An alleged crime in 2015 led to the confiscation of a 2011 Infiniti G37 car belonging to Malinda Harris of Berkshire County, but the police did not file a civil forfeiture complaint against her until October 2020.
To counter said complaint, Harris filed a motion in court arguing that the five-year delay in filing the forfeiture complaint is a violation of due process because it deprived her of any chance to recover her car sooner. She asked for the immediate return of her property.
The Berkshire County Law Enforcement Task Force which seized Harris’ car in 2015, alleged that the car was used by Harris’ late son Trevice in drug dealing. Police alleged these activities were perpetrated by Trevice until his death in 2018. However, police did not find sufficient evidence to prove that the car was ever used in illegal activities.
Goldwater Institute, which is representing Harris in the case, raised questions about how police handled the seizure of the property. It also linked this to the usual practice of police abusing civil forfeiture laws by confiscating properties and funds suspected of being used in crime even without any proof.
According to Goldwater Institute, by delaying the filing of the forfeiture complaint for five years, the U.S. Attorney’s Office deprived Harris of her right to retrieve her car. It echoed the statement from civil rights group Institute for Justice that civil forfeiture laws in Massachusetts are among the worst in the country because they are prone to abuse. They allow Massachusetts police to seize property even if there is only “probable cause” and minimal evidence to show it was used to commit a crime. In Harris’ case, the only evidence submitted by police to prove the car was used in drug trafficking were gas receipts, parking tickets, and occupancy papers.
Goldwater Institute, which provided legal assistance to Harris for free, also lamented that Massachusetts civil forfeiture laws put the burden of proof on the owner of the property and would need to show evidence to debunk the forfeiture complaint.
Civil rights advocates across the United States have called out police for abusing the civil forfeiture laws from state to state. Such is the case with Harris’ car in which the delay in filing the forfeiture complaint in court has forced her to almost give up on recovering her property.
Property owners are also forced to abandon their attempts to recover whatever police seized from them because of the costs attached to it, such as hiring a lawyer and traveling for miles to show up in court.
According to the Institute for Justice, current civil forfeiture laws in Massachusetts constitute a violation of the 6th Amendment. The prospect of generating revenue from selling seized property has encouraged authorities to give priority to profit over public interest.
Harris’ lawyer has moved for the dismissal of the forfeiture complaint and the immediate return of her car, arguing that the very fact that the government failed to offer any explanation of the lengthy delay in filing the complaint is reason enough to dismiss the case. Goldwater Institute also hailed Harris for her courage in pursuing the case.
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