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October 4, 2007 - Hartford Advocate (CT)

Drug Money? [Asset Forfeiture]

Welcome to the World of Civil Asset Forfeiture: Enriching the Local Police at Your Expense

By Jennifer Abel

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Even if you're a law-abiding citizen who's never been convicted of a crime, local police are allowed to confiscate your property and money and keep up to 80 percent of it for themselves, with the legal stipulation that this windfall be spent only on programs likely to result in additional confiscations where the police can keep up to 80 percent of the booty for themselves.

That's addressed to you. And it's no joke.

"The money can only be used for the police department ... it gets recycled back into drug work [and] it can't supplant normally budgeted items," says Detective Tom Gameli, who handles these confiscations for the West Hartford police department.

The police in West Hartford had a profitable year; at the last council meeting on Sept. 25, a resolution passed that moved close to $180,000 in money made from property taken in forfeiture cases in West Hartford, into the local drug enforcement fund.

But the cops can't just sit back and wait for fate to shower them with such largess, Gameli said. "For us to get the money, we have to seize the stuff."

He's talking about asset forfeiture, one of the more devastating weapons in the government's drug war arsenal. The rationale behind it sounds sensible enough: if you make money from criminal activities, you shouldn't get to keep your ill-gotten gains. And whether you agree with the law or not, intoxicants other than alcohol are illegal, so money made from the sale of such is (legally) fair game for confiscation.

But so is anything else that has any involvement with drug activity. If you want to buy a joint, you can lose the car you drove to make the deal. The same holds true if a friend or spouse borrows your car for the same purpose. The confiscated car is sold at auction, and the police force that nabbed it gets to keep 70 or 80 percent of the proceeds, depending upon the car's value.

"Most of the money we get from state asset forfeiture, because the feds have higher [monetary] standards," Gameli said. "If you're gonna take a house, you go through the feds, if you take $250 from a knucklehead on the street, you go state ... the federal threshold is $2,000 for cash, $5,000 for cars." If it's a federal case the town police get to keep 80 percent of the proceeds, but they only get 70 percent on the state level.

"We've done polls," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Two things about asset forfeiture the public dislikes: first, that when cops and prosecutors seize property they get to keep it for their own departments, the public finds that corrupting ... and second, that you could lose your property without a criminal conviction."

How can the government take your money or property if you haven't been convicted of a crime? "These are civil cases," Gameli said, and they differ from criminal ones. "It bolsters the case if he's convicted [of a crime]," Gameli said, but "a civil case has a lower standard of proof ... I know of cases where the guy walked on the charges, but still lost his car or his money."

Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project finds that disturbing. "What he's saying, it sounds like, is that he thinks it's just fine for the government to take property from people who have been found innocent of the alleged crime ... In what parallel universe is that fair, just or reasonable?"

Calling these "civil" cases implies that they are reviewed by the courts, but that's not necessarily true.

"Generally speaking ... approximately 80 percent or more of civil forfeiture cases are not contested," says Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws). This is in part because contesting the process can cost more than the value of what's been confiscated.

"The average vehicle seized is worth about $4,000," said Brenda Grantland, president of FEAR (Forfeiture Endangers American Rights). "To defend a case, especially when you're out of state, they've pretty much made it cost prohibitive. I don't take cases of less than $20,000 .. it'll cost more than that to defend it." Neither Gameli nor the DEA could say what percentage of their confiscations came from people actually convicted of a crime, or from folks who lost in-court civil cases.

Remember Gameli's hypothetical "knucklehead" who enriched the local constabulary? Chances are he had drugs on him too. But not necessarily -- under asset forfeiture laws, the simple possession of cash, with no drugs or other contraband, can be considered evidence of criminal activity.

You'll find no shortage of examples throughout the country. Two recent examples, chosen only because they're so unremarkable, are as follows: in October 2006, two men driving through Davidson County, North Carolina, were stopped by sheriff's deputies and found to have $88,000 hidden in their car. The men told the sheriffs they were on their way to buy a house in Atlanta. Although no drugs were found, the sheriffs confiscated the money anyway. And just last August, a truck driver at a weigh station in El Paso had $23,700 confiscated; once again, no drugs or contraband were found, but the cash led to an assumption of guilt.

Naturally, police and the DEA insist they're not infringing upon the rights of innocent people. "The police won't take [the money] if they have a good excuse," says Steve Robertson, a DEA spokesman down in D.C., when asked about cases like the one in El Paso. "I would assume he was listed in a database where he might be drug-related."

"Databases contain errors," said Mirken. "Just look at the TSA's no-fly list, which at one point almost kept Sen. Edward Kennedy off a flight as a suspected terrorist ... the idea that government should be able to simply take a person's money, house or car without having to prove the person did anything wrong is obscene."

Allen St. Pierre says that in such cases, "the onus and total burden is entirely on the citizen/business to disprove the government's case" in such situations.

Robertson of the DEA agrees. If you can prove the money wasn't acquired illegally, then the police won't take it.

But that leads to a problem. Say that every week when you cash your paycheck you stick a $100 bill in a coffee can. If the police want to confiscate this cash years later, the onus should be on them to prove the money is illegal, because you might not be able to prove it isn't.

"Property rights are not considered as important as personal liberty, so due process is often reduced," Grantland said. "We've been fighting for years to get [asset forfeiture] under control, but there's no way it'll go away because the government gets too much money doing it."

Even proving where you got the money might not save you, Grantland said. "Some victims called us a few years ago ... he'd just won a medical malpractice settlement ... he and his friends, low-income black guys, decided to go to Las Vegas [and] got as far as Plano, Texas. It got confiscated. They even showed them the settlement ... I don't know if they ever got their money back."

West Hartford probably has a few residents who like to smoke the occasional unlicensed cigarette behind closed doors. And from the cops' perspective, there's a lot of money to be made cracking down on these criminals. So one of the items on the agenda at last week's town council meeting said this: "Resolution appropriating drug asset forfeiture money in the Drug Enforcement Fund."

The measure passed unanimously. Deputy Mayor Art Spada was not in attendance, but Mayor Scott Slifka and all seven members of the council were.

Do the council members know that some of that windfall money could have been confiscated from folks who were not found guilty of any crimes? We sent an e-mail asking "do you, as elected officials, have any Constitutional and/or ethical qualms about the police confiscating property from town residents who were not convicted of a crime?"

As of press time, four days later, none had responded.

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