Late one evening in 2014, Nassir Geiger found himself staring into the barrels of two handguns held by Philadelphia police officers. They had seen him pause his Buick LeSabre in a McDonald's parking lot to say hi to an acquaintance, who had been arrested shortly before for possessing 0.4 grams of cocaine.
When the officers searched Geiger's car, they found no evidence of drugs. They seized his car and the $580 in his pockets anyway.
After a night in jail, Geiger was let out with a receipt for $465. He was told the car was being kept as evidence. For months he had to take the bus or borrow his mom's car to get to his job as a city sanitation worker and take care of his daughter.
He was never charged with a crime. It took months to get his car back. He never recovered the cash. And it was mostly legal.
"I didn't break no traffic laws; my license wasn’t expired," said Geiger, 32, in an interview with USA TODAY. "For no reason, (the police) took my car."
Philadelphia police seized more than $50 million in cash, about 1,240 homes and other real estate, and roughly 3,530 vehicles from 2002 to 2014, according to a report released by the Institute for Justice.
The libertarian public-interest law firm, which litigates property rights cases, has conducted the nation's first survey of the victims of a civil forfeiture program, reaching 407 of 30,000 people whose property was seized by Philadelphia police between 2012 and 2018.
Only 23% of the 407 survey respondents were convicted of a crime. In 30% of the cases, the individual wasn't even arrested. Most were never even charged.
The seizures were legal because they were done under civil asset forfeiture law, which doesn't require a person to be charged with a crime.
"What used to happen in Philadelphia was illegal by modern standards, and it represented a form of institutional theft," Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner told USA TODAY in an interview.
The survey confirms advocates' arguments that civil asset forfeiture mostly ensnares law-abiding, low-income people of color rather than large criminal enterprises and drug kingpins. The amounts of cash forfeited were frequently small enough that it wasn't worthwhile to hire an attorney to get it back.
Geiger was one of several plaintiffs in the Institute for Justice's 2014 class-action lawsuit against the city of Philadelphia and its District Attorney's Office. The case resulted in reforms and a $3 million compensation fund.
"Philadelphia’s forfeiture system was particularly heinous and abusive, but it is by no means in a league of its own," said Jennifer McDonald, co-author of the Institute for Justice's report. "The type of state forfeiture laws that allow this to go on exist in almost every state across the country."
District attorneys opt for civil forfeiture because it doesn't require them to meet the same burden of proof as a criminal charge. Under the prior system in Philadelphia, prosecutors had to show only that a preponderance of the evidence – more than half – linked property to a crime. The state legislature raised that threshold to "clear and convincing" in 2017.
Forfeiture laws across the U.S. incentivize cash and property grabs, opponents say, because the proceeds go into accounts controlled by police and prosecutors and pay for salaries, overtime, special programs and even perks like a margarita maker.
For months after his car and cash were taken, Geiger would drive by the police district building in a city trash truck and see his car sitting out front. He financed the purchase of another car as he unknowingly racked up hundreds of dollars in storage fees on his old one. It took him more than a year to get his paid-off car back.
Under a consent decree approved by a federal judge in February, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office and the police department are no longer allowed to use forfeiture revenue for salaries or other law enforcement expenses.
"The way it was being used before, it was like a slush fund," said Jane Roh, a spokesperson for Krasner, who took office in 2018 and negotiated the settlement of the class action case.
Krasner, who is up for reelection, is more judicious than his predecessors about what is seized, McDonald said. He has committed to sending back up to $1 million in 2021 of civil forfeiture funds to community programs in the four ZIP codes most impacted by the practice, said G. Lamar Stewart, who head's the DA's community engagement unit.
From smuggled goods to the war on drugs
Civil asset forfeiture came about during colonial America. It allowed authorities to confiscate illicit goods smuggled into port, even if the owners of those goods were far away in Europe.
During the 1970s, civil forfeiture became a weapon in America's war on drugs, with the idea that it would enable law enforcement to seize the tools and fruits of the drug trade from large, criminal enterprises.
"But what happened was it became such a lucrative endeavor that it was being used mostly against ordinary citizens," said Louis S. Rulli, practice professor of law at University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.
Out of 100 Drug Enforcement Administration cash seizures in which there was no warrant or illicit narcotics, only 44 were related to criminal investigations, the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of the Inspector General found in a 2017 report.
"When seizure and administrative forfeitures do not ultimately advance an investigation or prosecution, law enforcement creates the appearance, and risks the reality, that it is more interested in seizing and forfeiting cash than advancing an investigation or prosecution," the Inspector General's Office wrote.
When government budgets stagnated, civil forfeiture became a way to supplement law enforcement coffers, Rulli said. Over time, law enforcement grew more dependent on the funds.
"We saw bonuses in some places for people who could forfeit the most property," he said.
