Nelly Moreira was not there the night D.C. police seized her car. But every day for seven months she felt the loss as she commuted by bus to two jobs, all the while making payments on a 2005 Honda Accord she wasn’t sure she’d ever see again.
Officers took the vehicle in March 2012, after pulling over her son a few blocks from their Columbia Heights home and finding an unregistered gun tucked in his waistband.
“They said the car was going to be taken for evidence,” said 22-year-old Isaias Moreira, on behalf of his 52-year-old mother, who speaks limited English. “But from there the car practically went missing.”
Two months after his arrest, Mr. Moreira pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge. But the car wasn’t returned. Through a process called civil asset forfeiture, the Metropolitan Police Department is within its rights take a car suspected of being used in commission with certain crimes and sell it for profit — even if charges are not filed or upheld in court.
The process has played out hundreds of times in the District, with effects so far reaching that the Public Defender Service has filed a class-action lawsuit against the city. The lawsuit, filed in May, alleges that at least 375 other vehicles are being held similarly to Ms. Moreira’s by the police department in violation of due process rights afforded by the Fifth Amendment.
How it works
Current law allows D.C. police to seize vehicles when they are being used to transport illegal items, most often drugs and guns. Cash, drugs, paraphernalia and other items can also be seized.
Police have a financial stake in the process. The department is allowed to keep money it seizes or collect the proceeds from the sale of property.
Owners are supposed to be allowed an opportunity to challenge the seizure of their vehicles. But according to lawsuits filed by the public defender, that isn’t happening. The payment of a “bond,” typically 10 percent of the value of the seized item, is required before a hearing will be held on the matter. In Ms. Moreira’s case, the bond was $1,020 — a sizable amount she had to borrow from friends.
Although the law “requires the District to begin proceedings ‘promptly’ if a person pays the required amount, in practice, there is nothing prompt about the District’s actions,” wrote the Public Defender Service in a class-action lawsuit filed in May. “In most cases, nothing happens for months even after the ‘penal sum’ is paid.”
There is also no guarantee the money or the car will ever be returned.
A legislative solution
A bill proposed by D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, and Chairman Phil Mendelson, would address a number of issues outlined in the lawsuits brought by the Public Defender Service. In addition to eliminating the bond altogether, it would also establish a firm timeline for proceedings, forcing the government to take action within 30 days in cases in which police still have the property but an owner has filed to reclaim it.