The D.C. Council on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to a bill that would reform the process by which police are able to seize and sell property from people they stop.
Council members voted unanimously to support the Civil Asset Forfeiture Amendment Act of 2013, which will divert profits from seizures into the city’s general fund instead of letting the police department keep and spend the money.
The legislation also establishes protocols for notifying owners of the status of their property and a time frame under which they can contest a seizure.
Under current law, D.C. police are allowed, for example, to take vehicles and all property inside them if they are suspected of being connected to a crime, such as transporting illegal items like drugs or guns. But activists have complained that the process for getting items returned is cumbersome and that the time frame for challenging a seizure is open-ended.
People currently can also be required to forfeit property that can be held indefinitely or sold at auction even if no charges are filed or if items don’t belong to the people from whose possession they were taken.
Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat and author of the bill, said the current practice “gives the appearance that the District is seeking to take property merely for financial gain.”
“The District’s civil asset forfeiture scheme cannot continue,” she said.
The Metropolitan Police Department collects about $30,000 annually from its local asset forfeiture program and another $670,000 through a partnership with the Justice Department called the Equitable Sharing Program, which allows local departments to reap up to 80 percent of the proceeds of cases they work in conjunction with federal investigators.
During Tuesday’s hearing, D.C. Council chairman Phil Mendelson amended the bill to clarify that the legislation would only apply to property sought for forfeiture, not for property that police are holding as evidence.
Ms. Cheh’s bill 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.
The bill, which has the general support of the police department, faces a second vote on Dec. 2.
Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat and chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, said he hoped the legislation could be a “model for other jurisdictions.”