D.C. lawmakers are pushing forward with legislation to reform policies allowing police to seize property from people they stop, regardless of whether criminal charges are ever filed — a practice called civil asset forfeiture that is facing increasing scrutiny nationwide.
Among the changes, the D.C. Council has proposed diverting profits from seizures into the city’s general fund instead of letting the police department keep and spend the money, reducing the appearance that officers have an incentive to take cash or cars.
City lawmakers will vote for the first time Tuesday on the reform proposal, which would establish protocols for notifying owners of the status of their property and the manner in which they can contest a seizure.
Under current law, D.C. police are allowed, for example, to take vehicles and everything in them if they are suspected of being connected to a crime, such as transporting illegal items like drugs or guns. In many cases, the cars are required to be forfeited and the goods can be held indefinitely or sold at auction even if no charges are filed or they don’t belong to the people from whose possession they were taken.
Examples of civil asset forfeiture across the country in recent years have elicited shock from lawmakers and citizens surprised to discover the low bar police must meet and how government agencies profit from the process.
In Iowa last year, state troopers seized more than $100,000 from two professional gamblers who were transporting their winnings home when they were pulled over — allegedly for failing to signal when changing lanes. A Texas district attorney got into hot water in 2005 after it was revealed that he spent money from a forfeiture account to buy alcohol and a margarita machine for a party.
In July, Sen. Rand Paul introduced a bill to address the issue at the federal level. The Kentucky Republican’s Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration, or FAIR, Act would make forfeitures more difficult and redirect profits federal law enforcement agencies make from them into the treasury’s general fund rather than an account controlled by the attorney general’s office.
The practice has come under scrutiny in the District, where a council committee report disclosed that police budgets into the next four years rely in part on revenue the department expects to accrue from a federal partnership with the Justice Department called the Equitable Sharing Program.
The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department collects about $30,000 annually from its local asset forfeiture program and another $670,000 through the federal forfeiture program, which allows local departments to reap up to 80 percent of the proceeds of cases they work in conjunction with federal investigators.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said Monday that the bill under consideration is likely to be amended, but that he doubted the council would seek to stop it.
“My sense is that the council will support reforming the civil asset forfeiture process. Any discussion is in regard to the details,” Mr. Mendelson said.
The Public Defender Service for the District filed a class-action lawsuit in May 2013 against the city, arguing that forfeiture laws violated the Fifth Amendment rights of hundreds of individuals who had property seized by police.
Property owners are supposed to be allowed an opportunity to challenge the seizure of their goods, but in its lawsuit the public defender service said that was not happening.
The D.C. Council’s proposal, introduced in January 2013 by council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, would create a timeline for the asset forfeiture process and would require the District to inform owners within 10 business days of a seizure that the city was seeking forfeiture of property.
After receiving the notice, the property owner then would be able to contest the forfeiture or seek to recover the property in the interim through a court hearing.
“We’re hopeful that it will serve as a blueprint for other jurisdictions across the country that recognize that the perverse profit incentive fueling civil forfeiture is turning our nation’s cops into robbers,” said Darpana Sheth, an attorney at the Arlington-based Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that has fought for reform of forfeiture laws.
Currently, property owners are required to pay a bond — typically 10 percent of the property’s worth — to challenge a police seizure, but there is no set time frame for when a challenge will be heard.
In a case highlighted last year in The Washington Times, a D.C. woman paid a bond of $1,020 but still had to wait five months to get her car back after police stopped her son while he was driving her 2005 Honda Accord and discovered he was carrying an illegal gun.
In the nearly two years since the measure was introduced, D.C. police placed a moratorium on the sale of vehicles seized by officers through civil asset forfeiture. Police also updated their general orders on the topic, requiring an officer seeking to seize property to get authorization from a supervisor before doing so.
Because the police department has budgeted funds it expects to receive as a result of its participation in the federal program for the next four years, the measure would hold off on diverting profits from those seizures until fiscal 2019.
At that point, city officials would be forced to forgo the funds because the federal program directs that the money be dedicated to a law enforcement fund.
As the city’s attorney general, Irvin B. Nathan opposed an initial version of the bill on the grounds that it would stop the city from collecting millions of dollars it gets through its participation in the federal partnership. His office declined to comment on the latest version of the bill, which was approved in a markup hearing Wednesday by the council’s Committee on the Judiciary.
“Overall, the department supports the goals of the bill,” Metropolitan Police Department spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump said. “We know this has been getting a lot of attention nationally, and we agree that there have been troubling practices around the country. These programs must have strong oversight and supervision.”