I was reading today about how the Philadelphia Police Department removed a family from their home because their son sold $40 of heroin from the home. It was not in dispute that the mother and father were unaware of the drug sale. This type of state-sponsored theft goes on in Georgia all the time. It is offensive and serves no legitimate purpose.
I first became aware of civil forfeiture when I was a prosecutor. To his credit, my boss only used it when there was evidence that a home or vehicle was being used as a drug selling enterprise. We very rarely used it, and I believed we used it in an ethical way.
However, laws are abused when unethical people are in positions of power. Recently, my office had a case in middle Georgia where our client was found to be in possession of drugs at a checkpoint. The car belonged to our client's mother and had a value of $9,000.00. There was no evidence of drug dealing or possession with intent to distribute, yet the authorities took the vehicle as leverage in the criminal case.
In this particular jurisdiction, enough civil forfeiture actions occur so as to warrant the appointment of a law firm to act as Special Assistant District Attorneys for the sole purpose of filing civil forfeiture actions. In our case, my associate Kimberly Berry contacted the firm and demanded the return of the vehicle. We knew that there was no connection to drug dealing, as did the Special Prosecutor. However, the Special Prosecutor also knew he could drag it out for months, and our client needed the car to go to work.
So Kimberly worked out a payment of $1,000 to the Special Prosecutor “for their trouble.” In other words, the client's mother had to pay $1,000 to get her car back, a car the State tried to steal from her. This is the immorality of the civil forfeiture.
In the Philadelphia case, the family was homeless for 8 days, until they promised that their son could no longer live with them. As they stated in the Fox43 news story, "they feel violated," and they were violated. The bullies at the State have broken up a family over the stupid war on drugs.
The problem, as I have mentioned countless times in other blogs, is the total lack of judicial oversight. Our judiciary needs to find our civil forfeiture law unconstitutional because people have their property seized without due process. Why is this concept so difficult for our judges to understand? You cannot take a person's rights or their property without due process of law.
Let me spell this out to our judges in language even they can understand: Having a hearing months after the property has been seized is not due process. The harm has already occurred. There is an “innocent owner” defense in automobile civil forfeitures; however, what use is this defense if the innocent owner is forced to pay money long before the hearing to reacquire the car that they need to get back and forth to work? In the case of the family in Philadelphia, they were literally left homeless without any semblance of due process. This was a gross violation of their constitutional rights.
In many States, the judicial process happens before the police can seize property. Having the hearing first is the very definition of due process. In the case of our client, even a Georgia Judge would have found in our favor; however, by allowing the property to be taken before a hearing, the client was forced to make a deal to pay for her own property. That is completely unjust.