Fault Lines
11 December 2017

Chicago’s Civil Asset Forfeiture Fails Under Scrutiny

October 6, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Last week, the Chicago Reader published an investigation into the Chicago Police Department’s civil asset forfeiture fund and its findings aren’t pretty.

The Institute for Justice, a Libertarian nonprofit public-interest law firm, gave Illinois a D- for its civil forfeiture laws. Its description of the CPD’s forfeiture policies are damning, to say the least,

The Prairie State has terrible forfeiture procedures unlike those of any other state. Unless the property seized is real property—a house or a piece of land, for example—worth more than $150,000, property owners must pay a bond worth $100 or 10 percent of the value of the property, whichever is greater, just for the opportunity to challenge a seizure in court. If they lose their case, owners must give up their entire bond and pay the full cost of the forfeiture proceedings; but even if they win, they must relinquish 10 percent of the bond. To make matters worse, innocent owners bear the burden of proving that they were in no way involved with the criminal activity associated with their property, and law enforcement retains 90 percent of all forfeiture revenue—a strong incentive to seize.

While the median value of a forfeiture in Illinois is only $530, according to the Institute for Justice, losing this sum of money or access to a desperately needed vehicle can be a devastating blow to people living near or below the poverty line. Also significant about this small sum is that it’s sufficiently small that it’s not economically feasible to fight for its return. A lawyer would cost more than the amount seized.

Moreover, the millions of dollars accumulated through civil forfeitures are used to fund the police operations – nary a penny of these seizures go towards public services, such as schools or roads.

CPD uses civil forfeiture funds to finance many of the day-to-day operations of its narcotics unit and to secretly purchase controversial surveillance equipment without public scrutiny or City Council oversight. (The Cook County state’s attorney’s office, for its part, clearly indicates narcotics-related forfeiture income in its annual budget. According to its 2016 budget, the office will use this year’s expected forfeiture revenue of $4.96 million to pay the salaries and benefits of the 41 full-time employees of its forfeiture unit.)

Ben Ruddell, a policy lawyer for the ACLU of Chicago, has been working to draft a reform bill to the state’s civil forfeiture statute. He believes that one of the biggest problems with civil forfeiture in Chicago is the fact that CPD is allowed to exercise control of its own seized revenue without any oversight.

“Other states have passed legislation to mitigate this incentive by requiring forfeiture income to go toward the general operating budget of the municipality or state, or into special funds for education or drug treatment,” Ruddell says. “As it stands, CPD is free to use its forfeiture income at will, and outside of the public eye.”

Wonder where the money comes from to purchase secret hi-tech surveillance equipment like ALPR (Automatic License Plate Readers) that appears nowhere in the official budget?  It comes from the pockets people who may not have been accused or convicted of any crime, but who had the misfortune to have some cash in their pocket when they encountered a Chicago cop.

But since then, CPD has concealed the purchases of the cameras themselves, as well its subscriptions to national databases that collect and sell the location data gleaned from private and law-enforcement ALPR systems. An April 2015 e-mail sent by a sergeant in CPD and the city’s shared technology unit indicates that four of the department’s ALPR units were paid for with forfeiture proceeds. A stand-alone ALPR system, also purchased with forfeiture money, was installed at Homan Square in 2010, according to a payment sheet obtained by the Reader.

Even if the funds were used for public purpose rather than to conceal from the public equipment the police would rather the public know nothing about, it remains tantamount to legalized theft to forfeit funds when taken from people unable to challenge the forfeiture and against whom there is no evidence of a crime.

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