With a hearing scheduled for Thursday on the bill — deemed the Civil Asset Forfeiture Amendment Act — and an active class-action lawsuit pending, affected government agencies have refused to comment on the current and proposed laws at length.
Since initial requests for information last year, police have declined to make anyone available to discuss the civil forfeiture process, instead requiring written information requests for procedures and protocols. Once data was received from police through a Freedom of Information Act request, the department answered basic follow-up questions but referred substantive requests about the information to the D.C. office of the attorney general.
The office declined to comment, citing the ongoing and overlapping lawsuits involving civil forfeiture cases.
The data provided by police through the public records request offers insight about the scope and nature of the department’s civil forfeiture policies in practice.
Last year, the department seized 269 vehicles through the civil asset forfeiture. The majority of those vehicles — 167 — were seized in connection with drug-related offenses, most frequently possession with intent to distribute. Weapons charges also led to 32 vehicle seizures, with carrying a pistol without a license the most-cited criminal charge in those cases. Allegations as varied as a fraudulent registration, counterfeiting and driving under the influence also led to forfeiture proceedings.
The majority of those vehicles, as of March when police compiled the information, remained in police custody, with only 89 of the 269 vehicles released. In another 63 cases, bonds were paid but vehicles had not been released. Cars still being held range from a 2006 Lexus, for which a $2,500 bond was paid, to a 1997 Lincoln Continental with a $332 bond. Altogether, the department collected $34,079 in bonds paid last year.
“Cars are eventually released to the owner or auctioned and in very rare occasions, retained by the department for police operations,” police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump said in an email.
According to the police department, none of the 269 vehicles seized last year has been sold at auction, which is how the department reaps the financial benefits of the seizures. Court documents indicate that in prior years police have collected hundreds of thousands of dollars through civil forfeiture proceedings — another point the council legislation would address.
D.C. law states that proceeds shall be used to fund police law enforcement activities and any “remaining balance” used to fund drug treatment programs. Court records state that more than $350,000 collected in fiscal 2011 was deposited in a department-run account that funds drug education and rehabilitation but gave no indication of how much was directed back to law enforcement. Ms. Crump said proceeds are currently being directed to the city’s general fund but the D.C. Council bill would put that in writing, taking away the direct financial stake that the department has in the process.
One case resolved
Ms. Moreira eventually got her car back.
After paying a bond and hearing nothing for weeks, Mr. Moreira said the family was notified in August it could retrieve it from the police department’s impound lot at Blue Plains in Southwest D.C. — after the public defender had filed a lawsuit on her behalf. The family also was refunded the bond money.
“She was really happy and she was real thankful to have it back,” said Mr. Moreira, who went to the lot to pick up the car for his mother. “She had lost hope of ever getting the car back.”