Project Report:
Ending Civil Forfeiture and Protecting Private Property
Purpose
- Investigates causes tending to destroy or impair the free-market system.

Summary

Civil forfeiture is the ability of law enforcement to seize private property—such as homes, cars, and cash—on the mere suspicion that it was involved in a crime with no conviction or arrest required. The Institute for Justice works to counter this unconstitutional practice through litigation, strategic research, legislative reform, and communications.

Description

The Institute for Justice (IJ) serves as the leading voice against the practice of civil forfeiture. We spearhead litigation and research that places civil forfeiture in the spotlight of national conversations. We are actively litigating 15 civil forfeiture cases in nine states. With these cases, we seize opportunities to set precedent and build support for the idea that government officials cannot use this unconstitutional policy to enrich their budgets and violate the rights of American citizens.

IJ secured substantial and speedy victories in two forfeiture lawsuits we filed within the grant term thus far. In November 2020, Kermit Warren was traveling home after inspecting a tow truck he considered buying for his scrapping business. When going through the Columbus, Ohio, airport, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents seized Kermit’s money that he was carrying for the potential tow truck purchase. Kermit was never arrested or charged with any crime. Instead, the government’s complaint was based on vague innuendo and baseless accusations that the money was connected to drugs. After the DEA seized Kermit’s cash, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Ohio filed a civil forfeiture lawsuit to keep the money.

Once IJ agreed to represent Kermit and documented the legitimate purpose for his trip and the legal sources of his money, prosecutors agreed to dismiss the case “with prejudice.” This means the government cannot re-file a forfeiture complaint in the future and effectively admits Kermit did nothing wrong.

Flying domestically with any amount of cash is completely legal, but law enforcement routinely seizes large amounts of cash at airports. As previously reported to the Walker Foundation, IJ is currently litigating a class action against the DEA and TSA over their practices of stopping travelers with large amounts of cash and seizing their money without probable cause. While not a named plaintiff in that suit, Kermit is a member of the class and yet another example of how these practices harm innocent people.

In a similar story, IJ client Stephen Lara was driving through Reno on a trip to see family when he was pulled over by the Nevada Highway Patrol for supposedly following a tractor-trailer too closely. Stephen cooperated with his escalating investigation, even volunteering that he was carrying a large amount of cash. Ninety minutes later, Stephen had been robbed of his life savings—$86,900—which he carried after a spate of robberies in his parents’ neighborhood.

In this case, local law enforcement ordered seizure of the money so it could be “adopted” by the DEA. “Adoption” allows federal law enforcement agencies to take over a seizure by state and local law enforcement, oftentimes circumventing stricter state laws. If adopted, seized assets are marked for equitable sharing which guarantees the state or local agency that seized the property up to 80% of the proceeds for use in the agency’s budget.

The DEA sat on Stephen’s life savings for months, ignoring the six-month legal deadline requiring it to charge Stephen with a crime, begin a civil forfeiture case, or return the money. So, on August 30, IJ sued in federal court on Stephen’s behalf. Early in the morning of September 1, the agency announced it would return all of Stephen’s money. In less than 24 hours, the DEA had learned of our lawsuit, answered tough questions from The Washington Post, and committed to reviewing its policies for federal adoptions. Emboldened by these developments, our legal advocacy for Stephen continues with a state court lawsuit that aims to make federal adoptions impossible in Nevada. And as you will read below, we recently launched a video that shows the footage from Stephen’s traffic stop—which proved a powerful way to spread the word about forfeiture abuse.

Our wins on Kermit and Stephen’s behalf represent IJ’s latest successes in our fight to ensure no one loses their property to a corrupt and financially driven civil forfeiture system. We continue to press forward with these victories to protect against future abuses of power. As part of this strategy to build on our success, we filed class action suits in two recently launched cases. And a third, ongoing case recently received class certification.

In August, we launched a class action lawsuit in Texas that seeks to dismantle Houston’s illegal and unconstitutional forfeiture machine. Like Nevada’s, Texas’ civil forfeiture laws allow police and prosecutors to take cash from people they do not arrest. Forfeiture proceeds can directly fund salaries and overtime pay of the very officers and prosecutors empowered to seize and forfeit the cash they financially benefit from. The profit incentive in Texas is substantial—police and prosecutors can keep up to 100% of proceeds and even negotiate how they want to split it.

