• Tag Archives civil forfeiture
  • State Steals Life-Savings from Innocent Musician

    Phil Parhamovich is a musician from Madison, Wisconsin. Over the years, he saved up $91,800, only to have it seized by Wyoming Highway Patrol during a routine traffic stop near Cheyenne.

    Phil was never accused of, or charged with, a crime. Yet, he found himself in the fight of his life to recover the money that belonged to him.

    Luckily, Phil reached out to the Institute for Justice (IJ), and together we got back Phil’s life savings. But the fight is far from over; Phil’s story only highlights the urgent need to end civil forfeiture.

    An Unjust Practice 

    Civil forfeiture allows law enforcement to take and keep cash, cars and other property without ever charging someone with a crime. Before that fateful March day, Phil had never heard of civil forfeiture. He was just a musician driving through Wyoming to a show in Salt Lake City. Phil had big plans for his life savings, which he brought with him for safekeeping.

    He wanted to put a down payment on a historic music studio in Madison where bands like Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and Garbage recorded albums. Phil had dreams of opening up the recording studio to other bands and living in an apartment above.

    But Phil’s dream of owning the music studio came to a halt during a windy drive on I-80. Battling famous Wyoming wind, Phil was having a hard time staying in his lane. He was soon pulled over by Wyoming Highway Patrol for failing to signal a lane change. During the stop, the trooper detained Phil in the patrol car and aggressively questioned him about details of his trip. The questions were not even related to the reason for pulling Phil over.

    The trooper then circled Phil’s minivan with a drug-sniffing dog. After what appeared to be coaching with a tennis ball, the dog alerted to the van and provided the trooper with an excuse to search it. Neither the trooper nor other officers assisting him found anything illegal during the search. All they could find were Phil’s life savings stowed away inside a music speaker. Carrying cash is not a crime. But Phil had no way of knowing that. So, when the trooper implied that carrying cash was illegal, Phil—scared that he could be arrested—told the trooper that the money did not belong to him.

    Seizing on this opportunity, the officers provided Phil with a way out. If he were to sign a pre-printed waiver form “giving” Wyoming law enforcement the money that they just found, he would be free to go. Bizarrely, the waiver stated: “I . . . the owner of the property or currency described below, desire to give this property or currency, along with any and all interests and ownership that I may have in it, to the State of Wyoming, Division of Criminal Investigation, to be used for narcotics law enforcement purposes.” At least two states—Texas and Virginia—have banned law enforcement from using such roadside waivers to pressure motorists to sign away their property.

    One of the officers told Phil that if he signed the form, he would be free to go. And so, on the side of the road and with no attorney present, Phil signed the waiver. The officers wrote Phil a $25 ticket for not wearing his seatbelt and sent him on his way.

    The Upside-Down World of Civil Forfeiture 

    Four days after the traffic stop, Phil tried to revoke the waiver and get his money back, explaining what happened and asking to be notified of any court hearings. But Wyoming officials never sent Phil a notice regarding the court proceedings, even though they knew exactly where he lived and how to contact him.

    This is the upside-down world of civil forfeiture: it creates a perverse incentive for law enforcement to seize and keep as much property as possible. And even though Wyoming passed modest reforms last year, law enforcement found a way to dodge these reforms through the use of roadside waivers.

    Hours after IJ announced it was representing Phil, a state judge ordered the government to give back Phil’s money. The Wyoming Attorney General’s office quickly agreed to do so. This lack of serious objection on the part of the government is not surprising. Returning seized property when facing a major lawsuit is a common practice among law enforcement across the nation, and it only perpetuates civil forfeiture.

    By returning the property to those who are fortunate to find good representation, law enforcement is able to prevent a negative ruling that would chip away at civil forfeiture and thwarts the cushy revenue stream.

    As news about Phil’s fight with Wyoming law enforcement spread, it even reached the Wyoming state legislature, where a bipartisan group of lawmakers pledged to outlaw the use of roadside waivers to force law enforcement to comply with its recently-passed reforms. One of the legislators, Sen. Anthony Bouchard, went even further, saying that while the pledge is a good start, more has to be done to prevent civil forfeiture abuses.

    Even though Phil emerged victoriously, most victims of civil forfeiture are not as lucky. Only 14 states have completely abolished their civil forfeiture programs and Congress has struggled to pass any meaningful reforms.

    No American should lose property without being convicted of a crime. There will be no justice until Wyoming—and every state—abolishes civil forfeiture altogether.

    Anya Bidwell

     Anya Bidwell is an IJ attorney.

    This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.

  • Shining a light on police seizures, civil forfeitures

    Mississippi has some of the strongest protections in the country for private property rights. But those protections are shockingly lax when it comes to a little-known police practice called “civil forfeiture.”

    Unlike criminal forfeiture, which only allows the government to forfeit property after securing a criminal conviction, under civil forfeiture, property owners do not have to be convicted or even criminally charged to lose their property.

    Once a property has been forfeited and auctioned, law enforcement can keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds if just one agency investigated the case. If multiple agencies were involved, then agencies can retain all forfeiture proceeds. This creates a worrisome conflict of interest and may incentivize police to use this practice for their own financial gain.

