Judge Rips Drug Task Force For Going On Asset Forfeiture 'Shopping Sprees'

from the tough-to-tell-who-the-real-criminals-are-in-this-case dept

A Pennsylvania judge has delivered an earful to the York County Drug Task Force and its handling of property forfeitures. Christopher Hawkins, represented by Korey Leslie (who was kind enough to email me the ruling the York Dispatch couldn't be bothered to post with its article), challenged the seizure of two vehicles and a bunch of electronics from his house. Hawkins was arrested after a controlled heroin purchase. There appears to be no question Hawkins participated in drug dealing. But that doesn't excuse the government's decision to take two cars and some TVs from him as "evidence."

Judge Craig T. Trebilcock doesn't like anything about the Task Force's seizures, since it appears to be more concerned with taking things with resale value, rather than property with an actual nexus to drug distribution. The opinion [PDF] repeatedly calls Task Force detectives out for their lack of credibility and the dollar signs continually dancing in their eyes. The Task Force originally seized four vehicles from Hawkins before returning two of them for a lack of drug nexus. But it still couldn't connect the two it kept.

Detective S. testified that the Dodge Neon and the Mercedes were kept by the police because "we thought there was clear and convincing nexus between drugs and those vehicles" However, no credible facts were provided by Detective S. to substantiate these conclusions. During cross examination. Detective S. indicated the vehicles did not play any role in the drug transactions on the 22nd or 23rd.

The only thing Detective S. offered as evidence of this drug nexus was a statement by Hawkins that he used the Mercedes to "meet people for money primary for drugs." But, as the court notes, this statement was not corroborated by any other detectives involved in the arrest and seizure, nor was it recorded in any fashion. The court, however, knows exactly why these two vehicles were seized, even if the Task Force members won't admit it.

Detective S. testified that there was no lien on either the Neon or Mercedes Benz, the apparent sole distinguishing factor as to why they were seized, instead of the other vehicles.

The detectives also couldn't offer a good explanation for the seizure of two flatscreen TVs from the house. One claimed Hawkins wasn't working, so he couldn't have purchased them with legal funds. Again, the court points out Hawkins offered proof of his employment with a temp agency and lived with his girlfriend, who had a full-time job. And again, the court knows the Task Force just took the TVs because it thought it could turn them into cash quickly.

[T]here was no factual evidence to support the conclusion that Mr. Hawkins (or another resident) could not legitimately afford a television being present in his home. The task force seized the property simply because it had resale value.

The judge also calls out the perverse incentives that have led to the task force appearing before him repeatedly to forfeit televisions, video game systems, and vehicles -- all without making much of an effort to tie these items to illegal activity.

Forfeitures… result in additional income streams to the very officers seizing the property, a source of concern to this Court.

The court notes that the state's forfeiture laws are Constitutionally sound. But not when they're applied the way the York County Task Force applies them. The court says the task force engages in "arbitrary" seizures that violate citizens' due process rights. Then Judge Trebilcock hammers the point home:

This case is being decided on the facts of this case alone. It is important to note, however, that overzealous forfeiture actions by the Drug Task Force in the time frame of this case have not been isolated in nature. Dozens of forfeiture actions are brought before this court each year. While the property seized may vary from case to case, with some cases involving automobile, firearms or other property, a disconcerting pattern is evident that Drug Task Force officers seize big screen TVs that are present in the property regardless of any link to drug money or illegal activity. In addition, they disproportionately seize all game systems and video games, present in the property. The decision as to which property to seize is driven, in the words of Detective S., by which property has resale value.

The Drug Task Force does not seize furniture or clothing, silverware, or other items that have low resale value. They focus upon items that have high resale value. That is not a problem in itself, until the police begin to ignore that there must be a nexus to drug dealing or drug money to seize those higher high value assets. [...] In this case the Drug Task Force personnel ignored the need for such a nexus and engaged in a shopping spree, for the benefit of their budget, based solely on the property's resale value.

The court goes even further than this. It suggests the Drug Task Force also uses these seizures to coerce confessions or plea deals from defendants. It says it may not have happened in this case, but the court is sure it has happened in the past. Going forward, the York Drug Task Force will be under the microscope every time it tries to forfeit property.

[I]n the absence of reform and a greater demonstration of responsibility in future Drug Task Force practices, this issue will remain to be decided to the voluntariness of plea deals, questions of double jeopardy, and the personal or institutional liability/culpability of those officers who seize private property unlawfully.

In the future, Trebilcock's court will also be requiring hearings for all forfeiture -- hearings that defendants will be allowed to attend and testify at on their own behalf, even if they're currently incarcerated. Trebilcock signs off his scathing opinion with this:

Taken in its entirety, the testimony of the officers in this case indicates that the police made the subjective assessment that the Defendant is too poor, absent drug dealing, to have nice possessions. This was nothing more than a hunch, unsupported by any investigative rigor, and clouded by an overzealous desire to forfeit the possessions.

Not enough judges are willing to go this far when criticizing law enforcement's abusive practices. This probably won't result in a come-to-Jesus moment for the Task Force, unfortunately. It may decide these drug cases now have a federal nexus and ask Uncle Sam to help them keep robbing people. But at least they know they're no longer welcome to pull this bullshit in Trebilcock's court, so it's a start.

