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Civil asset forfeiture laws are vital to combating drug crimes

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I am writing to you regarding an article you recently published written by Victor Riches of the Goldwater Institute entitled, Arizona still has a chance to rein in “policing for profit.”

Mr. Riches refers to civil asset forfeitures as a “cash cow.” While his intent may be honorable, the information he provided is biased and paints an inaccurate picture of the viability of civil seizures by law enforcement agencies.

The RICO act, a federal law, was originally enacted as a way to combat organized crime, in particular the Mafia. RICO violations were a way to bring organized crime figures to justice. In fact, were it not for RICO laws many, many organized crime figures would never have been brought to justice. RICO permits all law enforcement agencies at all levels to seize the money and property of criminals arrested and charged with specific crimes where the property and money seized and forfeited were related to the specific crimes charged in criminal courts. Mr. Riches neglected to mention the importance, evolution and reasoning behind such seizures.

Michael Grill

Michael Grill

Having spent over 25 years in law enforcement, with seven of those years as a chief of police, I have firsthand knowledge of how communities benefit from civil forfeitures as a result of the commission of certain crimes – in particular narcotics related crimes. This law permits any money or property (buildings, homes, vehicles, boats, air planes, weapons, etc.) to be seized and stored by law enforcement agencies when such money and/or property was being used in the commission of narcotics-related crimes or was obtained with the profits of the commission of narcotics-related crimes.

At the time of an arrest police may temporarily seize and store any of the aforementioned assets until such time as they file for the permanent forfeiture of said assets in a civil court of law. This is a civil action separate and apart from any criminal cases charged and pending against the owners of said property. Mr. Riches also neglects to mention that the forfeitures are decided by a judge and based on the presentation of a preponderance of evidence that any forfeited money or property was used to traffic narcotics or purchased by the proceeds from sales and trafficking narcotics. Mr. Riches describes these forfeitures in such a way that would lead people to believe that the police unilaterally seized and deprived the owners of their money and property. Most criminal cases can take up to two or three years to go to trial, during which time the criminal offender may make bail as determined by the court. Failing to seize their money and assets would allow them to use the same assets to continue in trafficking narcotics. Not seizing their money would provide the financial means to flee the jurisdiction or country to avoid prosecution.

Civil seizure laws related specifically to narcotics enforcement cases require all property and money seized must be used to aid law enforcement agencies in combating narcotics-related criminal activity. In some cases, property such as motor vehicles are used for narcotics enforcement, while property such as homes and buildings are sold with the profits going to the law enforcement agencies to be used solely for narcotics enforcement equipment, narcotics enforcement officers’ overtime pay, and drug-related education programs such as the D.A.R.E. program in schools. In many cases, motor vehicles seized were also painted and used to advertise each community’s D.A.R.E. programs.

From my personal experience, a motor vehicle we seized that was purchased with the profits from narcotics sales and used to transport narcotics, was used by undercover narcotics enforcement officers to make additional narcotics-related cases. In this instance, use of this car aided in the arrest and subsequent convictions of more than 200 narcotics dealers and traffickers while taking millions of dollars worth of illicit narcotics off of the streets. In other cases, deciding not to seize homes as a bargaining tool in particular resulted in criminals providing valuable intelligence information leading to additional narcotics arrests and seizures while also protecting the safety of law enforcement officers.

Eliminating civil forfeitures would take away a valuable law enforcement tool in combating narcotics-related crimes. Mr. Riches implications that civil forfeiture laws are a deprivation of any civil rights is not accurate. Furthermore, should the state overturn or alter our current civil forfeiture laws, state, county, and local law enforcement agencies could and most likely would turn their completed narcotics enforcement cases over to the DEA, ATF, and FBI where these federal agencies can file for civil forfeitures in federal courts and go before federal judges to obtain civil forfeitures in these cases.

Michael R. Grill is a retired police chief and veteran of the Vietnam chief living in Mesa.

5 comments

  1. Civil Forfeitures are a joke in this state. Time and time again I see cops of all types take people’s money, cars and belongings because they have an itch of suspicion but nothing actually illegal. IT is not against the law to travel with $10,000 or more in cash on you, and officers, especially in Arizona, love to stop a person for any reason, find money in the car, and just take it. This forces the legitimate owners to hire expensive lawyers to fight to get their property back that should have never been taken from them in the first place. I do agree that there is a legitimate purpose for forfeitures in this state, but unfortunately, law enforcement loves to take it too far so that they can use the proceeds for themselves. It is disgusting what law enforcement in this state does to innocent people. I am a criminal defense attorney and I see this daily.

  2. “At the time of an arrest police may temporarily seize and store any of the aforementioned assets until such time as they file for the permanent forfeiture of said assets in a civil court of law. ”

    Really, Mr. Grill?