To pursue the dream of owning their own trucking business, Ameal Woods and Jordan Davis saved money from jobs, tax refunds, and by keeping expenses low. They accumulated over $40,000—enough for Ameal to rise from truck driver to truck owner. After weeks of scouring ads for used tractor-trailers, Ameal was ready to buy one of his own. In May 2019, he drove from Natchez, Mississippi, and headed toward Houston. But when he arrived in Harris County, police pulled Ameal over, took his cash, and sent him on his way without so much as a warning.

For the past two years, the couple heard nothing from Harris County due to the County’s feeble efforts to satisfy the most basic of constitutional requirements: notice. Its practice of using form affidavits, vague allegations, and tough tactics instead of evidence of crimes also violates the Texas Constitution. That is why Ameal and Jordan teamed up with IJ to file a major class action lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Harris County’s civil forfeiture program. Harris County has an unconstitutional financial incentive to seize and forfeit cash and other property without probable cause, sweeping in innocent people like Ameal and Jordan in the process.

We also launched a class action civil forfeiture case in Indiana, the same state where our lawsuit with Tyson Timbs resulted in several victories. Across Indiana, hundreds of for-profit civil forfeiture cases are filed each year by private prosecutors acting on the state’s behalf; Tyson Timbs’ case was just the highest-profile example. Now, IJ is pushing back with a federal class-action lawsuit against one of the state’s most prolific private, for-profit prosecutors. Our legal claim is as simple as it is important: Under basic due-process principles, prosecutors cannot have a personal financial stake in the cases they prosecute. Such a system delegitimizes the justice system and skews prosecutorial incentives.

And elsewhere, IJ scored another win in our challenge to the FBI’s illegal search and seizure of security deposit boxes at a Southern California private vault business. In October, a district court judge granted IJ’s motion for a class action suit. The ruling means IJ is fighting for justice not just for our seven clients, but potentially hundreds of people whose Fourth Amendment rights were violated. During the seizure incident, government agents video-recorded the contents of these people’s security deposit boxes, even opening sealed envelopes and holding documents up to the camera. Our class action seeks the destruction of these records on behalf of everyone whose seized property was returned.

These cases represent our ability to tackle the profit incentive and disregard for Fourth Amendment rights that underlies civil forfeiture laws. Too often, law enforcement abuses their authority to seize assets without constitutional merit. IJ is on the front lines fighting to win for our clients, highlight the abuse of forfeiture to the public, and set precedent that will aid other individuals fighting this abuse.

Purpose

Property rights sit at the foundation of a free society. But across the country, governments violate property rights through the practice of civil forfeiture. Through civil forfeiture, property owners can permanently lose their property without being charged or convicted of a crime, a violation of Americans’ constitutional rights.

Scope

IJ advances protections for property owners by establishing precedent in the courtroom that others can use to protect their rights; securing the return of property; and pushing for reform of state and federal forfeiture laws consistent with our 501(c)(3) status. Civil forfeiture threatens every American’s right to own and enjoy their property. Each year, millions of dollars in property are seized. Over the last 20 years, federal, state, and local law enforcement have forfeited $68.8 billion, and many states fail to report fully, meaning this is likely a dramatic undercount.

Information Dissemination

Our ultimate, long-term goal is to abolish or severely curtail civil forfeiture. In pursuit of that goal, we advocate in and out of the courtroom to curb the practice of “policing for profit” and to restore property to its rightful owners. IJ partners with the Alex C. Walker Foundation to deploy all the tools of public interest law beyond cutting-edge litigation—strategic research, media relations, educational outreach, and advocacy—to foster widespread support for reform and usher in broad protections for property owners nationwide.

For example, IJ’s video production team generates public awareness with captivating videos that share our message to the public. This strength of IJ became abundantly clear after the release of our most recent forfeiture video, “Anatomy of a Forfeiture,” which shows footage from the incident when Nevada Highway Patrol seized Stephen Lara’s cash. Within 24 hours, the video reached a stunning 750,000 views—after one week, the view count climbed to over three million views. And since July, we have accumulated nearly 300,000 views across three other videos on forfeiture.

