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Judge Rips Drug Task Force For Going On Asset Forfeiture 'Shopping Sprees'

Published: April 4, 2019
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Source: Tech Dirt

A Pennsylvania judge has delivered an earful to the York County Drug Task Force and its handling of property forfeitures. Christopher Hawkins, represented by Korey Leslie (who was kind enough to email me the ruling the York Dispatch couldn't be bothered to post with its article), challenged the seizure of two vehicles and a bunch of electronics from his house. Hawkins was arrested after a controlled heroin purchase. There appears to be no question Hawkins participated in drug dealing. But that doesn't excuse the government's decision to take two cars and some TVs from him as "evidence."

Judge Craig T. Trebilcock doesn't like anything about the Task Force's seizures, since it appears to be more concerned with taking things with resale value, rather than property with an actual nexus to drug distribution. The opinion [PDF] repeatedly calls Task Force detectives out for their lack of credibility and the dollar signs continually dancing in their eyes. The Task Force originally seized four vehicles from Hawkins before returning two of them for a lack of drug nexus. But it still couldn't connect the two it kept.

Detective S. testified that the Dodge Neon and the Mercedes were kept by the police because "we thought there was clear and convincing nexus between drugs and those vehicles" However, no credible facts were provided by Detective S. to substantiate these conclusions. During cross examination. Detective S. indicated the vehicles did not play any role in the drug transactions on the 22nd or 23rd.

The only thing Detective S. offered as evidence of this drug nexus was a statement by Hawkins that he used the Mercedes to "meet people for money primary for drugs." But, as the court notes, this statement was not corroborated by any other detectives involved in the arrest and seizure, nor was it recorded in any fashion. The court, however, knows exactly why these two vehicles were seized, even if the Task Force members won't admit it.

Detective S. testified that there was no lien on either the Neon or Mercedes Benz, the apparent sole distinguishing factor as to why they were seized, instead of the other vehicles.

The detectives also couldn't offer a good explanation for the seizure of two flatscreen TVs from the house. One claimed Hawkins wasn't working, so he couldn't have purchased them with legal funds. Again, the court points out Hawkins offered proof of his employment with a temp agency and lived with his girlfriend, who had a full-time job. And again, the court knows the Task Force just took the TVs because it thought it could turn them into cash quickly.

[T]here was no factual evidence to support the conclusion that Mr. Hawkins (or another resident) could not legitimately afford a television being present in his home. The task force seized the property simply because it had resale value.

The judge also calls out the perverse incentives that have led to the task force appearing before him repeatedly to forfeit televisions, video game systems, and vehicles -- all without making much of an effort to tie these items to illegal activity.

Forfeitures… result in additional income streams to the very officers seizing the property, a source of concern to this Court.

The court notes that the state's forfeiture laws are Constitutionally sound. But not when they're applied the way the York County Task Force applies them. The court says the task force engages in "arbitrary" seizures that violate citizens' due process rights. Then Judge Trebilcock hammers the point home:

This case is being decided on the facts of this case alone. It is important to note, however, that overzealous forfeiture actions by the Drug Task Force in the time frame of this case have not been isolated in nature. Dozens of forfeiture actions are brought before this court each year. While the property seized may vary from case to case, with some cases involving automobile, firearms or other property, a disconcerting pattern is evident that Drug Task Force officers seize big screen TVs that are present in the property regardless of any link to drug money or illegal activity. In addition, they disproportionately seize all game systems and video games, present in the property. The decision as to which property to seize is driven, in the words of Detective S., by which property has resale value.

The Drug Task Force does not seize furniture or clothing, silverware, or other items that have low resale value. They focus upon items that have high resale value. That is not a problem in itself, until the police begin to ignore that there must be a nexus to drug dealing or drug money to seize those higher high value assets. [...] In this case the Drug Task Force personnel ignored the need for such a nexus and engaged in a shopping spree, for the benefit of their budget, based solely on the property's resale value.

The court goes even further than this. It suggests the Drug Task Force also uses these seizures to coerce confessions or plea deals from defendants. It says it may not have happened in this case, but the court is sure it has happened in the past. Going forward, the York Drug Task Force will be under the microscope every time it tries to forfeit property.

[I]n the absence of reform and a greater demonstration of responsibility in future Drug Task Force practices, this issue will remain to be decided to the voluntariness of plea deals, questions of double jeopardy, and the personal or institutional liability/culpability of those officers who seize private property unlawfully.

In the future, Trebilcock's court will also be requiring hearings for all forfeiture -- hearings that defendants will be allowed to attend and testify at on their own behalf, even if they're currently incarcerated. Trebilcock signs off his scathing opinion with this:

Taken in its entirety, the testimony of the officers in this case indicates that the police made the subjective assessment that the Defendant is too poor, absent drug dealing, to have nice possessions. This was nothing more than a hunch, unsupported by any investigative rigor, and clouded by an overzealous desire to forfeit the possessions.

Not enough judges are willing to go this far when criticizing law enforcement's abusive practices. This probably won't result in a come-to-Jesus moment for the Task Force, unfortunately. It may decide these drug cases now have a federal nexus and ask Uncle Sam to help them keep robbing people. But at least they know they're no longer welcome to pull this bullshit in Trebilcock's court, so it's a start.

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