Justices Weigh Rules on Recovering Seized Assets
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Justices Weigh Rules on Recovering Seized Assets
Posted by CN Staff on October 14, 2009 at 04:46:47 PT
By Jess Bravin
Source: Wall Street Journal
Washington, D.C. -- Every year, police agencies seize more than $1 billion of cars, cash and other goods linked to drug crimes. The Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday on how hard it should be for owners to try to recover that property.Police typically get to keep much of what they seize, although owners can fight forfeiture in court. On Wednesday, the central issue will be whether owners are entitled to a prompt, informal hearing to argue that they should get their property back while waiting for a formal forfeiture proceeding that could be scheduled months or years in the future.
At present, some states impound the property during that lag time and provide owners no recourse. Critics say many innocent owners just give up during that period, and states then are free to sell their cars and other items.The justices will hear a case from Chicago involving six different property owners, including Tyhesha Brunston, who loaned her Chevrolet Impala to a childhood friend who was later arrested in the car and charged with possessing drugs."Words can't describe how mad I was" at him, says Ms. Brunston, 30 years old. "He was not supposed to be smoking marijuana in my car."Illinois law allows "innocent owners" to reclaim seized property. But in practice they may have to wait months -- or in Ms. Brunston's case, three years -- before recovering their cars.Last year, the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled that the Constitution requires that owners get a more timely chance to seek return of their property.The appeals court ordered a trial judge to work with city officials and lawyers representing Ms. Brunston and other owners of seized property to fashion "some sort of mechanism" to test whether seizures were valid."The hearing should be prompt but need not be formal," the court said. A neutral judge or hearing officer would decide whether the owner got possession of the property during the lengthy period before the more formal forfeiture proceeding was held -- something like a property equivalent of a bail hearing before trial.The Cook County state's attorney appealed the decision. The Justice Department, 20 states and several organizations representing state and local government have backed the appeal."It's really about government bullying," said Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor representing Ms. Brunston and other owners in the case.For law enforcement, "forfeiture has become a multibillion-dollar business across the nation," he said, noting that Chicago netted nearly $14 million through asset forfeitures in 2008. "With those powerful interests in taking and seizing and keeping property, there needs to be some kind of check," he said.A Justice Department fund that receives proceeds from forfeitures of cash and property across the country received $1.2 billion in cash and cash equivalents in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2008, down from $1.4 billion in the previous fiscal year.In 2000, then-U.S. District Judge Michael Mukasey rejected a challenge to New York City's forfeiture system, which was similar to Chicago's. He found that if police had sufficient reason to arrest a suspect, they also were justified in seizing the property pending a forfeiture hearing months or years later.That decision was reversed by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, then a judge on the Second Circuit in New York."A car or truck is often central to a person's livelihood or daily activities," she wrote. The Constitution gives people a right to force the city to justify seizures "at an early order to minimize any arbitrary or mistaken encroachment upon plaintiffs' use and possession of their property."To comply with the ruling, New York City adopted a system that provides owners a hearing within weeks of a seizure. In 2008, the city seized 3,166 vehicles, said police spokesman Paul Browne. Of those, 2,152 were returned, mostly to people charged with drunken driving, after they had undergone treatment for alcoholism. Among the others, the city kept 632 vehicles, while 320 remain in dispute, he said.The rapid scheduling of the hearings gives police leverage with defendants, Mr. Browne says. In drunken-driving cases, for example, police will often agree to release a vehicle if the driver undergoes substance-abuse counseling.Paul Castiglione, a Cook County assistant state's attorney who will defend the Illinois law before the court Wednesday, said that giving owners a preliminary hearing to recover their property would interfere with law enforcement."It would be disruptive in a number of ways," he said. "The police would have barely begun their investigation" before having to defend the seizure, he said, and may not have been able to locate all the people who could claim ownership of the property. Moreover, "it would force a duplication of effort, a duplication of the ultimate civil forfeiture hearing."He rejects arguments that police are motivated by the chance to keep the property."When property is seized, it's not like the government can use it right away. It's a car impounded in a lot," he said. "It's never going to be turned over till a court says so."John Worrall, a criminologist at the University of Texas at Dallas who has studied drug-forfeiture policies, said it isn't that simple. "To say that law enforcement is only in it for the money is silly; there are easier ways to get money than going through asset-forfeiture proceedings," he said.On the other hand, Prof. Worrall said, "the money matters." He found that 40% of police executives in a 2001 survey said drug-forfeiture funds were necessary to their budgets. "With the budget crisis in local government, I think we're going to see renewed interest in forfeiture," he said.Nomaan Merchant contributed to this article.Source: Wall Street Journal (US)Author: Jess BravinPublished: October 14, 2009Copyright: 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.Contact: wsj.ltrs wsj.comWebsite: Justice Archives
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Comment #8 posted by Hope on October 14, 2009 at 20:26:05 PT
I'm so sorry, EAH.
