Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, August 12, 2013

DC takes transgressions with civil forfeiture and the practice should be stopped

The current issue of New Yorker Magazine has an incredibly disturbing article about the practice of various police departments concerning civil forfeiture, "Sarah Stillman: The Use and Abuse of Civil Forfeiture."

This is the process of seizing property because it's allegedly used in a crime.

The property is seized, and monetized by the police department, and used to buy equipment, pay salaries, etc.

But the property isn't always owned by the people who have possession of it.

And civil protections that normally pertain to your person (for example the 4th, 5th, and 14th amendments to the US Constitution) don't carry over "to property" when they deliberately severe the connection between person and property as part of the process.

It's a system ripe for abuse, and it is abused.

Most of the article discusses a particularly egregious jurisdiction in Louisiana, which among its many cases, snagged money from a DC restauranteur, Dale Agostini.

But cases in DC and Philadelphia are briefly discussed as well.  In both cases, property was seized because it was "used" in the commitment of a crime--a house seized from the parents because a sone sold about $40 of marijuana to undercover agents; a car seized from the mother because the son, driving the car, was stopped, and he had an unlicensed firearm in his possession.

From the article:

A piece of property does not share the rights of a person. There’s no right to an attorney and, in most states, no presumption of innocence. Owners who wish to contest often find that the cost of hiring a lawyer far exceeds the value of their seized goods. Washington, D.C., charges up to twenty-five hundred dollars simply for the right to challenge a police seizure in court, which can take months or even years to resolve.

The tangled nature of the process became clear when I spoke to Nelly Moreira, a stout, curly-haired custodian who lives in Northwest D.C. Moreira relied on her 2005 Honda Accord to drive from her early-morning job, cleaning Trinity Washington University, to her evening job, cleaning the U.S. Treasury Department. In March, 2012, her son was driving her car when he was pulled over for a minor traffic violation, and, after a pat down, was found to have a handgun. He was arrested, and her car was seized. Moreira, who grew up in El Salvador, explained in Spanish that she received a letter in the mail two months later asking her to pay a bond of one thousand and twenty dollars—which she took to be the fee to get her car back. Desperate, she borrowed cash from friends and family to cover the bond, which is known in D.C. law as a “penal sum.” If she hadn’t, the car would have been auctioned off, or put to use by the police. But all that the money bought her was the right to a complex and slow-moving civil-forfeiture court case. ...

The Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia won the release of Moreira’s car last summer, and in May filed a lawsuit against the city on behalf of approximately three hundred and seventy-five car owners like Moreira. Describing the policy as “devastating for hundreds of families who depend on their cars for many of the urgent and important tasks of daily life,” it called for higher standards of proof and the end of penal-sum fees. At a public hearing on July 11th, D.C.’s attorney general, Irvin Nathan, acknowledged “very real problems” relating to due-process rights. But he warned that millions of dollars raised by forfeiture “could very easily be lost” and “an unreasonable burden” placed on his office if the reforms supported by the Public Defender Service were enacted. He proposed more modest changes that would leave the current burden of proof untouched.

DC City Council should review the Metropolitan Police Department's practices concerning forfeiture.

DC local government has many examples of failing to uphold civil liberties:

-- the Executive Branch has become increasinly obstructive with regard to FOIA requests;
-- a recent issue of the Post has an article about an undercover police officer being assigned to infiltrate protest groups ("Protesters out undercover officer, accuses her of infiltrating group");
-- protestors have been illegally detained as part of demonstrations and the city has paid out millions of dollars in damages for violations of people's First Amendment rights;
-- and now Civil Forfeiture.

It's not the kind of government operation and practice that we should be countenancing. 

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At 9:44 AM, Anonymous online dramas said...

so nice blogger

At 6:08 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

First R. Layman article ever defending car owners?

Agreed, it is a problem nationwide and in DC. It does sound like more of a problem in DC with the penal sum rather than forfeiture.

Would be interesting to hear your "urbanist" take on drug sentence minimums and stop/frisk. Well intended (like Terry) but there are consequences. Broader trends may suggest reduction of crime, but steet crime can overwhelm cities.

At 11:29 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

the libertarian in me believes in legalization, and spending all the money we spend on the drug war on poverty amelioration, substance treatment, etc.

But that's a theoretical position. I don't think it would work super well in practice.

Street crime, you are absolutely right, does overwhelm cities. And dealing with it in purposeful ways, a la Bratton, has been key to the resurgence of some cities.

Continued crime, in places like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and especially these days, Chicago, makes revitalization of those cities very very difficult.

I see how stop and frisk does help deal with guns etc. (at least, judging by the various presentations by police officers in our grand jury hearings).

But it's a fine line between provocation and helping a community.

2. The big thing that Bratton did on the transit side was start to apprehend people for small crimes, i.e., turnstile jumping. They found that criminals that perpetrated big crimes also did small crimes, and by apprehending them they cut bigger crime, and through fingerprint checks, searches, etc. got them on other crimes, confiscated guns, etc.

At 11:31 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Oops, relatedly, with the increased safety on the subways, people were willing to use transit, repopulate neighborhoods in NYC, etc., and transit's ability to enable car light urban living was once again realized.

I remember the first time I went to NYC in 1979. It was much different. We still rode the subways, but it was a lot scarier.

At 11:33 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... "defending car owners". For me, it's more about injustice and the coercive power of the state being used to browbeat the defenseless.


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