Massachusetts District Attorney Delays Forfeiture Proceedings For Years, Some Involving As Little As $10
from the bringing-down-crime-lords-at-$10-a-pop dept
We all know how lousy civil asset forfeiture is. In lieu of actual criminal charges, cops (and feds) just seize any property they can get their hands on, turning other people’s money into pure profit for law enforcement agencies. Money they can often spend with little to no oversight.
It’s a profitable venture. Cops steal more than actual crooks do, netting billions a year across the nation. The legal process for forfeiture asks very little from law enforcement — rarely more than a mild hunch the seized funds are linked to criminal acts. The government has a very low bar to meet in most cases. For the people who’ve suddenly seen their money taken away, the bar is much higher.
In most cases, the government gets to decide when forfeiture proceedings begin. It also doesn’t have to make much of an effort to notify forfeiture victims that proceedings have begun. That leads to a lot of default wins for government agencies. The amount of money it takes to hire a lawyer to challenge a forfeiture is often more costly than the funds seized, leading to even more government “wins.” Every cheap win is treated like a victory in the war on crime, even when it’s usually nothing more than the government making some random person poorer.
In the state of Massachusetts, one particular District Attorney is ensuring there’s no due process when it comes to asset forfeiture. Thanks to severely lax laws, there’s no lower limit for seizures, which means the DA’s office is more than happy to help cops nickel-and-dime people to figurative death. There’s also no legal obligation for the office to move forward with forfeitures in a timely fashion.
This has led to the DA’s office waiting for as long as possible to initiate some proceedings. And, since the office takes home a percentage of every successful forfeiture, it does as little as possible to ensure those who’ve had their money seized are made aware that proceedings are imminent. Saurabah Datar and Shannon Dooling have done some digging to produce this enraging report for ProPublica. (h/t @pakanukeha)
In an investigation with ProPublica, WBUR also found that Worcester County District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. regularly stockpiles seized money, including that of people not charged with a crime, for years, and sometimes decades.
In more than 500 instances between 2016 and 2019, WBUR found that funds had been in the custody of the DA’s office for a decade or more before officials had attempted to notify people and give them a chance to get their money back. One case dated back to 1990.
This is an obvious mockery of due process. And it has been the standard operating procedure for the Worcester County DA for more than 20 years. Not that anyone cares. Or could even be allowed to care. Nearly nonexistent reporting requirements means state and county oversight likely have no idea this is how the DA is handling forfeitures. Since there are no better rules on the books, there’s nothing compelling DA Early to change how he handles his forfeiture business.
Operating in an accountability vacuum, the DA’s office engages in bullshit like this:
Take, for instance, Commonwealth of Massachusetts vs. Twenty Eight Thousand Three Hundred Fifty Six Dollars Fifty Cents ($28,356.50) In United States Currency. At first glance, the sum seems to reflect proceeds from a substantial drug bust. But court documents actually list 109 separate names and seizures — including one as low as $11 — spanning nearly 20 years.
Among the names in this giant batch in 2018 was Jones-Bernier, whose $95 had been taken four years prior. He was listed in an ad the DA’s office ran in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, as having no known address. Jones-Bernier didn’t know his name had appeared there until he was contacted by WBUR. He said Early’s office could have sent a letter to his home address, which was on his driver’s license at the time of the arrest.
This is how you end up with default “victories” that ensure the DA’s office scores some cash while doing nothing to serve the interests of the public. Nothing about this deters criminal activity. The DA’s office isn’t helping cops put bad people away and disrupt major criminal organizations. This is the work of a government-funded pickpocket.
WBUR’s analysis of Worcester County forfeitures from 2017 through 2019 found that more than half of the seizures in these cases were for less than $500. In one incident, Fitchburg police seized $10 from a man listed as homeless. In another, Sturbridge police took $10 from a 14-year-old boy.
Stealing is the DA’s business. And business is good.
His office brought in nearly $4 million in forfeitures in just the latest four years, from fiscal 2017 through 2020, according to analyses by the state’s trial court.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, the DA continues to claim this is a worthwhile venture, rather than the petty theft it appears to be.
Early said he’s proud that his office has spent large sums of confiscated money on youth programs and drug prevention. “I love taking the drug dealers’ money. I love taking their lifeblood and putting it back into the community,” he said.
Taking $10 from a 14-year-old is giving back to the community? Did you at least throw the homeless person’s $10 bill into the general fund to support shelters? Is your county more free of drugs since you’ve thrown your weight behind shaking down citizens for spare change?
All signs point to no. Here’s the data: Worcester County is still one of the most dangerous counties in the nation. Lifting loose cash from random residents hasn’t improved things at all. If there’s any downward trend noticeable here, it’s got nothing to do with the supposedly drug warring DA. It has to do with the general trend towards lower crime rates that has been ongoing for years all around the nation. Here’s the county’s crime rate per 100,000 people, sourced from the FBI’s crime data.
And the cops in Worcester are just as lousy as the District Attorney.
Worcester taxpayers have paid more than $4 million since 2010 to settle almost 30 lawsuits against the police department, according to records gathered by the group Defund WPD.
The payouts across the 27 settlements range from as low as $8,000 up into the millions. There are also more than a dozen lawsuits against Worcester police that haven’t been settled yet.
Seems like the $4 million forfeited by the DA’s office over the last four years would have covered the PD’s lawsuits for an entire decade. Maybe that’s where those funds should go. But until legislators in Massachusetts get serious about reforming this obvious abuse of an ideal, government employees like DA Early will continue to treat residents like ATMs.