By Hillary Davis, policy associate
Pop quiz: Rhode Island law allows law enforcement agencies in some circumstances to confiscate your belongings, including your house, car, cell phone, and money, a process called civil asset forfeiture. Which of the following steps have to happen in order for your belongings to be seized?
A. You have to be convicted of a crime.
B. You have to be charged with a crime.
C. You have to be arrested for a crime.
D. You have to be investigated for a crime.
E. None of the above.
As a visitor to the ACLU’s website, you’ve probably figured out that the answer is E. None of the above. So, how can the police confiscate your property when you haven’t been investigated, arrested, charged, or convicted of a crime? John Oliver probably explains it best.
In Rhode Island, the only thing necessary for law enforcement to seize your property is probable cause that the property was related to or purchased with funds derived from a crime. Last year, WPRI reported that civil asset forfeiture has netted Rhode Island’s police departments nearly $15.7 million since 2003. In 2013 alone, “22 departments took in more than $1.3 million from 306 incidents” but only 138 of those cases led to conviction. As of WPRI’s investigation, half of the incidents Rhode Islanders’ belongings were still working through the courts, but in 26 cases the charges were dismissed.
Rhode Island is one of only ten states as of 2010 where probable cause is all that is necessary to seize your belongings; you don’t even have to be arrested for a crime. In fact, you don’t even have to be anywhere near the incident. If belongings you own are with somebody else, and they come in contact with the police, your belongings can be confiscated and it can be near impossible to get them back.
For instance, imagine you loan your car to your child for the night. Your son or daughter is pulled over and found to be carrying marijuana; this is a bad enough night for your family. But now the police have seized and impounded your car. Unless you can prove to the courts that your vehicle was not purchased with drug money or used in the transmission of a crime, that car now belongs to the police department. Soon it will be sold, with the majority of the profits going to the police department.
At least when the ordeal is over you can breathe a sigh of relief that law enforcement didn’t seize your house. They can, and have.
While Congress considers how to reform civil asset forfeiture at the federal level, we’re working here to require a stronger standard before your belongings can be taken, and judicial oversight. House bill 5631, sponsored by Minority Leader Newberry, would make it harder to confiscate your belongings and easier for those whose assets have been wrongly seized to get them back. With your support, and a little luck, passage of this legislation will restore due process and allow innocent Rhode Islanders to reclaim their seized belongings.
It’s your stuff; help us protect it.