Washington, D.C., approves landmark civil asset forfeiture law

By John Clarke

By John Clarke

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - District of Columbia lawmakers approved legislation on Tuesday that makes it harder for police to seize assets from people who are not ultimately charged with crimes, a bill that backers say is a model for the rest of the country.

The measure approved unanimously by Washington City Council prevents assets taken by police from going to the department, and instead earmarks them for the U.S. capital's general fund.

Forfeiture laws let police seize property from people they stop, regardless of criminal charges. Seizures can include cash, cars and homes, which police are permitted to keep or sell.

It has been estimated that up to 90 percent of civil forfeitures occur without a criminal charge, according to the bill's author, City Council member Tommy Wells. He also said the law wrongfully gave police a financial incentive to make seizures.

The legislation overhauls the current law and provides property owners more protection, providing due process before police or prosecutors can seize property.

"This is absolutely a model for other states and cities," said Darpana Sheth, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit civil liberties law firm in Arlington, Virginia.

"Ideally, it would be eliminated. But short of that, reform is welcome."

Critics say some law enforcement agencies abuse forfeiture laws, which were created to fight organized crime.

The value of seized assets grew to $4.3 billion nationwide in 2012 from $407 million in 2001, according to the Washington Post. Over that period, police seized $2.5 billion in cash from almost 62,000 people without warrants or indictments.

Asset forfeiture attracted media attention after a police department in Montgomery County, Texas, used funds to purchase a margarita machine for office parties. Police in Worcester, Massachusetts, purchased a Zamboni ice resurfacing machine with the funds.

Washington police have been criticized for earmarking $2.7 million for a “special purpose fund” in anticipated proceeds from future civil seizures.

Police Chief Cathy Lanier said in a statement the department did not consider the funds as part of its budget.

She said the money was used to augment "confidential fund programs (witness protection, rewards for information in homicides).”