    Do you have data on how any such assets have been returned to people who were exonerated?

  3. No doubt there were good intentions when these kinds of laws were passed. But there have been enough abuses that Frontline and others have done special reports.

    https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/drugs/special/forfeiture.html

    Clearly, there needs to be independent oversight and some kind of meaningful appeals process to hold police accountable so such abuses do not go unchecked.

  4. “arrested and charged with specific crimes where the property and money seized and forfeited were related to the specific crimes charged in criminal courts.”

    And what of the people that have assets seized without ever being charged with a crime? What of the officers I’ve seen recordings of saying if their dog alerts (those dogs will alert on command) they’ll seize the money (6k in cash in the case I refer to which really – is that Al Capone kind of money? Is that an “unreasonable” amount of cash? Do officers get to determine how much cash I am allowed to have?) and the officer said “You’ll never see that money again. You can fight it but you’ll never get it back, you’ll burn that much up trying to get it back.”

    You’re just another leech that depends on corrupt policing for profit. Explain to me how I see so many officers at sargent and lower levels who’s compensation exceeds 1/4 mil / year. Explain how the Sheriff deputy that hid behind a car while kids got shot up in Parkland – gets a pension exceeding 100k / year. Come on now – EXPLAIN how your precious blue men aren’t a gang – engaging in extortion – and EXPLAIN WHY Y’ALL AREN’T ARRESTED UNDER RICO!!!

    Clearly you benefit from this corrupt system, and you are a party to this. Maybe YOUR assets should be seized you racketeerinig criminal!

  5. Aaron, Steve Muratore, David Wright, and Jon,

    Thank you for your response to my article explaining civil asset forfeiture for narcotics related cases. I appreciate your taking the time to read and respond to what I wrote. I also would like to respond to your comments, personal verbal attacks aside. Jon, thank you for sharing the video relating to this topic.

    I agree with you that money and property alone should not be subject seizure and civil forfeiture based on the “assumption” by law enforcement officers that said money is being used to purchase and/or sell illicit drugs. For whatever reason the IRS requires the flagging of any bank transactions or cash purchases greater than ten thousand dollars. Cash winnings of $12,000.00 in one lump sum or greater are required to be flagged, such as lottery or casino gambling winnings. If you have been in a casino you may have noticed that most slot machine jackpots pay up to $11,999.00 to avoid having to report the winnings to the IRS.

    Unless there is a direct connection tying the cash and/or property to illicit drugs, the cash and/or property should not be subject to seizure. So just asking about the amount of cash a person is transporting or in possession of and then seizing that cash and vehicle may very well be a violation of those people’s civil rights.

    So, if a driver is stopped for any legitimate breach of any laws, they are legally subject to being reasonably detained by law enforcement officers. If the violator is in possession of a large amount of cash other factors are required to determine whether or not the cash was a result of drug related sales or trafficking. This also applies to any real property purchased with or used for the sales or trafficking of illicit drugs.

    During this brief detention, law enforcement officers have the means and ability to look at and review the violators driving record and criminal history. If there is no criminal history or the criminal history shows arrests and convictions for crimes not related to illicit drug sales or trafficking, any reasonable person may assume that the cash is also not related to illicit drug sales or trafficking. If the cash can be tied to other financially related crimes, robberies or burglaries for example the cash may be seized and held for evidence in a criminal proceedings.

    The disposition of cash and property seized for drug related offenses is solely up to a judge. Law enforcement officers do not make that determination. Were it me who was a victim of a cash and/or property seizure by law enforcement officers where there is no proof that the cash was related to illicit drug sales or distribution I would petition the court to release the money and property that was seized. It does not take an attorney to do this and if an attorney was used it does not cost thousands of dollars. A person may hire an attorney just to draft the petition but not appear in court.

    A person may also seek assistance from agencies like the Civil Liberties Union, Legal Aid, or online companies like Legal Zoom. In the case from the video of the restaurant owner, he may be able to file a civil suit to recover the funds, damages, and legal fees. While a person my feel helpless there are a number of options available to them. Additionally, attorneys do not charge for an initial meeting to determine if there is a legitimate claim. People are not required retain the services of that attorney. They can use that case assessment information to one of the aforementioned agencies at little or no cost to them.

    In response to the comment about the annual earnings of a police officer I would like to point out that in addition to. an officers salary, officers earn overtime pay for court appearances and police details. In most law enforcement agencies some patrol officers are among the highest paid public servants in their municipality because of these factors. Public servants retirement income is based on their last three years of service prior to their retirement. So there is an incentive to earn as much money as they can to boost their retirement pay in this way. Another factor are the determinations made by collective bargaining agreements.

    Nothing is ever absolute, especially when it comes to the determination and application of the law. As such we should not be painting any person or organization with the same brush.

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