Washington DC Council Moves To Protect Its Citizens From Its Cops, Passes Asset Forfeiture Overhaul Bill

from the The-Man-sticks-it-to-The-(other)-Man! dept

Federal guidelines on asset forfeiture say law enforcement agencies “may not commit” to spending figures in advance, but that hasn’t stopped the Washington, DC police department from doing exactly that. As we covered here recently, the DC police have penciled in expected seizure amounts all the way up through 2018. All that’s left to do is meet the budget and if it means making a whole lot of small-time seizures to hit those dollar amounts, so be it. It takes a perverse incentive and makes it even more perverse, turning citizens into ATMs for drug interdiction agents.

Fortunately, the Washington, DC council has just passed a bill that neuters many of these incentives and hopefully, the attendant perversity as well.

The Civil Asset Forfeiture Amendment Act of 2014 stabs at the heart of what makes civil forfeiture so potentially corrupting: Letting cops and prosecutors keep what they forfeit creates “at best, the appearance of a conflict of interest, and at worst, an unchecked incentive for slush funds,” remarked Councilman Tommy Wells, who authored the reform. If the bill becomes law, Washington, D.C. would join just eight states that ban policing for profit. Rather than padding law enforcement budgets, any revenue generated with civil forfeiture instead would be deposited into the general fund.

The bill also stitches up law enforcement’s favorite loophole: equitable sharing partnerships with the federal government. By cutting in Uncle Sam, law enforcement agencies can split the proceeds with the federal government, thus bypassing any state requirements that send forfeiture proceeds to a general fund.

In addition, the bill sets other limits. Vehicles may not be seized unless “clear and convincing evidence” exists that they were used in the commission of a crime. Cash amounts under $1,000 would be presumed “innocent,” i.e., not subject to forfeiture. This stipulation cuts to the heart of the DC PD’s abuse of asset forfeiture — more than half of its $5.5 million in cash seizures were for less than $141, with over 1,000 of the 12,000 seizures being for less than $20.

DC residents’ homes will also be safer. No longer will the property be presumed guilty. It will take an actual conviction before a residence can be seized.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the law would allow the DC police to ride out its current string of pre-budgeted forfeitures.

[T]he District’s reform would not take place until fiscal year 2019, since MPD has already budgeted $670,000 a year in equitable-sharing revenue for a special police fund. Both the Institute for Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union urged the council to “immediately stop this conflict of interest” and ban District police from keeping equitable-sharing funds at once. Ultimately, that effort ultimately did not go through.

The DC police department still has four years to abuse the law as it stands today — possibly longer if the mayor refuses to sign the bill. The reform measures included should be standardized across the nation as they are a significant step up from many existing state forfeiture laws.

But this isn’t necessarily a panacea. There’s still enough wiggle room within the reform bill to allow bad things to happen to good people. The $1,000 floor will bring an end to the PD’s petty theft efforts, but still puts those who don’t — or can’t — bank at risk. People doing nothing more than attempting to pay rent may find themselves coughing up this “suspicious” money to the DC PD. And while requiring evidence and/or convictions before seizing property just makes sense, this could still result in relatives of those criminally charged losing their homes or vehicles simply because the suspect drove the car once or stayed a few nights at the house in question.

Overall, though, it’s about as good as anyone should expect, given the imperfections of the legal system and humanity’s natural knack for exploiting systems for personal gain. And it’s more than a little sad that we’ve gotten to the point where the government has to step in and protect its employers (the citizens) from other government employees.

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Comments on “Washington DC Council Moves To Protect Its Citizens From Its Cops, Passes Asset Forfeiture Overhaul Bill”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Nice priorities

So armed robbery at badge point is a serious issue in dire need of reigning in… but not until the budgets that include funding from said armed robbery have been carried through, because actually doing something about the problem before five years have passed would just be terribly rude to those that put those budgets together I suppose.

Good to know they’re serious about tackling the issue in a timely manner, and before it affects hundreds, if not thousands of people more than it already has. /s

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Lovely… and I’d forgotten about the fact that they could use this as an excuse for police to refuse to use body cameras on the grounds that they would risk intruding on the privacy of citizens, even in public.

Visit the Land of Lincoln, where only 4 of our last 7 Governors have been sent to prison! (That’s pretty good, right?)