Video is allowing IJ to reach wider audiences than previously possible; the wild success of our most recent video—and the overwhelming public reaction, favorable to IJ—shows our ability to thrust forfeiture issues in the public spotlight.

Our media team captures other avenues for promoting our work in meaningful ways. During the grant term, we issued nine press releases related to forfeiture to maximize the attention we receive. As part of promoting our work, IJ staff members published 12 forfeiture themed op-eds in media outlets, including four Forbes articles, and one article each in The Washington Times and Chicago Tribune. Overall, IJ received more than 100 forfeiture media clips since July. These media engagements put forfeiture issues in front of the public to help IJ win over the court of public opinion.

IJ’s strategic research team also supports our forfeiture reform efforts with trustworthy and compelling research we can use to generate public awareness. Following on the heels of IJ’s unprecedented court victory dismantling Philadelphia’s forfeiture system, IJ’s strategic research team published a first-of-its-kind study in October 2021, called Frustrating, Corrupt, Unfair: Civil Forfeiture in the Words of Its Victims. This survey, supported with a grant from the Templeton Foundation, tells the story of Philadelphia forfeiture victims in their own words. The victims’ stories reveal a forfeiture system where it’s extremely difficult to reclaim your property, and where police rarely target big-time criminals—contrary to the claims of civil forfeiture proponents.

IJ interviewed 407 Philadelphians whose property was subject to civil forfeiture to examine the real reasons why forfeiture victims often don’t get their property back. What we found will not surprise you: Forfeiture processes—Philadelphia’s in particular, though forfeiture programs nationwide share many of the same problematic features—are almost impossible to understand. Many respondents who were unsuccessful in securing their property’s return thought it was because they couldn’t keep up with the court process, they couldn’t afford an attorney (the median cost of hiring one was $3,500—more than the value of seized property, in most cases), or the system was inherently unfair.

To promote Frustrating, Corrupt, Unfair, we secured an exclusive in USA Today that featured two stories from the report. Since its release, Frustrating, Corrupt, Unfair received nine media citations from publications including Axios and The Hill. Further, this groundbreaking research complements our other forfeiture publications like Policing for Profit III. The victims’ experiences chronicled in this report strengthen our arguments in Policing for Profit III by telling the stories of our most vulnerable citizens who are suffering the greatest harm under unjust civil forfeiture systems. Policing for Profit III continues to be a definitive source of forfeiture data for journalists and policymakers alike. Since the start of this grant term, the report was cited 22 times in 20 unique publications.

And our legislative team continues to advocate for forfeiture reforms at the state and federal level. On July 13, Maine joined Nebraska, New Mexico, and North Carolina as the fourth state to end civil forfeiture. LD 1521 leaves Maine with only its existing criminal forfeiture process, ensuring that all owners must be found guilty of a crime in which their property was involved before the government can permanently take title to that property. This means all prosecution takes place only in criminal court, where the indigent are represented by a public defender. The state’s new law also prohibits a law enforcement agency from transferring seized property to a federal agency—thus closing the “equitable sharing” loophole that allows local governments to circumvent state reforms—unless the seizure is U.S. currency greater than $100,000.

Eliminating civil forfeiture is not the work of a single year, or even a single decade. Until this financial incentive and the civil forfeiture system are eliminated, innocent people’s property will remain at risk. Yet, thanks to the support from the Alex C. Walker Foundation, IJ continues to make significant progress toward dismantling this deeply entrenched system.

All activity described in this report was performed consistent with the Institute for Justice’s nonprofit status, IRS regulations, and our agreement with the Walker Foundation.

Project Link https://endforfeiture.com/

Amount Approved
$20,000.00 on 6/8/2021 (Check sent: 6/11/2021)


  Related Organizations
Institute for Justice  

IJ client Kermit Warren
IJ client Kermit Warren

Attachments
IJ client Kermit Warren

Contacts


Beth Stevens
Institute for Justice

Posted 3/30/2021 12:12 PM
Updated   12/10/2021 12:50 PM



 
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