Posts Tagged ‘forfeiture’

Finally, reform of structuring forfeiture — and the farm story that helped

This is welcome news from the U.S. Department of Justice, and rather than try to rewrite I’ll just quote at length what my Cato colleague Adam Bates wrote:

[On March 31] Attorney General Eric Holder issued new guidelines to federal prosecutors tightening the rules for seizing assets for so-called “structuring” offenses.

Under the Bank Secrecy Act, structuring occurs when someone is suspected of arranging their financial transactions as to avoid triggering a report to the federal government by the financial institution. Some of civil asset forfeiture’s most egregious abuses are the result of federal prosecutors utilizing this nebulous statute to empty the bank accounts of unwitting citizens and small businesses who are never charged with any crime or even aware that their transactions are considered illegal.

The new rules require:

1. That structuring seizures against people for whom there is no criminal charge be based upon probable cause that the funds were either generated by unlawful activity or intended for use in anticipated unlawful activity. Alternatively, prosecutors must procure a warrant from a court and with the approval of either the U.S. Attorney (for Assistant U.S. Attorneys) or the Chief of the Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section (AFMLS) (for Criminal Division trial attorneys).

2. That when the prosecutor determines subsequent to a structuring seizure that the government lacks the necessary evidence to succeed at either a civil or criminal trial, the seizing agency must return the full amount.

3. That when a prosecutor seizes property pursuant to suspicion of structuring, the prosecutor must file either a criminal indictment or a civil complaint, or receive an exception from either a U.S. Attorney or Chief of AFMLS within 150 days or else return the seized assets.

4. That all settlements must be complete and in writing. Informal settlements are expressly prohibited.

Here’s the Justice Department memo, and Kent Hoover at the Business Journal chain has more coverage.

I’ve been writing about the outrages of these structuring cases for years, especially the feds’ ambush of Randy and Karen Sowers’s successful Middletown, Md. dairy farm and ice cream maker, South Mountain Creamery. In yesterday’s Washington Post, Rachel Weiner tells how the Sowers’ story “gave civil forfeiture reformers a powerful symbol”, especially after the Institute for Justice got involved. I’m quoted:

“The South Mountain case happened to be one of these that captured the imagination,” said Walter Olson, a blogger for the libertarian Cato Institute who has written about the Sowers case. “Once you’ve bought ice cream for your kids from one of their little trucks, the name sticks in your memory.”

Prosecution roundup

  • Florida court blocks drug-related seizure of house as violation of Constitution’s Excessive Fines Clause [Orlando Weekly, opinion in Agresta v. Maitland]
  • Deferred- and non-prosecution agreements (DPAs/NPAs) have ushered in a little-scrutinized “shadow regulatory state” [Jim Copland and Isaac Gorodetski, “Without Law or Limits: The Continued Growth of the Shadow Regulatory State,” Manhattan Institute report]
  • Politicized prosecution: New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman throws book at bankers for not lending in Buffalo [Conrad Black via Tim Lynch, Cato]
  • Would it improve prosecutors’ incentives if localities rather than state governments paid for incarceration? [Leon Neyfakh, Slate, via David Henderson]
  • Andrew Pincus on the growing danger of enforcement slush funds [U.S. Chamber, more]
  • “The Department of Justice, if it succeeds on its new theory, may have criminalized many instances of dull employee misconduct.” [Matt Kaiser, Above the Law; Peter Henning, N.Y. Times “DealBook”]
  • A Brooklyn mess: new D.A. looking into 70 convictions obtained with evidence from retired detective Louis Scarcella [Radley Balko]

New Mexico abolishes civil asset forfeiture

Significant news: New Mexico “Gov. Susana Martinez (R) has signed [into law] HB 560 … effectively abolish[ing] civil asset forfeiture by requiring a criminal conviction before the government can seize property.” [Adam Bates/Cato; Scott Shackford, Reason and more]

Late this afternoon (Monday) I’ll be speaking to an invitation-only group in Annapolis on what state lawmakers should know about the gathering momentum for civil forfeiture reform. If you’re in or near Maryland’s capital city and interested in learning more, contact me.

Law enforcement for profit roundup

  • Missouri law incentivizes local ticket-writing, Illinois not so much. Guess how municipalities respond? [Jesse Walker] “Ferguson’s Court Fine Scandal Arose Because Of Its Bloated Government” [Scott Beyer; earlier on fines and fees in Ferguson here, here, here, here, here, here, here, etc.] “Nassau’s top cop orders retraining of officers who write fewest tickets” [Newsday via @GoLongIsland]
  • Maryland House passes forfeiture reform 81-54, with nearly all GOPers voting against the property rights side [my Free State Notes post, Maryland Reporter and more (Baltimore County Del. and former police officer John Cluster “said he hadn’t seen a single case of abuse in his time”), Jason Boisvert]
  • “Quiet change expands ATF power to seize property” [Adam Bates, Cato]
  • Meanwhile on the civil side, hedge funds place heavy bets on litigation finance [Paul Barrett, Business Week]
  • In news that will surprise few libertarians, debt collection on behalf of government agencies is fraught with problems [CNN project overview links to individual stories]
  • Among its numerous other problems, pending “human trafficking” bill would establish a fund to cycle fines back to law enforcement and victim advocates [Elizabeth Nolan Brown, Reason]
  • Investigation into forfeiture in Indiana [Indianapolis Star]

