Three and a half years ago, the Council of the District of Columbia passed the Civil Asset Forfeiture Amendment Act of 2014. It was designed to protect citizens and give greater transparency to the process of civil forfeitures. Despite being mandated to publish annual reports of forfeitures in the district, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) has so far failed to do so. As a result, it is impossible to see whether the reforms have had their desired effect.
On Nov. 18, 2014, the D.C. Council unanimously passed the reforms which, at the time, were touted as “a model for the states.” Key changes to civil asset forfeiture procedures included a new presumption that property owners were innocent and that the burden of proof for seizure lay with the government and not the individual. Additionally, cash amounts below $1,000 were no longer forfeitable.
The process of “equitable sharing” was also banned. This is a procedure where local law enforcement partnered with federal agencies and, in doing so, were able to circumvent any state and local restrictions on civil asset forfeiture.
At the time, D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan opposed the reforms, saying they would lead to a reduction in revenues by law enforcement. He argued that the burden of proof should lie with those who had property seized. “The person trying to get the money returned will be the one to have the evidence that it was earned legally,” he said.
Despite this opposition, the law’s requirements for law enforcement transparency came into effect on New Year’s Day, 2016. As Jennifer McDonald, a research analyst at the libertarian Institute for Justice (IJ) explains, “These transparency requirements are extremely important because, without the data these reports provide, lawmakers and the public are really not able to hold law enforcement accountable for any of their forfeiture activities.”
In February 2017, the MPD said it planned to release its 2016 civil asset forfeiture reports that summer. When the report failed to materialize, a spokesperson for the MPD said, “After further evaluation, it was noted that additional data was needed before publishing asset forfeiture activity on our website… We are currently in the process of analyzing and organizing the data in hopes of releasing it in the near future.” Despite these assurances, the report has not yet been published.
“Without this information, we’re all left in the dark,” explains McDonald. “When you consider that all of these forfeited properties become public property, the fact that the public has no information on property that belongs to it is particularly concerning.”
Thanks to law enforcement’s intransigence, it is impossible to evaluate whether the 2014 reforms are having the intended effect, or whether they have even been fully implemented. While the MPD is legally required to produce the report and publish it on its website, the D.C. Council has limited powers to force them to do so. There are few if any consequences to the MDP for not publishing the report.
The Council requested the MPD’s 2017 report on civil forfeiture in spring this year. It has not yet been published.
Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
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