the District will make her whole, and hope that the District’s City Council promptly institutes reforms.

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