Victims Of Civil Asset Forfeiture Criticize New Federal Rules
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Members of both political parties have introduced a bill in Congress to reform something called civil asset forfeiture. That is the process the government uses to seize suspicious assets, usually cash, and keep those assets without convicting anybody of a crime. The system can lead to abuse. And last year, the Obama administration took steps to fix it. But as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, critics of the system say the reforms didn't go nearly far enough.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The new rules were supposed to address a very specific kind of situation when local police seize something, usually cash, but then hand it over to the feds for forfeiture. That's what Jason Terry thought was happening to him a couple of months ago when a Minnesota state trooper stopped him for speeding.
JASON TERRY: As soon as he saw the money - yeah, it kind of escalated into something way more than it ever was. I even said something to him. I said that money is mine, and it's all legitimate.
KASTE: It was a lot of money - $105,000 sitting on the backseat of his pickup. Terry says it was a client's money meant to buy logs for his log cabin building business. But the trooper said they smelled pot, and they suspected drugs. They never found any, but they took the money. And he got the impression that it was all being turned over to the DEA. Terry says a federal agent seemed to confirm that in a later phone call with Terry's wife.
TERRY: And she told me after she got off the phone - she goes, it makes me sick how he's talking like that's his money and that she had got the sense that it's already their money.
KASTE: For the record, the state patrol says it never passed the money to the feds and they gave it back to Terry after three weeks. He thinks because he raised a fuss with a local TV reporter. And why does it matter whether the DEA actually had Terry's money? Because last year's reforms were supposed to reduce federal involvement in forfeitures like this.
Rob Johnson is with the civil forfeiture organization called the Institute for Justice. And he still remembers when the new rules were announced.
ROB JOHNSON: Everybody was extremely happy about it. I remember people, you know, in the office cheering and clapping, and then we got the details. It began to dawn on us very quickly that, you know, these are not real changes.
KASTE: The problem, he says, are the loopholes. He says the new rules have so many exceptions for things like drug task forces that very little has really changed on the ground.
JOHNSON: The federal government is still accepting property for forfeiture that is seized by state and local police on the side of the highway with no federal agent in sight or in some cases probably no federal agent within a hundred miles.
KASTE: Here's the key detail in all this. When local cops turn assets over to the feds, the feds usually give 80 percent of it back to the local police department. It's a kind of finder's fee, which critics believe motivates a lot of these local seizures to begin with.
There are no good statistics yet on whether the Obama administration's reforms have changed that dynamic. But you can get some idea by talking to people like this.
JACEK LENTZ: My name is Jacek Lentz, and I am an attorney in Los Angeles, Calif.
KASTE: Lentz is one of the lawyers that people can hire to try to get their money back. He guesses that civil forfeitures are, if anything, still increasing. Though, he thinks the feds have become a little more careful about which cases they take. He actually believes civil forfeiture is a legitimate law enforcement tool, but he agrees with the reformers on this point - it's probably not healthy when local police departments get a cut of the property they seize.
LENTZ: It's difficult to sell the idea that somehow the system as it currently is does not skew, does not distort law enforcement priorities. It must. It necessarily must.
KASTE: And it's on that point that the critics say the administration's reforms have been ineffective.
DARRELL ISSA: They don't go to the heart of the problem.
KASTE: Republican Congressman Darrell Issa is backing new legislation for further reforms. Among other things, the authorities would have to show more convincing proof of a crime before they could take property. The bill doesn't go far enough for some of the reformers, but Issa says there's a lot of resistance to change.
ISSA: Because it involves money, we have to say to law enforcement you never should have been in a position in which you counted on, anticipated this money or were incentivized to take it for that purpose.
KASTE: On Capitol Hill, law enforcement associations have strongly resisted dramatic cuts to the federal forfeiture system, and they're usually backed up in this by the Justice Department.
Kenneth Blanco oversees asset forfeiture at Justice. And he says he is open to more reforms, but he also calls civil asset forfeiture critical to local law enforcement.
KENNETH BLANCO: Taking illicit funds out of the hands of criminals and giving it back to victims and also reinvesting it back into law enforcement in an appropriate way. And I've got to tell you having done this for 27 years, there is nothing stronger than that recipe for law enforcement and for safety in the community and safety of our financial system.
KASTE: Meanwhile, some states are now implementing more ambitious reforms of their own. In the last year, Nebraska and New Mexico have eliminated civil forfeiture altogether. They now say you won't lose your assets unless you're actually convicted of a crime. And they've also made it harder for local police to bypass state laws by sending the money to the Feds. Martin Kaste, NPR News.
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