Lv Mingxiang/Xinhua/Photoshot/Newscom

Lv Mingxiang/Xinhua/Photoshot/Newscom

Washington, D.C., is often described as being out of touch with the rest of the country. However, our nation’s capital and the rest of the country are in lockstep regarding civil forfeiture—the often-abused ability of the government to seize property involved in crimes.

In May 2011, Frederick Simms was pulled over in D.C. for making a right turn at a light where right turns were permitted only during certain hours. The ticketing officer claimed he smelled marijuana and searched Simms’s vehicle, where he found a firearm. Drugs were not found. Simms was arrested on weapons charges and his car was seized. In December, Simms was acquitted of all charges, but the city kept his car.

Despite his acquittal, under civil forfeiture law, his car was still guilty. In order to prove the “innocence” of his property and have it returned, Simms would have to initiate a forfeiture proceeding, starting with anteing up some money, since D.C. law requires a bond of 10 percent of the market value of the property (up to $2,500) just for the privilege of contesting the seizure.

Unlike a bond in the traditional sense, this bond does not allow the car to “go free”; instead D.C. keeps both the bond and the car until the forfeiture proceeding has concluded. Simms was initially informed that he would have to post $1,200, later reduced to $800. However, even this reduced amount was too much for Simms, who makes $12 per hour at his job and was still saddled with a $360 monthly car loan payment for a car he was unable to use.

Simms initiated a legal proceeding to get his car back. On July 6, 2012, over one year from the date of seizure, a federal district court granted Simms a preliminary injunction, ordering him to post a bond of $1,000 in exchange for the use of his car pending the outcome of the underlying forfeiture action. While Simms still had to pony up cash, at least he has his property back—for now, anyway.

This story, which may end up having a happy ending, is by no means unique. In 2012, D.C. police seized 269 vehicles, only 89 of these vehicles were returned as of March 2013.

  • In January 2012, Jerrie Braithwaite loaned her car to a friend who was pulled over and found to be in possession of drugs. Braithwaite’s car was seized despite the fact that she was never charged with a crime. As of early this year, she was still trying to get her car back.
  • Nelly Moreira’s car was seized by police after she lent the car to her son, who was pulled over and found to be in possession of an unregistered gun. Her son pled guilty to a misdemeanor, but her car remained in the hands of the police for over six months.
  • Frank Reese, who testified at a recent hearing in front of the D.C. council regarding civil asset forfeiture reform, had his car seized by D.C. police after his car, which his daughter had borrowed, was pulled over and a gun owned by one of her friends was found. Even though she had no idea the gun was in the car, and even though the judge at her hearing couldn’t understand why she had been arrested, the car was seized, and Mr. Reese had to wait six months and pay a $2,500 lien on the car to get it back.

The truth behind these forfeitures is that law enforcement officials profit handsomely from this program and thus have an incentive to seize as much property as possible. It is estimated that from 2010 to 2012, D.C. collected almost $4.8 million through forfeiture actions. The D.C. attorney general admitted that the law provides millions in profit to the D.C. government when he spoke out against a recent attempt to reform the law.

The D.C. city council is considering a bill to reform civil asset forfeiture in the district. Hopefully, the council will be able to come up with a solution that protects property owners and removes incentives for police officers to seize property while still providing mechanisms for police to effectively fight crime.