There is more than your freedom and liberty at stake if and when you are hauled off to jail.
You could lose your cars or boats, your house or other real property, and you could lose your cash, clothes and jewelry.
To paraphrase the late godfather of go-go music, Chuck Brown, “cash is the best” when police and prosecutors seem out to get you.
Fortunately, lawmakers are trying to stop police and the criminal justice system from profiting from ill-gotten assets.
The D.C. legislature is scheduled to vote on a civil forfeiture reform bill Tuesday, and Congress already has a reform measure in the works.
The D.C. Council bill doesn’t appear to resemble a first-in-the-nation effort, but it does propose taking even the appearance of police-for-profit incentives by at least plopping revenues from forfeitures into the general fund instead of police coffers. That one change means all agency chiefs would be scrambling like crabs in a barrel to get their hands on the money and the goods.
It also means the Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser and Attorney General-elect Karl Racine would have to implement changes. So let’s hope the proposal doesn’t become law without their input.
And changes certainly are needed.
The Heritage Foundation and its digital news organ, The Daily Signal, also have written on the issue. One story it tells is of a nightmarish police “forfeiture” of a woman in Rancho Cucamonga, California, who had more than $1 million in cash of hers unlawfully confiscated.
It happened when the married couple who was transporting the cash for her to New Jersey was pulled over by police in Nebraska. Police said they were speeding in North Platte, and officers suspected drug trafficking and called in the K-9 unit. Sure enough, the dogs sniffed drugs, as nearly 90 percent of U.S. currency contains trace amounts of cocaine.
In order to get her money returned, the victim, Tara Mishra, had to produce IRS returns and take her case to federal court. Fortunately for her, a federal judge ordered authorities to return her money and pay $39,000 in attorney fees on her behalf.
Poor woman. All she wanted to do was follow a dream to open a nightclub in New Jersey.
CBS recently explained the crux of the problem in two sentences, stating on its website: “Law enforcement officers can confiscate property without charging anyone with a crime. $4.3 billion worth of assets were seized by police in 2012, more than 10 times the number in 2001.”
Understand, the idea behind civil forfeiture laws can easily be construed as ensure the bad guys — embezzlers, racketeers, organized crime figures, drug dealers — do not get away with money, property or any other assets. Police and prosecutors simply do not want them to keep the financial fruits of their ill-gotten gains.
The problem is, the person who owns the assets can easily be snared without ever being charged with a crime or convicted of a crime. A mom not charged with any crime loses her house because her daughter sold drugs in it. Grandma and Grandpa have their car confiscated because an intoxicated family friend was driving it.
Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, who is rightly encouraging discourse on other civil laws, has introduced federal legislation that calls for removing the profit incentive of the criminal justice system. Like the D.C. measure, his proposal would redirect forfeiture assets from the Justice Department to the Treasury Department’s general fund.
“My bill will ensure that government agencies no longer profit from taking the property of U.S. citizens without due process, while maintaining the ability of courts to order the surrender of proceeds of crime,” Mr. Paul told TheBlaze in October.
Since civil forfeitures are not a hot issue in Congress, however, it’s likely the Paul bill won’t be given serious deliberation until the 114th Congress is sworn in come January.
D.C. began reviewing its options in 2013, and it’s unclear whether all 13 members will put their weight behind the effort. Indeed, it will be interesting to see if Ms. Bowser tries to sway her legislative colleagues on the issue
What’s certain is D.C. and federal authorities will need to examine their own actions in recent years to see what they have unlawfully seized from citizens who never were charged with a crime or never were convicted of a crime.
Surely the District should not get off scot-free.
• Deborah Simmons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.