Filed Under: asset forfeiture, christopher hawkins, pennsylvania


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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 3 Apr 2019 @ 8:32pm

    Dumb criminals go to jail. Smart criminals get a badge

    The decision as to which property to seize is driven, in the words of Detective S., by which property has resale value.

    I mean, points for being a (temporarily) honest scumbag I guess? That or arrogant enough that he figured that even an admission like that wouldn't stop the gravy train, and while they're under more scrutiny they do still have the ability to rob people blind, so if it is the latter it would seem it was not misplaced confidence.

    Conviction requirement of the owner with an ironclad link between crime and individual property, and not one cent going to the department/individuals that make the seizure, with all proceeds going to the public defenders' office as an added bonus to their budget. Change those two things and robberies at badgepoint like this would plummet, I've no doubt.

    After all, if they can't profit then what's the point?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 4 Apr 2019 @ 6:59am

      Re: Dumb criminals go to jail. Smart criminals get a badge

      "Conviction requirement of the owner with an ironclad link between crime and individual property, and not one cent going to the department/individuals that make the seizure, with all proceeds going to the public defenders' office as an added bonus to their budget. Change those two things and robberies at badgepoint like this would plummet, I've no doubt."

      That has to happen at both the federal and state levels in order to be truly effective.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        That One Guy (profile), 4 Apr 2019 @ 12:28pm

        Re: Re: Dumb criminals go to jail. Smart criminals get a badge

        Given I was thinking that it be changed to the default rules(you know, what it should have always been), yeah, that's about what I was thinking.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    John Smith, 3 Apr 2019 @ 11:10pm

    Sounds like Masnick is getting scared that his lawyer buddies are getting investigated, which is why he has to run clickbait that criticizes the police coming for his ass.

    Investigations are ongoing. Names will drop, and heads will roll. Pirates celebrate Ken White because he carries a grudge against copyright enforcement, but once Section 230 is destroyed he and his snark ass mouth will have hell to pay. Just you wait.

    How do I know this? This isn't the platform to tell you how and when it's coming. But I will let you in on a little secret, the human body can go for seven minutes without oxygen while fighting the gag reflex.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 4 Apr 2019 @ 1:33am

      Re:

      "Investigations are ongoing."

      Cool. When . it gets to documents being filed publicly, can you link to them here?

      I mean, I doubt you're that honest or that you'll even get that far. But, it should provide comedy gold comparing what you claim to your lawyers was said and what was actually said.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Dave P., 4 Apr 2019 @ 10:47am

      Re:

      Twaddle, once again, from a pig-ignorant troll. I don't believe the article was actually about copyright issues, so somewhat off-topic. Take your screaming and ranting elsewhere.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 4 Apr 2019 @ 11:38am

      Re:

      Which corporations cock were you sucking when you tested your gag reflex? AT&T, Comcast??? Concerned citizens want to know...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    christenson, 4 Apr 2019 @ 12:09am

    Hi Blue!

    Funny, stories of asset forfeiture abuse and the thin blue line have abounded on Techdirt since long before your first comment.
    Are you one of the smart criminals with a badge???

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 4 Apr 2019 @ 12:32am

      Re: Hi Blue!

      Eh, I wouldn't overthink it, they're nothing more than an impotent blowhard.

      Little better than a toothless poodle with all yap and no bite, if they were even a fraction of a fraction as powerful, believable, or credible as they want people to think they are they'd be the most successful person in existence, rather than nothing more than a pathetic troll providing laughs at their expense, stress-testing of the flagging system, and easy practice for people to hone their arguments on.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      David, 4 Apr 2019 @ 2:44am

      Re: Hi Blue!

      Are you one of the smart criminals with a badge???

      Let's not invent mythical beasts here.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Nathan F (profile), 4 Apr 2019 @ 6:36am

    As much as I applaud Judge Trebilcock for his actions and stance, this just means the Task Force will shop around for a different Judge (unless the county is so small as to not have another Judge the cases can be brought before). Here is hoping that more Judges around the country start taking this stance.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    AnonyCog, 4 Apr 2019 @ 6:40am

    White privilege is being able to tax those poorer than you into homelessness and prison.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 4 Apr 2019 @ 10:42am

      Re:

      You've mistake the privilege of the 1% with white privilege. The skin color of those in power has nothing to do with how they use that power.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 4 Apr 2019 @ 12:40pm

        Re: Re:

        Sure it does, but i will guess that the power privilege probably outweighs white privilege by a substantial margin here, although i doubt it is insignificant. (Also, doubt the cops here are the 1%, or that the forfeiture actions are more than very indirectly tied to the desires of the 1%.) Those privileges are intersectional. That's a thing, no matter how many people like to mock this insanely simple and obvious concept.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Apr 2019 @ 6:53am

    Judge Trebilcock will either meet a tragic or criminal end to his career, He just pissed of a lot of powerful people with the means to do something about it.

    After all, a message needs to be sent to other Judges that this type of revenue interference will not be tolerated.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Apr 2019 @ 10:22am

    No lien

    Detective S. testified that there was no lien on either the Neon or Mercedes Benz, the apparent sole distinguishing factor as to why they were seized, instead of the other vehicles.

    It might be worth spelling out why that's relevant: any such lien would likely be held by a large finance company with good lawyers, who would certainly sue whoever deprived them of their property. Turns out Hawkins got a decent lawyer too, but the cops weren't expecting that.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Apr 2019 @ 8:55pm

    Someone high up in the government will probably oust this Judge down the road..

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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