June 1,2021:- On Thursday, June 3, starting at 10:00 a.m., the Massachusetts commission on civil asset forfeiture will hold a meeting that you can watch live via malegislature.gov.
Readers will recall that civil asset forfeiture is where law enforcement seizes property that they have mere probable cause to believe may have been used in connection with a crime and then the owner has to go to court to prove innocence in order to get their property back. The system lets police and prosecutors treat ordinary people like an ATM.
Does this really happen in Massachusetts? Yes, as the experience of Malinda Harris, covered in Reason magazine, illustrates:
“On March 4, 2015, police in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, seized Malinda Harris’ 2011 Infiniti G37 because her son, Trevice, was suspected of selling drugs. Although Harris had let Trevice borrow her car, the cops never alleged that he used it for drug dealing or that she knew about her son’s illegal activity. Harris heard nothing more about her purloined property until October 2020, more than five years after the seizure, when she was served with a civil forfeiture complaint that had been prepared the previous January.”Jacob Sullum, Reason, 3.2.2021
Law enforcement seized and held Malinda Harris’s car for five years before even allowing her an opportunity to try to get it back. There is nothing extraordinary about the experience of Ms. Harris, other than the fact that she came to the attention of a nonprofit organization that was able to represent her for free. That is what makes her case exceptional.
If you think that Ms. Harris’s case is an outlier, here are some facts and figures from the Massachusetts Trial Court that speak for themselves:
- In the period 2017-19 the Massachusetts attorney general and district attorneys seized more than $20 million from people who had not been accused of, let alone convicted of, any crime
- In 24% of cases the amount of money seized was between $2,000 and $4,999, in 25% the amount was less than $2,000, and in one case was $6.20
- Section 47(d) of chapter 94C of the Massachusetts General Laws puts the burden on a claimant to prove that the property is not forfeitable
- In most cases the legal fees that an innocent owner would incur in making a claim would exceed the value of the seized property
- In approximately 80 per cent of civil asset forfeiture cases in the period 2017-19 the owner made no claim
I intend to watch the commission’s hearing and to post an update soon afterwards. And I will be right on the keyboard as soon as the Judiciary Committee schedules a hearing for the bill that I wrote (H.1724) to provide free counsel in civil asset forfeiture cases.
In the meantime, for the op-ed Malinda Harris co-authored in USA Today click here. For the latest report from the Institute for Justice, titled Policing for Profit, click here.
For a Cato Institute interview with Attorney Tom Sandefur on the subject of civil asset forfeiture (with a mention of the Malinda Harris case) click here.
And lest you think that this is a libertarians-only hobbyhorse, click here to read about the ACLU’s position.
Featured image by Logan Weaver on Unsplash