A lower standard of proof
In the vast majority of civil forfeiture cases, the government does not need to prove the owner was involved in illegal activity. The proceeding, against the property itself, need only show that it was somehow connected to a crime. But in many cases, law enforcement never shows that connection, and it's up to the property owner to get the property back.
Law enforcement can seize property that belongs to someone other than the person suspected of a crime, which is how people's homes have been taken due to alleged drug activity by their children or grandchildren. Unlike a criminal case, the burden of proof is on the property owner, who must show the cash, car or other property was legally acquired.
Rulli said he saw many of these cases play out in civil forfeiture court. Most people didn't have lawyers and didn't know what to say in order to successfully argue that their property should be returned, he said.
The median amount of cash forfeited in 21 states that track civil forfeiture is about $1,300, according to the Institute for Justice. That compares to an estimated cost of $3,000 to hire an attorney for a typical state forfeiture case.
In Philadelphia, cash was the most common type of property seized – as little as $25. Most items were worth $600 or less, according to the survey.
"The program really hurts the working poor," McDonald said. That's especially the case because many low-income people of color use cash rather than credit cards or bank accounts.
People who made less than $50,000 annually and people who were employed were less likely to get their property back, the survey showed. That's because taking time off work could be more costly than the value of the cash or property, the Institute for Justice concluded.
Only four states – New Mexico, Maine, Nebraska and North Carolina – don't allow civil forfeiture under state law. That means property can be forfeited only through criminal prosecution – generally, if the property is the proceeds of a crime or was used to commit one. That happens after a conviction, raising the standard of proof to guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
All but six states and the District of Columbia direct some or all of civil forfeiture proceeds to law enforcement. New Mexico, one of those six, requires all forfeiture funds to go into the state's general fund, which removes any economic incentive on the part of law enforcement to seize items.
The Institute for Justice's survey found that cash seizures per capita were most concentrated in four ZIP codes, with primarily Black and Hispanic residents with median incomes of $16,000 to $30,000. That's well below the median income of $45,000 for an average Philadelphia ZIP code.
"People of color are more likely to interact with police and more likely to have the type of interaction that allows property to be seized," McDonald said. They were less likely to have a college degree, less likely to own a home and more likely to be unemployed, the survey found.
Nearly 70% of those surveyed never got their property back. For those who did, it took a median of nine months and as long as three years, McDonald said. In the vast majority of civil forfeitures, the case never goes before a judge.
And that's when the money is taken legally. Some of the people who responded to the survey said police pocketed the cash they found or intentionally undercounted it on their receipts.
Krasner acknowledged that some police officers in departments across the country, including Philadelphia, perpetrate "an individual form of theft" when they pocket cash.
"The law is quite clear that what they’re doing is a crime by keeping it," Krasner said. But "that is just a reality of policing."
The Institute for Justice found that 58% of those surveyed never got a receipt from police for what was seized. Those who did were eight times more likely to get their property back.
The consent decree now requires officers to provide a receipt when they seize property.
'This could happen to anybody'
In the summer of 2012, Miguel Zeledon had arrived home from work with hoagies for dinner. He was swarmed by Philadelphia police, who said they had a search warrant for his home.
"I've never been arrested, never even had a traffic ticket," Zeledon said. "It was baffling what was happening."
Zeledon, then 32, worked in risk management for an e-commerce company. He said the officers repeatedly asked his then-partner to tell them who his drug supplier was. Zeledon had grown up in the neighborhood, known for drug activity, but never said more than a neighborly greeting to those involved.
The officers didn't find drugs, Zeledon said. But they did find $7,000 in cash in his nightstand and $3,400 in his partner's drawer.
When Zeledon's partner didn't name his supposed drug supplier, the two officers split her cash and gave her a receipt for just the $7,000. They taunted her for being with Zeledon, using an ethnic slur, and sat down to eat the hoagies.
Zeledon said she didn’t file a complaint with the police. "It was the police who took it, so who could we go to at that point?" he asked.
The Philadelphia Police Department told USA TODAY that Zeledon's partner should file a complaint with its Internal Affairs Bureau.
He tried to fight the charges for months.
After repeated delays, he finally agreed to participate in a drug treatment program and submit to regular drug tests to make it all go away. Afterward, his record was expunged.
He spent $10,000 fighting the case and paying for drug tests. The stress ended his relationship with his son's mother; they had been together since he was a college freshman.
"I lost my home, my wife, my son," Zeledon said. "Financially, it ruined me."
He found the experience particularly upsetting because he had otherwise positive relationships with the police. His godfather was the city's first Hispanic police captain; his wrestling coach was a Philadelphia narcotics officer who was very influential in his life.
"You can't judge a whole department because of those few. I understand that," Zeledon said. "These few cops, they could get away with it, and they did."
As part of the Institute for Justice's lawsuit, Zeledon said, he received $2,300.
"This could happen to anybody," Zeledon said. Your "life can be turned around in a matter of seconds."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Philadelphia police seized property from Black and Hispanic people