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D.C. attorney general: Civil asset forfeiture bill could endanger profits

- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 11, 2013

The District's attorney general took issue Thursday with a bill that would redefine the way the police department seizes cars related to certain crimes, holds them and sells them for profit.

Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan told a D.C. Council committee considering a change to the District's civil asset forfeiture laws that proposed legislation could endanger millions of dollars in profits the police department receives through the federal forfeiture revenue-sharing program.

But the idea that police could be motivated to seize and sell vehicles disturbed the council member overseeing the hearing.

"Financial incentive is the one thing that gives people a little bit of heartburn," said D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat and chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety.

Over the past five years, Mr. Nathan said the Metropolitan Police Department has received more than $3.3 million through federal asset forfeiture — money paid by the federal government to local law-enforcement agencies for assistance in federal forfeiture cases. A separate analysis by the Institute for Justice indicates that from 2000 through 2012, the proceeds reaped from that federal sharing program totaled $8.2 million.

That money would be in jeopardy if the council passes a bill proposed by council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, that would dictate forfeiture proceeds be deposited in the city's general fund. Federal law requires forfeiture funds be used solely by law enforcement.

"This threatens to conflict with federal law and policy as applied to the many cases when the U.S. attorney's office brings forfeiture claims in D.C. courts and would be costly to the District," Mr. Nathan said.

Referencing laws passed in Oregon and Utah, where federal forfeiture proceeds were directed to be spent on non-law enforcement expenses, Mr. Nathan said the federal government stopped sharing proceeds as a result. He feared the same could happen in the District.

Funds the District has collected through its own forfeiture proceedings would not be at risk. The Institute of Justice estimates the District collected nearly $4.8 million from 2010 to 2012. About $2.5 million of that came from the value of vehicles and $2.2 million from currency that was forfeited.

The civil asset forfeiture process as a whole has come under scrutiny after a series of lawsuits filed by the Public Defender Service on behalf of hundreds of vehicle owners who have had their property seized and say they have no fair way to challenge the seizures.

Mr. Nathan conceded that, under the current system, vehicle owners are not always being afforded due process, but he criticized the proposed council bill, saying it was overbroad.

"That is the goal, as I read it, of the draftees is to eliminate forfeitures — and that is a mistake," he said.

Instead, he submitted his own draft legislation to the committee, which for the first time would establish firm timelines to address the delay vehicle owners now face when they try to reclaim seized property.

Under the current system, vehicle owners must pay a bond — often 10 percent of the value of the vehicle — just to request a hearing to challenge the police department's seizure of the car. But there is no time frame for a hearing to be held, and vehicle owners often wait months without results.

Mr. Nathan's proposal would grant vehicle owners a preliminary hearing before an administrative law judge. The hearing would not require a bond. Hearings would be held within 7 to 12 business days of a request being made, and judges would have five days to issue a decision.

Police also revealed at the hearing that the department recently took one step to shorten the potential wait time for owners hoping to reunite with their seized vehicles.

Beginning Tuesday, a policy took effect that requires property clerks to review cases in which cars were seized after 10 days rather than 60 days to determine if they are still going to pursue forfeiture in those cases.

Police are also re-evaluating the types of cases in which vehicles are being seized.

"Beyond tightening the number of vehicles we are taking in, we have greater scrutiny by officials — particularly the asset forfeiture unit," Assistant Chief Patrick Burke said.

Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that a bond would be required for an administrative hearing. The error has been corrected.

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