Forfeiting rights?

“What’s troubling to you?” Richard Weber, chief of the asset forfeiture section of the Justice Department asks in one of the stories of National Public Radio’s excellent series on forfeiture of assets. “That a drug trafficker who’s bringing money from the U.S. to Mexico, who’s carrying hundreds of thousands of millions of dollars in cash in their pickup truck, who just sold dope and crack and cocaine to children in your playgrounds, and his money is being taken away? That troubles you?”

Jim McGeeney, an attorney in Rochester, has an answer for Weber. “What troubles me is if I’m driving through Alabama and I’m speeding, that for some reason your sheriff’s office thinks you can stop me and then go through my car and if I have a large amount of cash, assume that it’s drug money.”

ingram200.jpg
National Public Radio photo.

NPR’s series focused primarily on federal cases, when authorities can confiscate your money without ever charging you with a crime, as long as they can prove it’s tied to illegal activity. McGeeney, a defense attorney, says he doesn’t see the kind of abuse in Minnesota that NPR found down south. He also tends not to handle federal cases.

In Minnesota, most of the cases he sees — and represents — involve people who’ve lost their cars, money or jewelry in state cases involving controlled substances and drunk driving. And here, he says, you can lose your property even if you’ve not been charged with a crime.

“The way the law in Minnesota is now with DWI is there’s different degrees. Fourth degree is a first offense. They can’t seize your vehicle on a first-time DUI. But if you have a prior DUI, and you commit a subsequent within 10 years and there’s an additional aggravating factor or you refuse to take the (breathalyzer) test, then it becomes a designated offense. I’ve seen where someone has a DUI nine years ago. They get arrested for a DWI today, and for some reason, they can’t give a valid sample of their breath — maybe they have asthma. That becomes a forfeitable offense.”

And how often will police pursue someone’s property in a case like that? “One-hundred percent,” he says, “down here, anyway.”

McGeeney says authorities can seize property “in proximity to a controlled substance” in Minnesota without needing a court order, if it’s seized during a lawful arrest or search warrant. He’s currently representing an individual, he says, who had $8,000 seized. “It’s an administrative forfeiture. They take the property and hand you a notice on the spot. The notices are in multiple languages.”

His client couldn’t read.

“He’s never been charged with a crime, but the 60 days to challenge the forfeiture has run out,” McGeeney says.

McGeeney is no fool. He knows what you’re thinking right about now: it serves a drunk driver or drug dealer right. “And I struggle with that,” he says. ” It’s true, you’re not supposed to be possessing controlled substances, and there are some thresholds — a motor vehicle can’t be forfeited unless the controlled substance is worth at least $100 — but the person who is in possession of $50 worth of cocaine… they (law enforcement) come into his house and they can seize thousands of dollars in cash in his house, all the jewelry that’s in his house, and in some bigger instances, they seize your bank accounts. Although it’s appropriate, there has to be more balancing against your interests in your property and the government’s interest in their right to seize this property.”

McGeeney says while some police departments down south are using the law as a tool to raise money for the departments, he doesn’t see that in Minnesota. “If it’s happening, I don’t see it,” he says. “I think it is a motivating factor that they do it, because there is a potential up side. It’s also a hidden motivation. The agencies who seize this money know that there’s a good chance they’re going to get a lot of it back.” Especially if the cost of hiring an attorney to get it back will cost more than the amount confiscated.

“It seems they’re eliminating the due process,” he says. “The constitutional protections you’re entitled to when you’re accused of wrongdoing, they seem to be bypassing that here. These protections were developed because there were abuses in the 16th and 17th centuries.”

In tonight’s final installment of the NPR series (on All Things Considered), reporter John Burnett will profile a Georgia sheriff who is under investigation for misusing forfeiture funds.

  • GregS

    The analogy to DUI is not a good one. The drug laws are more like the Fish & Game laws.

    My understanding is catch too many walleye – forfeit your boat. Get caught road hunting deer – forfeit your car.

    I know there was a bill working its way through the Senate to make these law even more stringent but I do not know what the status is.

  • Charlie
  • Bob Collins

    McGeeney told of an interesting case — the citation of which I haven’t been able to find — when some rich guy bought a Ford Expedition for cash. He pulled into his driveway and wanted to show his family the stereo system. So he cranked it up.

    A neighbor, as McGeeney tells it, called the cops. The cops came, found that the guy had been drinking, so they cited him for DUI. It was his second charge of DUI in 10 years so they seized the $50,000 brand new vehicle.

    The MN Supreme Court reportedly upheld the forfeiture.

    As I said, I’m trying to find the specific case to read up on it.

  • Bob Collins

    //The analogy to DUI is not a good one.

    I don’t recall anyone using DUI as an analogy or comparing laws or statues with each other.