I wish we could have had this prohibition done with before that was done to you.I'm so sorry.Please. Stand tall.
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Comment #7 posted by EAH on October 14, 2009 at 14:05:14 PT:
Financial rape.
Just this past weekend, after a 3 year battle in which I came out with a fraction of what I deserved, the county auctioned off my property that I had acquired through very hard work and risk. The whole proceeding was a charade. One item used in court to justify the seizure, was the business checks written to me from a local dispensary. A dispensary that is still operating. I am a patient and a member of this dispensary. Yet what I brought in and sold to them through the back door and was deemed a "crime" was in turn sold to other member patients out the front door and not a cited as a crime. The reason? There are many, but for one thing as an individual, I was easy to single out. Raiding the dispensary would be a lot more work and local politicians were "protecting" the dispensary.
The checks had been claimed on my taxes as income and the tax was paid!
But as a sale of cannabis, which is ILLEGAL in CA, the money was forfeitable, along with other stuff they decided they wanted. So not only did I pay the tax
but they then took all the original money too.
Do you realize that they can seize all your money from your bank account and if you haven't filed that years taxes yet, you will still owe the taxes on the money they took?!
When they decide they want your stuff, they "shop" through you possessions, taking what ever they want, looking out for the items they hope will personally hurt you the most, even aside from value. 
The most spectacular thing was after the cops stripped me of every item of value and my financial assets, in court, the DA accused me of being GREEDY!
Those cops were most criminally greedy people I've ever seen. 
This license to steal is going to motivate the cops to fight the ending of prohibition as hard as they can.
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Comment #6 posted by Sinsemilla Jones on October 14, 2009 at 12:27:20 PT
Force, Deception, & Theft
have replaced Protect & Serve.The War On Drug & Plant Users has turned our police into criminals and our police departments into criminal organizations.And the result is a bigger variety of more dangerous drugs is more widely available, not just to more people, but more teenagers and children, than ever before.
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Comment #5 posted by HempWorld on October 14, 2009 at 09:58:00 PT
I think this is one of your best posts so far!
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Comment #4 posted by Hope on October 14, 2009 at 09:54:44 PT
Law Enforcement in the United States
Back when they decided to make forfeiture and seizure a part of the so called "War on Drugs"... I knew it was the end of law enforcement as we knew it in the United States. It had to be bad... and it was, and still is.It's been nothing but stunning to see how the war on drugs... and not the drugs themselves, at all, was the beginning of the end of the United States and what it was supposed to be and what it was supposed to stand for.Gone... and probably not recoverable.
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Comment #3 posted by FoM on October 14, 2009 at 09:24:27 PT
If they could get rid of seizing people's personal property it would take the incentive out and laws might change a lot quicker in my opinion.
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Comment #2 posted by dongenero on October 14, 2009 at 08:46:42 PT
you say forfeiture, I say seizure
This policy of asset seizure has been so abused, it really must end. It is just ridiculous.The reason for this ridiculous policy existing in a "free" country policy was sold as a way to financially hit drug lords and organized crime kingpins, once they have been arrested, to bring down their organizations.What it has turned into is a free for all of essentially martial government agents robbing citizens of hard earned goods and livelihood in great disproportion to the "crimes" they have committed.To seize ones major assets, home, finances, over a plant, over a bag of plant material.....It's absurd. Freedom? Bah! Not in the "land of the free".
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Comment #1 posted by runruff on October 14, 2009 at 06:32:08 PT
"The spoils of war"!
That is what it is called. We do not have a constitution that allows for the federal government to declare war on it's own people.Asset forfeiture is outright robbery! The feds have no real authority to control drugs and they sure don't have the authority to grant "Prima Grabba" to the bullies in blue!
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