    Even worse, Mississippi police and prosecutors are not required to track or report their seizure and forfeiture activity, which keeps the public in the dark.

    To shine a light on abuses of government power, state Rep. Chris Brown has proposed House Bill 1410, the “Asset Forfeiture Transparency Act.”  By a vote of 112 to 5, the House of Representatives voted in favor of the bill late last month.

    If enacted, the bill would require agencies to list all property seized under state or federal forfeiture laws and include a description of the seized property and its estimated value. If a property is ultimately forfeited to the government, agencies would have to disclose the amount of proceeds received from its sale. Crucially, HB 1410 would oblige agencies to list whether or not property owners were even charged with a crime as well as how the case was resolved (i.e. in acquittal, conviction, dropped charges or plea agreement). Closed forfeiture cases would also appear on a public, searchable website created and maintained by the Commissioner of Public Safety.

    The lack of transparency and accountability for Mississippi’s asset forfeiture laws can cause a breakdown of trust between police officers and the citizens whose rights they are sworn to serve and protect. The little information that has become public about civil forfeiture in Mississippi is troubling.

    In Richland, a town of 7,000 residents just south of Jackson, police built and paid for a $4.1 million police station entirely with civil forfeiture. Forfeiture funds also paid for “every patrol car in the Richland Police Department fleet,” as well as a “top-level training center,” Mississippi Watchdog reported. Of course, without proper disclosure requirements, there is no way of knowing how many of those individuals who had their property taken in Richland were even charged with a crime.

    The Washington Post investigated one federal forfeiture program and found that since 9/11, there have been nearly 400 cash seizures made by Mississippi agencies “without search warrants or indictments.” Although federal forfeiture data is largely wanting, the U.S. Department of Justice does keep track of how much an agency has collected through federal forfeiture, unlike current state law. Between 2000 and 2013, Mississippi law enforcement altogether received more than $47 million in forfeiture proceeds from the Justice Department, according to a recent report by the Institute for Justice.

    By passing HB 1410, Mississippi is poised to join a growing reform movement. Last year, new forfeiture transparency laws were enacted in several states. As of 2015, Montana, Nevada and New Mexico all now require criminal convictions as a prerequisite to forfeiture.

    Source: Shining a light on police seizures, civil forfeitures

  • Cops Now Take More Than Robbers

    One of the most troubling recent scenes from Sacramento came as the California state legislature reached the end of its session. A simple bill that would rein in abuses of the civil-asset forfeiture process—i.e., when police agencies take property from people, even if they’ve never been accused of a crime—came far short of passage after the law-enforcement lobby pulled out all the stops. The final vote was about money, not justice.

    Police organizations argued they would lose a significant amount of funding if a law passed requiring that they secure a conviction before taking property. They often take homes, cars and cash from people after claiming the property was used in the commission of a crime. They need only prove the low standard of “probable cause.” (For instance, one Anaheim couple almost lost a $1.5 million commercial building after an undercover cop bought $37 in marijuana from a tenant, but the feds dropped that case after bad publicity.)

    Created in the early days of the nation’s war on drugs, asset forfeiture was designed to grab the proceeds from drug kingpins. But most of the money now is grabbed from ordinary citizens. According to a study last year, about 80 percent of the time, seized property is taken from people who have never been charged with anything. That same study, by the Drug Policy Alliance, found wanton abuses in California cities. Police are not supposed to budget forfeiture proceeds, but they increasingly depend on the revenues to fund their operations.

    The study also found “multiple instances of cash grabs by law enforcement being incentivized over deterring drug sales, wherein police wait until a drug sale concludes and then seize the cash proceeds of the sale rather than the drugs, as drugs must be destroyed and are of no monetary value to law enforcement.” It also found that some Los Angeles County cities “were found to be prioritizing asset forfeiture over general public safety concerns … .” In other words, police skew their policing strategies around these lucrative takings.

    California’s law actually requires, in property seizures of more than $25,000, that the police agency gain a conviction and the legal standard requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt. California law-enforcement agencies don’t like that higher standard, so they circumvent the state law. They participate in something called “equitable sharing”—i.e., they invite the feds into their operation, take the property using the lower federal standard, and then split the loot.

    A new national study by the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based civil-liberties group, gave California a “C+” in its civil-forfeiture laws. That leads to an obvious question: Given the terrible problems documented in California, how bad must things be in other states? Only seven states had better protections than California and the preponderance of states received “D” grades.

    An economic consulting firm reported on data last week showing that the approximately $4.5 billion in annual forfeitures now exceeds the $3.9 billion Americans lose in robberies each year. The clear point: Your local police or sheriff’s department is more likely to take your stuff than a robber. The Institute for Justice report found the problem getting worse. “It’s exploding, despite the fact that the issue is getting a lot of attention,” said Dick Carpenter, one of the study’s authors. According to the report, forfeiture revenues have more than doubled between 2002 to 2013. California agencies collected approximately $280 million over the 11-year study period—and an additional $696 million by partnering with federal agencies.

    Source: Cops Now Take More Than Robbers – Reason.com