Monday, June 1, 2009

IMPD Expands Civil Forfeiture

The Indianapolis Star Diana Penner pens an article this morning discussing plans of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department to step up civil forfeiture actions. The article comes just a day after Jon Murray's article regarding the start of a federal trial involving two former IMPD narcotics detectives.

The irony is that the two articles are related. There is nothing that distorts police enforcement enforcement activities and opens the door to corruption more than civil forfeiture. And as far as an affront to civil liberties, there is probably nothing worse than civil forfeiture.

On paper, civil forfeiture sounds great. In addition to charging the individual with a crime, police seize the assets they use to commit that crime. The money obtained from selling those assets then helps fund other law enforcement activities.

The problem is that the forfeiture action takes place in a separate arena, civil courts where the person whose property is seized does not enjoy the protections one finds in criminal court. Also, the property seized doesn't even have to be that of the person accused of the crime. Let's say you lend your car for the weekend to your buddy who decides to rob a liquor store. Your car will likely be seized and you will have to hire an attorney to defend in the civil forfeiture action to try to get it back. Your buddy can even be found not guilty of the crime. The civil forfeiture action requires a lower level of proof - a preponderance of the evidence - so you may still end up losing your car even you had no involvement in the crime. Even if you show you had no kowledge that your buddy was going to use your car to commit a crime and you, thus, win the civil forfeiture case, you will still be out thousands of dollars you spent for the private attorney to represent you, money you have no right to recover under our legal system

Civil forfeiture distorts the law enforcement function, causing it to be focused more on seizing stuff than going after wrongdoing. Several years ago, I had a civil forfeiture action in Marion County. My client wanted to make $50 to buy his wife a nice birthday present so he agreed to deliver, on behalf of a dealer, four bags of pot to a person parked at a northside McDonalds. Unbeknowst to him, the police were waiting and he was arrested. Even though he could have been charged with a felony, the police weren't interested in that. Instead the police were interested in his customized van which they seized. In short, our client had to pay the police several thousand dollars so he could get his van back from the police. He did and no charges were ever filed. The case went away.

While civil forfeiture can be a useful weapon against crime, too often it devolves into little more than legal extortion. That is only a short step away from illegal extortion, police officers being presented with opportunities to personally walk away with the property of people accused of a crime. Certainly I have heard of a number of people complaining of missing money, big screen TVs, other property during encounters with police officers. These are generally people with criminal histories who are not about to challenge police officers over stolen property.

Expansion of civil forfeiture during a time in which there is a concern over corruption in the IMPD seems like a very bad idea.


varangianguard said...

This is a really slippery slope, ethically speaking.

Is this really the time the police here should be ramping up activities that might appear to be ethically challenged?

I'm sure the lure has proven irresistable. For the police, it seems to be a win-win. Seize (allegedly) ill-gotten gains from criminals, AND be able to utilize the monies gained (or the properties themselves) from the forfeitures to increase police funding.

Sadly, I see this as short-sighted, but in character. I can't imagine any credence being given to internal naysayers, if there even are any.

If police have to use forfeiture, then appearances would be better served if any resulting funds were to be used for something charitable instead, like PAL programs, et al.

I see this as very similar to how traffic fines are utilized. Those monies support the Traffic Court and police training.

The appearance is that the more traffic tickets that are written, the more money for Court salaries and police training functions. To regular citizens, that appears self-serving and self-perpetuating.

I'm sure Scott Newman is a great guy, but he is really dropping the ball (for citizens) by signing off on this. But then, the administration doesn't seem to answer to the citizenry, does it?

Unknown said...

I am in the middle of this very fight with I.M.P.D. I was purchasing what I was told was used parts from a vehicle,these parts are 20 dollars at the junk yard so when i was told i could buy them for 40 i thought well its kind of high but the junk yard didnt have them so i bought them. Long story short the car the part came from was stolen i was charged with vehicle theft and theft they are taking my 99 jeep cherokee and 3000 dollar stereo system and 22" wheels which i have provided reciepts for. Im being told that i am to be happy that i may lose the vehicle but i wont go to jail. Well its not right I am being victimized alot as i was arrested, charged so im missing work for criminal court out bail money and lawyer fees and maybe my property all for a total stranger saying he was junking a car that had the parts i needed for my car