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.

Filed Under: asset forfeiture, police, seizure, washington dc


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  1. icon
    Coyne Tibbets (profile), 9 Dec 2014 @ 2:07pm

    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.

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