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.
As in Ms. Moreira's case, owners may not know illegal items are in their vehicles or even be in possession of their vehicles at the time police make the seizures.
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.
The Public Defender Service declined to discuss Ms. Moreira's case or four other lawsuits, including the class-action lawsuit, that it has filed.
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.
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."
After all those months of sitting in the impound lot, the Honda needed a new battery to get running, but Mr. Moreira was eventually able to return it to his mother.
She's now back to her old routine of driving it to her job as a maintenance worker at Trinity Washington University in the mornings, returning home for a break in the afternoons, and then commuting to her part-time night job as a cleaning woman at the U.S. Treasury Department.
Speaking through her son as an interpreter, Ms. Moreira said her experience should show that the forfeiture process should be changed.
"There should be some sort of investigation on the matter for why the car was taken away," Mr. Moreira said. "She's worked too hard for them to keep something that she sacrificed a portion of her life for."
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