  • Tyler Suter

    Kind of a tuff choice. Property seizure of any kind seems extreme to me – unless of course this property is illegal – because of how dilapitating it is (a car quite often plays into a person’s livelihood). Furthermore, where a clause exists that takes time and repetition of into account, a 10 year period seems a bit long. I don’t think a repeat offense within 10 years constitutes a habitual offender. I would lean towards something closer to 5 years; maybe less. I also feel very strongly about driving under the influence and have a hard time feeling bad for anyone who is irresponsible enough to do so.

  • Bob Collins

    Where you have to be careful with anything like this, Tyler, is the stuff around the edges. For example, when the Patriot Act was passed and civil liberty concerns were raised, the response was, “if you’re not a terrorist, what do you have to worry about?”

    Constitutional rights are preserved on the backs of some pretty unsavory characters, like Nazi sympathizers who want to march in Skokie, drug dealers and drunk drivers.

    That we are interesting in making sure rights are preserved isn’t because we’re concerned about drug dealers, drunk drivers and Nazis. It’s because we know that if you give someone unchecked power and authority, eventually it will be abused.

    What NPR is reporting this week proves it again.

    And, keep in mind, once you give power to people, 10, 15, 20 years from now, a different sort of person will be having that power than what we have today, perhaps. The Founding Fathers knew that.

  • GregS

    Constitutional rights are preserved on the backs of some pretty unsavory characters, like Nazi sympathizers who want to march in Skokie, drug dealers and drunk drivers.

    I hope what you mean to say is the law enforcement must follow the law.

    I applaud the press for publicizing forfieture abuses. In that instance the press is doing its job.

    What I seem to be hearing here, is the press questioning the constitutionality of forfieture laws.

    Isn’t that a job for the courts?

    I think someone is wandering on the lawn of the wrong estate.

  • GregS

    I don’t recall anyone using DUI as an analogy or comparing laws or statues with each other.

    My mistake. I guess I got confused by the paragraph on Minnesota DWI forfeiture dropped into the middle of a blog on drug forfietures.

  • Bob Collins

    //Isn’t that a job for the courts?

    I think you’ve hit on the major problem, Greg. A growing number of law enforcement thinks the questioning of government is not a right — let alone a responsibility — granted its citizens.

    and Mr. McGeeney, of course, is in the justice community.

  • Tyler Suter

    //And, keep in mind, once you give power to people, 10, 15, 20 years from now, a different sort of person will be having that power than what we have today, perhaps. The Founding Fathers knew that.

    Wow, I’ve never really thought in terms of how ‘a different sort of people’ holding the power must be taken into account. Actually that is very enlightening.

  • GregS

    I think you have that flipped on its head, Bob.

    Law enforcement enforces whatever laws the legislature writes. If citizens do not like forfeiture laws, they can petition the legislature to change them. They can also petition the authorities who control law enforcement to de-emphasize the enforcement of some laws.

    These things happen all the time.

    But you brought up constitutionality, a determination that can ONLY be made by the courts.

  • Charlie

    //…constitutionality, a determination that can ONLY be made by the courts.

    GregS, you are correct that matters of constitutionality are decided by the Supreme Court. However, the issue would only appear in the court if someone challenges the constitutionality of the law in the first place. When the fourth estate brings these matters into public light, they are doing their job, which is to be the most effective measure of checks and balances we have in this country.

  • Robbed at gunpoint

    How about a cop who SIGNED out 3 1/2 hours before $24,000 was found in a safe. IT’S IN HIS REPORT…. ////?? THEN 5 cops depositioned say we found the money at about 6:00 PM AFTER SAFE WAS OPENED. 4 OF THEM SAID WE DIDN’T EVEN KNOW DRUGS WERE FOUND TILL GOT BACK TO STATION AFTER 4 HOUR SEARCH. BUT THE COP WHO TESTIFIES IN COURT HE SAW 10 DOLLARS WORTH OF DRUGS IN SAFE WITH MONEY BEFORE HE LEFT AT 2:30. ??? HOW IS THAT FOR FAIR AND HONEST FORFIETURE & SEIZURE? AND YES HAVE A LEGAL JOB AND ALL TAXES WERE PAID. AND…. NO CRIMENAL HISTORY NOT EVEN A SPEEDING TICKET…. I CHALLENGE YOU TO FIND THE COURTS CORRECT HERE? ANYONE CAN BE ROBBED AT GUNPOINT BY THE PEOPLE WE PAY TO PROTECT US. THE LAW SAYS WEAR BADGE, ROB WHO YOU WANT, WITH A GUN , COMMIT PURJURY, AND ITS 80% YOURS, 20% FEDS …….THATS THE LAW… STEAL A CAR, DRIVE IT , LICENSE & INSURANCE NOT REQUIRED. …///… I,LL AGREE MOST COPS GO OUT OF THEIR WAY TO HELP ALL OF US & I DO BELIEVE THAT. ITS THE FEW WITH NO MORALS WHO ARE ENCOURAGED TO RIP OFF THE PUBLIC BECAUSE AS I SAID IT’S THE LAW.