Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Massachusetts Police Can Easily Seize Your Money. The DA of One County Makes It Nearly Impossible to Get It Back.

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The situation in Massachusetts (supposedly a liberal state) exemplifies why Libertarians are leery of government power — and the report of the situation exemplifies why good journalism is essential for a functioning democracy (and why authoritarians want to undermine journalism and get people to distrust it as “fake news,” especially when it is real news).

Massachusetts prosecutors can hold on to seized money indefinitely, even when people are not charged with a crime. In Worcester County, it’s so hard to get one’s money back, some legal experts say it may violate due process rights.

Devantee Jones-Bernier was spending an afternoon at a friend’s apartment in Worcester, Massachusetts, when police banged on the door, looking for drugs. They found marijuana in the unit, where several people had gathered, but not on the 21-year-old college student. Police took his iPhone and $95 in cash.

The district attorney’s office charged him and seven others in May 2014 with drug offenses, but later dismissed them against Jones-Bernier and all but one person. Despite that, law enforcement officials held onto his money and phone.

Under a system called civil asset forfeiture, police and prosecutors can confiscate, and keep, money and property they suspect is part of a drug crime. In Massachusetts, they can hold that money indefinitely, even when criminal charges have been dismissed. Trying to get one’s money back is so onerous, legal experts say it may violate due process rights under the U.S. Constitution. It’s especially punishing for people with low incomes.

Four years passed before the Worcester County district attorney’s office tried to notify Jones-Bernier, as required by law, about the status of his money. The office ran a newspaper notice, three times over three weeks, listing Jones-Bernier’s name in tiny legal type alongside more than 100 others involved in separate seizures. The ads said the district attorney intended to keep their money, and those who wanted to fight back had 20 days from the final ad to respond in civil court.

Jones-Bernier had no clue about the ads so he didn’t respond.

Massachusetts is an outlier among states when it comes to civil forfeiture laws. Prosecutors in the commonwealth are able to keep seized assets using a lower legal bar than in any other state.

“It’s out of step with justice,” said Louis Rulli, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in public interest law. “It produces unjust results and cries out for reform.”

Amid rising national attention to the issue, other states have rewritten their laws, and the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of a man whose car was seized during an arrest on a small drug sale. But Massachusetts has not budged.

WBUR took an in-depth look at Worcester County, which ranks among the top counties for forfeitures in the state. An examination of all forfeitures filed there in 2018 found that of the hundreds of incidents, nearly 1 in 4 — or 24% — had no accompanying drug conviction or criminal drug case filing.

And that is likely conservative; another 9% of seizures had no publicly available court records, meaning there were no charges or courts sealed the records.

In an investigation with ProPublica, WBUR also found that Worcester County District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. regularly stockpiles seized money, including that of people not charged with a crime, for years, and sometimes decades.

In more than 500 instances between 2016 and 2019, WBUR found that funds had been in the custody of the DA’s office for a decade or more before officials had attempted to notify people and give them a chance to get their money back. One case dated back to 1990.

The yearslong delays raise “obvious due process concerns,” according to Sam Gedge, an attorney at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Virginia, a nonprofit that has studied the issue and advocated for changes to forfeiture laws across the country. “The notion that you have the government waiting even two years — but certainly two decades — to commence forfeiture proceedings is, if not unprecedented, then extraordinarily rare.”

Gedge said the latitude granted to law enforcement in Massachusetts in civil forfeitures reflects broad problems with the system nationwide. In general, he said, “It’s much easier for the government to take your cash, your car, your home, using civil forfeiture than it is to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal court.”

Early, in an interview, said his office obeys the law.

“We follow all the rules that the court gives us,” he said. As for the long delays in filing forfeitures, “We try and get these wrapped up as expeditiously as we can,” Early said.

But for hundreds of people in Worcester County, it’s been anything but expeditious. There’s no oversight by the state when it comes to how long district attorneys wait to notify people that, without a court fight, their money will stay in law enforcement’s hands. And there is no public reporting of criminal conviction rates tied to forfeitures.

In the absence of that information, WBUR set out to compile the data. To evaluate the county’s record, WBUR analyzed all the Worcester County forfeitures in 2018, a year chosen to allow sufficient time for related criminal cases to have concluded. The analysis included the review of thousands of pages of records in several courts and included forfeitures from 396 seizures.

Among those, there were more than 90 instances where people lost money or cars, taken most often during traffic stops, frisks and home searches — even though there weren’t related drug convictions or drug charges. Law enforcement still held onto the cash and property.

Civil forfeitures are big business in Worcester County, where Early has been the elected district attorney since 2006. His office brought in nearly $4 million in forfeitures in just the latest four years, from fiscal 2017 through 2020, according to analyses by the state’s trial court.

Where that money goes is notable. In almost all cases, . . .

Continue reading. It’s very interesting where the money goes — and it indicates why the system continues.

It’s notable that quite often nefarious practices are discontinued once they are reported to the public at large by investigative journalists, and ProPublica has fairly frequently caused constructive change through their reports. It will be interesting to see whether this report bears fruit.

Written by Leisureguy

18 August 2021 at 1:50 pm

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