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Given how insanely difficult it is to hold a politician accountable for their actions, no matter how bad they are, I’ve got to say, to even have one governor sent to prison is impressive, but four? I cannot imagine how bad they must have been to make the courts willing to actually take on a governor, several of them at that.

Also, just had a random thought after reading your comment, tied to bodycams and the fact that so many police departments seem to be allergic to them: Tie the issue of bodycams to something the police absolutely would not be willing to give up.

First thought: Their sidearms. If they’re not wearing a bodycam, then they’re not issued a pistol, non-lethal tools only. No excuses, no exceptions. No bodycam = no gun.

Any cop found with a gun but no bodycam would be treated the exact same way a civilian found carrying without a gun license and concealed carry permit would be.

mcinsand (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: requiring bodycams if armed

>First thought: Their sidearms. If they’re not wearing a
>>bodycam, then they’re not issued a pistol, non-lethal
>>tools only. No excuses, no exceptions. No bodycam = no

A couple of things here. I see a loophole in that having a bodycam on your person does not mean that you are recording your actions. I would add a requirement that, if a sidearm is removed without the camera actively recording, then the officer is open to disciplinary and possibly criminal reprisal.

>>they’re not issued a pistol, non-lethal
>>tools only.

Actually, this raises a point with a built-in flawed assumption that non-firearm equals non-lethal. Hell’s Angels in California preferred ball-peen hammers. I remember Chicago discussing registration of baseball bats in the 1990’s as they became the weapon of choice for gangs. And let’s not forget the NY police actions with a broomstick.

With those thoughts in mind, maybe not having a functioning, active bodycam on the officer’s person should be cause for disciplinary action, even if everything else about an arrest or other activity is legitimate.

Oblate (profile) says:

2019? This gives the police and pols plenty of time to play

Four years out? I expect this to be repealed and reinstated a few times before then, probably pushed back each time. This gives the politicians something to campaign on, i.e. “I voted for (eventual) police reform, vote for me…”, while not accomplishing anything that actually reforms the police or helps the citizens of DC. If they wanted to help the citizens of DC, they would make this effective immediately, and force the DC police to revert to their traditional method of obtaining funding: fraudulent parking tickets.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

In other words

[T]he District’s reform would not take place until fiscal year 2019, since MPD has already budgeted $670,000 a year in equitable-sharing revenue for a special police fund.

In other words, what the cops have been doing is wrong and violates guidelines, so it has to stop. But since they already developed budgets expecting this illicit source of funds, we can’t possibly put a stop to it.

This is institutionalized corruption and double-speak at its finest.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: In other words

This is institutionalized corruption and double-speak at its finest.

No, this is:

Federal guidelines on asset forfeiture say law enforcement agencies “may not commit” to spending figures in advance

How can they allow this to continue for four more years when it’s not allowed in the first place, never should have even started, and should have resulted in sanctions on the first instance?

This is armed robbery, plain and simple.

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Replacement cash?

$670,000 per year? The council must not be very serious about fixing this problem, because surely they could come up with that amount for replacement, for the next 4 years.

This is a lack of commitment that does not bode well for 2019. Where will they come up with $670,000/year then? Won’t it be easier to just relax the rules on forfeiture again?

All in all, this seems like pure posturing. It should not surprise anyone if these improvements are quietly repealed sometime during the next 4 years.

Anonymous Coward says:

What happens if a cop accidentally arrests someone (perhaps on an outstanding warrant discovered during a traffic stop) that turns out to have been on the way to be the money courier in some sort of shady deal? The courier failing to show up alerts the other guys, they scatter, no one else gets caught, and no money is seized.

Did the cop who made the arrest steal state funds? At the very least, he destroyed budgeted money.

Mr.Lincolon says:


Police have no CONSTITUTIONAL DUTY to protect YOU!

From The Movie “In Search Of The Second Amendment.”What you have to understand is that they are not here to protect you or anyone else but themselves.That is why if someone steals your property (Car,Money,Etc..) You can’t sue them because they failed to protect it-THEY OWE YOU NO DUTY!! That is why you can’t find the WORD Police anywhere in the Constitution. Look at 911- The “Constitution” says they are here to protect us and our Rights-yet they come right out and say “we can’t be sued for 911” because they don’t have a duty to protect. Plain and simple folks, we have been hoodwinked one more time.



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