The abuse of civil forfeiture laws

The current issue of The New Yorker has a detailed report, written by Sarah Stillman, covering the massive fraud under the country’s civil forfeiture laws against innocent, often lower class or poor, people. In essence, these laws provide that rather than prosecuting an individual, the police can simply take any property from an individual that it believes are the fruits of a crime or an accessory to a crime. Prosecuting property, it turns out, is quite easy and the money seized or the sales proceeds from the seized property often go largely to police departments.

Excerpt:

Another case involves a monthly social event that had been hosted by the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit. In the midst of festivities one evening in late May, 2008, forty-odd officers in black commando gear stormed the gallery and its rear patio, ordering the guests to the ground. Some in attendance thought that they were the victims of an armed robbery. One young woman who had fallen only to her knees told me that a masked figure screamed at her, “Bitch, you think you’re too pretty to get in the mud?” A boot from behind kicked her to the ground. The officers, including members of the Detroit Police Department’s vice squad and mobile tactical unit, placed the guests under arrest. According to police records, the gallery lacked proper city permits for after-hours dancing and drinking, and an old ordinance aimed at “blind pigs” (speakeasies) and other places of “illegal occupation” made it a crime to patronize such a place, knowingly or not.

After lining the guests on their knees before a “prisoner processing table” and searching them, the officers asked for everyone’s car keys. Then the raid team seized every vehicle it could find, even venturing to the driveway of a young man’s friend nearly a mile away to retrieve his car. Forty-four cars were taken to government-contracted lots.

Most of those detained had to pay more than a thousand dollars for the return of their cars; if payment wasn’t made promptly, the car would become city property. The proceeds were divided among the offices of the prosecutors, police, and towing companies. After the A.C.L.U. filed a suit against the city, a district court ruled that the raid was unconstitutional, and noted that it reflected “a widespread practice” by the police in the area. (The city is appealing the ruling.) Vice statutes have lent themselves to such forfeiture efforts; in previous years, an initiative targeted gay men for forfeiture, under Detroit’s “annoying persons” ordinance. Before local lawyers challenged such practices, known informally as “Bag a Fag,” undercover officers would arrest gay men who simply returned their glances or gestures, if the signals were deemed to have sexual connotations, and then, citing “nuisance abatement,” seize their vehicles.

Detroit Police Department officials have said that raids like the one on the Contemporary Art Institute are aimed at improving “quality of life.” The raids certainly help address the department’s substantial budgetary shortfalls. Last year, Detroit, which has since filed for bankruptcy, cut the annual police budget by nearly a fifth. Today, “blind pig” raids around the city routinely result in the confiscation of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of cars.

Because forfeiture actions tend to affect people who cannot easily fight back, even those who feel wronged seldom contest the seizures or seek public notice. “There’s no telling how many Tenahas there are,” Vanita Gupta, a deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, told me. Early on, she took an interest in the suit that Guillory and Garrigan were putting together, and her office joined in the effort. “It’s very hard to document,” she said, noting that many people targeted by the practice are too intimidated to talk. “These cases tend to stay in the dark.”