State forfeiture programs fatten police budgets

Police Dept.
(Photo by: Megan Canterbury/Arizona Sonora News)

 

More and more Arizona police departments boost budgets by seizing houses, cars and cash. It’s legal but questions arise that it encourages police to capture cash and leaves a muddled trail of money taken from some innocent people and deposited into department expense accounts.

Between 2004 and 2014 Arizona police seized $382 million from individuals they claim committed crimes, 651 percent more than in California. The state does not keep data on how much of that money comes from people later convicted of a crime or those found innocent. The forfeiture system, as designed, makes recovering their assets an arduous battle for the innocent.

During the last 10 years the amount of money seized annual by Arizona rose from $14 million in 2004 to $36 million in 2014. Combined, between 2004 and 2014 Arizona seized $382 million dollars through state law enforcement.

Arizona police departments have a strong incentive to seize assets. They are able to keep and use up to 100 percent of the value they seize.

A report, “Policing for Profit,” prepared by the non-profit group Institute for Justice, gives the state an overall grade of D, due to the profit incentive of departments, low burden of proof for departments, and high burden of proof for people who had their property taken.

Representatives from the state Attorney General’s office refused to provide data on assets seized in Arizona.

According to Tucson criminal defense attorney Carlos Medina, a prosecutor’s office has 60 days to send a notice of seizure and pending forfeiture. A person then has 30 days either to file a petition for mitigation, in which the matter will be settled outside of court, or file a claim in which the matter will be taken to trial.

On average if the matter is handled through mitigation the entire process can last up to two to three months. Likewise if the matter is handled through the court system it can take up to half a year.

Medina advises his clients to go through the process of mitigation, a shorter and cheaper process.  “Sometimes the prosecutors only offer the option to go to court (contested) so we have no choice but to file a claim in court,” says Medina.

Medina then used the example of a car seized by law enforcement. A person must then show a receipt of purchase, insurance, registration and maintenance records.  If a person has failed to keep up to date with registration or insurance they will then have to make a statement and answer questions to the prosecutor’s office.

According to Medina, a majority of his clients are families unaware that their property has been used in a crime by another family member.

“These people may not know that this other person, their kid, is up to no good and then here comes law enforcement to take away their property,”  Medina says .

The ability for many departments to keep some or all of the assets that they seize has led to concerns over the potential for abuse of this power.

Robert Frommer,  an attorney for the Institute of Justice,a national law firm that advocates on behalf of individuals whose basic rights have been denied by the government, argued that civil forfeiture allows for many abuses as laws are structured now.

Frommer, brought up a video made famous on the television show “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” where Columbia, Missouri, police chief Ken Burton referred to forfeiture money as “pennies from heaven.”

“We just usually base it on something that would be nice to have that we can’t get in the budget, for instance. We try not to use it for things that we need to depend on because we need to have those purchased. It’s kind of like pennies from heaven,” Burton said, “it gets you a toy or something that you need is the way that we typically look at it to be perfectly honest.”

According to Frommer civil asset forfeiture is the most popular method used by police departments, stating that it is a much easier method of seizing money than criminal forfeiture, which requires a conviction, and keeps the burden of proof on law enforcement, “all those protections disappear.”

In Arizona reform has yet to arrive that would add greater protection to individuals or to check the power of local police.

“It’s not reasonable for law enforcement to seize people’s property.” says Medina, arguing that the state “puts up a hell of a fight.”

According to Medina, an individual office within the Arizona Attorney General’s office is designated to specifically fight forfeiture cases.

“I don’t think they are really thinking about the money that’s coming in. They’re thinking about it as just another legal fight that they are in,” says Medina.

The amount seized does not have to equal a large sum. Between 2011 and 2012 the Institute for Justice reported that Police in Philadelphia Penn. took an average of $178 per seizure, thousands of dollars less than the amount needed to hire a lawyer and go to court to get that money back.

Laws aimed at combatting organized crime now are used to collect from average citizens in a battle for money.

“What their (police departments) now really effecting is ordinary folks who don’t have the resources to fight back,” Frommer says

Alexandra Aguilera and Eric Klump are reporters for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact them at amaguilera@email.arizona.edu/eklump@email.arizona.edu

Click here for a Word version of this story and high-resolution photo.

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