Arizona Law Enforcement Charging Innocent Car Owners $2,000 To Reclaim Their Wrongfully-Seized Vehicles
from the a-victor-even-in-defeat dept
If you'd like some more evidence on how civil asset forfeiture has become legalized theft, you need only look at this investigative report by Curt Prendergast for Tuscon.com. Not only is it extremely easy for the government to claim assets are tied to criminal activity, but the obstacles placed in front of individuals to reclaim seized assets are numerous and expensive to navigate -- sometimes outweighing the value of the items seized.
On top of that, even when the state loses, it still wins. Arizona residents who have seen their vehicles seized for extremely tenuous connections to criminal activity are still forced to pay an incredible amount of money to reclaim items the state has agreed to return to their owners.
The fortunes of a local woman took a disastrous turn when she loaned her car to her son so he could take her granddaughter to school.
Her son was arrested on suspicion of credit-card fraud in Oro Valley and police seized the woman’s orange 2005 Mini Cooper, which she said in court documents she needed to drive to her $14-an-hour job at Red Lobster.
She hired a lawyer — the court does not provide lawyers in civil matters — to challenge the seizure and subsequent forfeiture proceedings. Authorities agreed on July 7 to return her car, but first she had to pay $2,000 into the Pima County Anti-Racketeering Fund, with $1,500 going to Oro Valley police and $500 to the County Attorney’s Office.
The state is the only entity allowed to engage in racketeering, apparently. Someone has to make sure all of these agencies who have already penciled in expected seizures on theirs annual budgets can still hit their numbers. Even if the government withdraws its claim on an asset, every agency with its hand out still needs a cut of the bogus take.
This case isn't an anomaly. It's standard operating procedure in Arizona when the government decides to "return" a vehicle.
Attorney Rogers, who represented a man who loaned his 2002 BMW to a friend arrested for selling drugs, said the case was typical and ended with a compromise in which his client agreed to pay $1,500 to the multi-agency Counter Narcotics Alliance and $500 to the County Attorney’s Office, as well as $190 in storage and towing fees.
Officers seized a 2013 Toyota Corolla in August 2015 at an illegal marijuana grow site in Tucson. The owner of the car said he let his son, who was arrested at the grow site, use the car, but that he had no knowledge of the grow site. His son’s name was on the registration, but the father said his son did not pay for the car in any way.
Prosecutors agreed to return the car in February in exchange for $3,431 and $316 in storage and towing fees. The Counter Narcotics Alliance received $2,573 and the County Attorney’s Office received $858.
As can be ascertained by these stories, there's no innocent third-party defense available to people whose vehicles have been used for criminal activity while not in their direct control. If you loan a vehicle to someone, you're directly responsible for their actions while using it. The local district attorney claims -- in comments to Prendergast -- that there were no "innocent" parties here… or possibly ever. This ensures a steady flow of ~$2,000 payments by unfortunate car owners in exchange for the full release of their vehicle by the agency performing the seizure.
Not that there's any shortage of seized vehicles. The county attorney's annual list of "significant accomplishments" always includes the dollar amount of seized assets, as though the abuse of a process meant to deter criminal activity still means something when it's used to separate innocent car owners from their vehicles. Presumably this dollar amount also includes payments resulting from the government's relinquishment of a person's vehicle -- but not its apparent entitlement to a hefty payout in exchange for returning belongings to their rightful owners.
Prendergast notes that the attorney's office tracks every vehicle it seizes. It's not quite as enthusiastic about providing information on the number of vehicles it's returned to owners at $2,000/per.
There's a reason the forfeiture process is largely opaque. It does law enforcement agencies no favors when citizens find out they're viewed more as revenue streams than people with rights and property.
[W]hat began as a means to a laudable end has, in many instances, become the end itself, where law enforcement authorities appear to focus more on forfeiting money and property than catching and convicting criminals. The reason for this is the perverse profit incentive built into civil forfeiture law: Much, if not all, of the proceeds of successful forfeiture cases are retained by the agencies that do the initial seizing, providing them with a funding mechanism that is totally outside the normal legislative appropriations and oversight process. Police and sheriff’s departments and prosecutors’ offices often end up having a significant budgetary stake in the outcome of forfeiture cases and of the process in general. Indeed, a deputy sheriff in Kane County, Illinois, wrote in a training book that “[a]ll of our home towns are sitting on a tax-liberating gold mine.”
And what a gold mine it is. When the government can cushion its losses with a $2,000 fees, there's nothing discouraging law enforcement agencies from seizing everything they can get their hands on, no matter how tenuous the connection to criminal activity.