Letter: Asset forfeitures and law enforcement

At the Friends of Liberty’s Hampton district candidates forum (Sept. 13) at the Washington Town Hall, my husband Bill Freitag and I asked the candidates for sheriff about their views on civil asset forfeitures. I would certainly understand if attendees were left scratching their heads by not only what we were talking about, but also why we were so worked up.

Indeed, even Rappahannock County Sheriff Connie Smith, running for re-election, and her opponent Andy Berry seemed confused. I don’t blame them. I don’t think Bill and I made a very good case that evening.

In 2014, The Washington Post ran a series of articles called “Stop and Seize” about the use of civil asset forfeitures by law enforcement entities around the country. If you haven’t read the series and follow-on stories, I encourage you to do so. You can find the series here: wapo.st/1OtbpmA.

Bill and I were taken aback by those stories, so I did some further research, including talking with Smith and her chief deputy, John Arstino. Let me say here that I have great respect for our local officers. As a court reporter for the Rappahannock News, I see the RSCO’s good work almost every day. I am pro-law enforcement, but anti-overreach. My purpose here is not to blame, but to bring an issue forward that has implications for us as citizens.

Known in some jurisdictions by the perhaps more honest term “asset confiscations,” these forfeitures amount to law enforcement entities seizing money and property if they are suspected of being tied to drug sales and distribution. And the practice is sanctioned by law.

Although property seizure dates back centuries to British maritime law, the idea found renewed widespread support during the 1980s’ war on drugs. Federal law was established with drug kingpins in mind, whose money, boats, planes, cars and other assets could be seized without a charge of wrongdoing.

So what’s so bad about that? Let’s get those guys off the street, right?

The problem is that some law enforcement entities are not limiting themselves to the assets of the Pablo Escobars of this world, but are taking advantage of the law to ensnare ordinary citizens without having to show cause of illegal activity. According to The Post, “In recent years, thousands of people have had cash confiscated by police without being charged with crimes.”

In an odd twist, the forfeiture laws, rather than dealing in disputes between individuals, deal in disputes between law enforcement and assets. Meaning that things — not people — are charged. Given that oddity and the ability to seize assets without having to show cause, it’s often almost impossible for an individual whose property is seized to fight the seizure. Can you say “guilty until you can prove yourself innocent”? The Post articles profile individuals who have gone through the process.

According to The Post, not only do some law enforcement agencies seize the assets, “police agencies nationwide routinely buy vehicles and weapons with money and property seized under federal civil forfeiture law from people who were not charged with a crime.”

Now let’s get back to that candidate’s forum.

Both Smith and Berry answered Bill’s and my queries with references to the Drug Task Force. I believe the state police-sponsored regional drug task forces in the area have helped the RCSO and Commonwealth’s Attorney Art Goff solve a few high-profile drug cases in Rappahannock. Money and property seizures — and the potential distribution of assets — are a part of the process of busting drug dealers.

Counties can choose to belong to the task force or not. Smith said at the forum that the RSCO had belonged at one time. In response to a question from another attendee, Smith admitted that when the RSCO was part of the task force, they did receive a share of seized assets, but she now chooses for her department not to belong. Berry has said publicly he favors joining the task force.

In a later phone conversation, Arstino directed me to the state asset forfeiture manual online, which I read. The guidelines are clearly laid out for what can be seized and in what manner, when assets can be distributed and what they can and can’t be used for. It’s a long process. At the time of arrest, drugs, money and other property are taken as evidence and cannot be distributed.

They become “seized” property only after a case can be made against the accused. And, unlike what The Post articles report, the person from whom the assets are taken is allowed a day in court. At the forum, Berry did acknowledge that aspect of the drug task force procedures in saying “you would be able to come to court to prove your innocence.” Hmm.

Again, my purpose in writing is just to bring forward an issue that affects us as citizens. Law enforcement is guided by rules, whereas lawbreakers are not. Police need effective tools to combat the crime that threatens our communities. Some of the tools we give them may be controversial or practices maybe we’d rather not know about. I say let’s give them our support, but ask that the tools not be misused.

I welcome any feedback, clarifications, or corrections regarding this letter. Thank you.

Patty Hardee
Flint Hill

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