February 19 roundup

  • Sheldon Silver’s law firm reportedly loses its special status in courts [New York Post] “Ex-congresswoman could get payout from court tied to Silver” [same; former Rep. Carolyn McCarthy]
  • “High School Teacher With Fear of Young Children Loses Disability-Bias Case” [EdWeek, h/t @aaronworthing]
  • “Worth remembering that, if they had the power in the 1980s, the public health lobby would have forced us to eat a diet they now say is bad.” [Christopher Snowdon, earlier]
  • Numbers confirm that AG Eric Holder’s forfeiture reform won’t directly affect great majority of cases [Institute for Justice via Jacob Sullum, earlier]
  • Despite curiously thin evidence that they work, bans on texting while driving roll on, including Mississippi [Steve Wilson, Watchdog, thanks for quote, earlier here, etc.] Draft Ohio bill has numerous troubling features, including broad bar on future technologies, vague distraction ban, stiffer penalties without judicial discretion, mandatory court dates for minor offenses [Maggie Thurber, Ohio Watchdog, thanks for quote]
  • Cop’s defense in sex assault of teen: he “[had] money problems and a bad guy scared [him]” [Trumbull, Ct.; Scott Greenfield, Connecticut Post]
  • “Dance like no one is watching; email like it may one day be read aloud in a deposition.” [Olivia Nuzzi]

This is your Fairfax County Police Department on forfeiture

“And for those who had cash seized from them — one player had more than $20,000, the regular player said — the police agreed to return 60 percent of the money, and keep 40 percent. … in Virginia state courts the local police agency may keep 100 percent of what they seize.” In a Fairfax SWAT raid on unlawful private gambling nine years ago, an officer shot and killed Sal Culosi, an optometrist who “had no criminal record and no known weapons.” [Washington Post, earlier (Radley Balko: Culosi incident in 2006 “wasn’t even the first time a Virginia SWAT team had killed someone during a gambling raid”)]

“U.S. Spies on Millions of Cars”

Per documents released in response to a FOIA request, the federal government maintains a large program using automatic license-plate readers to track vehicles in real time (not just in later investigation) and nationwide (not just near borders). The program “collects data about vehicle movements, including time, direction and location, from high-tech cameras placed strategically on major highways.” The resulting photographs are “sometimes” clear enough to identify drivers or passengers. “One email written in 2010 said the primary purpose of the program was asset forfeiture.” Although the program is run by the Drug Enforcement Administration, its data is increasingly shared for investigations unrelated to drugs. [Wall Street Journal]

Forfeiture-driven law enforcement is at this point deeply embedded in our practice at both federal and local levels, and the small and ambiguous federal-level reforms announced by AG Holder earlier this month are unlikely to turn that around in themselves.

Conor Friedersdorf comments: “The DEA will obviously continue to lose the War on Drugs. We’ve traded our freedom to drive around without being tracked for next to nothing. … Unfortunately, leaders in the U.S. law enforcement community feel that they’re justified in secretly adopting sweeping new methods with huge civil liberties implications.” (cross-posted and expanded at Cato at Liberty). A different view: Jazz Shaw, Hot Air (could be useful in “managing crime,” and think of the children: unless we let government monitor our comings and goings, the throwers of little girls into vans will win). And more: They can watch your car, but as Waze flap confirms, don’t you dare watch theirs [Liz Sheld]

Update: new emails reveal plans of even wider scope, including a proposal (which DEA says was not acted on) to cooperate with BATF to track license plates of gun show attendees. The Guardian quotes me about the chilling effect systematic surveillance can have on the exercise of rights, and about the impetus for cooperation between Right and Left on reining in law enforcement use of data tracking. Note pp. 10, 27-28 of this NRA amicus brief in an ACLU mass-surveillance case. And earlier on license plate tracking here (Los Angeles FOIA), here and here (Maryland), and here (Radley Balko). And with the rapid development of onboard computer technology, our cars ourselves could soon be reporting our driving habits to the government. But that’d never happen, right? [Steven Greenhut] “Taxing Us To Spy On Us” [Chris Edwards]

Holder’s order on forfeiture reform: less than meets the eye

By one estimate, “something like 86 percent of the loot that state and local law enforcement agencies receive through federal forfeitures will be unaffected by Holder’s new policy.” [Jacob Sullum, Reason; earlier] “Eric Holder’s Asset Forfeiture Decision Won’t Stop the Widespread Abuse of Police Power” [Jonathan Blanks, New Republic] “New Holder Policy Means Fewer Bal Harbours, More Motel Caswells” [Eapen Thampy, Americans for Forfeiture Reform] More: Balko, continued.

Law enforcement for profit roundup

The “equitable sharing” civil forfeiture program (see weekend post) being just one of the more visible corners of a whole scaffolding of bad incentives in law enforcement:

Holder reins in “equitable sharing” asset forfeiture

Good for Eric Holder. (And yes, that may be the first time I’ve strung those first four words together in that order.) He’s throttling way back on the “equitable sharing” program that has helped turn civil asset forfeiture into a national disgrace. A shame it’s taken this long, and that he didn’t end the program entirely.

Radley Balko praises the order as “a big deal” and notes that if effective, it “will stop local police agencies from circumventing state laws aimed at reining them in.” (If state legislatures want to allow abuse, on the other hand, the order won’t stop them.) But Balko also warns that the order is ambiguous about whether the exception made for joint federal-state task forces will be permitted, as at least one close observer warns, to swallow the rule. Many law enforcement operations have at least a passing contact with the federal government’s many programs, and if that is enough to get them exempted from the new order, business as usual may continue in the seizure of property from unwitting victims (or even under certain assumptions might things worse.) More: Roger Pilon, Jacob Sullum, Institute for Justice; lawmakers’ letter earlier this month.