Monday, January 18, 2016

Prosecutors, concerned that an easy revenue stream is being foreclosed, have started a propaganda campaign to protect it.

As absurd as that sentence sounds, that is exactly what State’s Attorney Joseph Cassily wrote in the Baltimore Sun’s op-ed page in opposition to an over-ride of Governor Hogan's veto on a civil forfeiture reform bill.

Cassily’s focus on street-level drug dealers is a distraction from the way asset forfeiture actually works. Police just take property and the police department and District Attorney’s office liquidate it and keep it. That's the process. There’s no guarantee that the people who had their property seized were even suspected of a crime, and if they want their property back, they have to go to court themselves, at their own expense, and prove that the property was never involved in any criminal activity.

The legislature’s vetoed, but up for override, prohibition on seizing amounts of less than three hundred dollars is intended to eliminate the practice of seizing assets on the tactical consideration that the victim will not attempt to recover them. Because all of the expenses of taking the issue to court are entirely borne by the person who’s property as taken, seizing small-value property insures that police and prosecutors have a reliable and unaccountable revenue stream.

What’s more, police could seize and hold any asset related to drug-dealing as evidence, charge the suspect, convict him, and seize those assets after conviction no matter what happens to the legislation, as it applies only to civil, not criminal forfeiture. The legislation simply requires that the property is returned to the owner within a certain timeframe if the owner is not charged with a crime. Currently, the police can take it, seize it, and pocket it without bringing any charges or making any accusations against anyone.

The second part of the legislation does not prevent Maryland’s police from acting on information or co-operating with Federal law enforcement. That is a flat lie. What it does it prohibit the practice in other states with restrictions on civil forfeiture - local police bring along a single officer from a Federal law enforcement agency who makes all the seizures in the name of his Federal agency, who then turns over the property to the state agency, sometimes (but not always) taking a cut for his own agency for his trouble. This allows police to defeat the restriction on their authority while still seizing assets effectively at-will.

Cassily is right that it doesn’t matter how the money is spent, just like it doesn’t matter if a burglar spends his stolen money on himself or charity. The issue is that the government has no legitimate claim to the money. It can be seized simply because the costs to get it back exceed the value of the property. This year, civil forfeiture proceeds now exceed the amount stolen by burglars!

Civil forfeiture does not require police to arrest anyone, charge anyone, or even accuse anyone. It only requires police to claim “upon training and experience I suspect the property has been involved in crime.”

At a minimum, we can prohibit police from acting like schoolyard bullies and stealing people’s lunch money.
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