The Stephen Hopkins Center for Civil Rights this week released analysis (PDF) of the state’s narcotics-related civil asset forfeitures, wherein police agencies take money and property from people who have not been — and may not be — charged with a crime, under suspicion that the money or property is connected with the illegal drug trade:
Joee Lindbeck, lobbyist for Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, testified at both the House and Senate Judiciary committee hearings in opposition to legislation which would require a criminal conviction before seized assets may be forfeited. Ms. Lindbeck asserted in both hearings that the proposed reforms would serve only to protect drug cartels and drug kingpins.
The Hopkins Center reviewed data collected by the Rhode Island General Treasurer on forfeiture cases in in 2015 and 2016, which was provided to us and requested under the Rhode Island Access to Public Records Act. The Center then aggregated and analyzed that data in order to assess the realities of how the law is currently being used. The results are clear – the majority of forfeitures were for small dollar amounts, not the type of cash or property “wealthy drug lords” have on hand.
As the brief explains, out of the $970,524 seized, 28.34% was given back as not legitimately confiscated. A closer review of the numbers shows instances in which law enforcement ultimately returned most of the money or property, but kept some of it.
Rhode Islanders can disagree about whether the ability to take citizens’ property without prosecution is a legitimate use of government power even when those citizens are big time drug dealers. We will probably mostly agree, however, that the limits should be strict and the guaranteed due process rights very strong on behalf of those whose property is taken, which is what the legislation mentioned in the brief would do.