Lawless behavior: Police in Massachusetts unfairly seize money with little repercussions—with no justice for their victims
24% of police forfeitures had no accompanying drug conviction or criminal case filing in Worcester County, your Friday long read
We go to WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station, for this week’s long read, “It’s Easy For Police To Seize Money. Worcester’s District Attorney Makes it Hard To Get It Back,” by Saurabh Datar and Shannon Dooling. We include key excerpts below to convince you it’s worth your time.
A system that profits off ordinary people
Under a system called civil asset forfeiture, police and prosecutors can confiscate, and keep, money and property they suspect is part of a drug crime. In Massachusetts, they can hold that money indefinitely, even when criminal charges have been dismissed. Trying to get one’s money back is so onerous, legal experts say it may violate due process rights under the U.S. Constitution. It’s especially punishing for people with low incomes.
Massachusetts is an outlier among states when it comes to civil forfeiture laws. Prosecutors in the commonwealth are able to keep seized assets using a lower legal bar than in any other state.
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.
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.
But WBUR’s analysis shows many of the people who lose money to Early’s office are not charged with dealing drugs.
The Massachusetts forfeiture law was originally intended to go after people involved in large drug rings. But Rulli, the University of Pennsylvania professor, said there has been a shift in how forfeiture is deployed at the street level, targeting people involved in petty crimes or marijuana sales, or no crime at all.
“This became a very lucrative area of revenue. And as a result it got applied to ordinary folks,” rather than focusing solely on drug kingpins, he said.
A state commission formed in 2019 to study the forfeiture system had little luck obtaining more data from the DAs. During commission meetings, including one in June, officials said DAs had ignored their requests, as well as questions about how they collect and spend confiscated funds.
The commission recently released its recommendations to the Legislature, proposing a number of changes to check the power of law enforcement. Chief among them are raising the burden of proof for forfeitures and removing the financial incentive to keep seized assets, by requiring that the money be sent to the state’s general fund. The proposal also seeks stronger reporting to the state and a set minimum amount of money eligible for forfeiture.
Hall [director of the Racial Justice Program for the ACLU], who served on the state’s civil forfeiture commission, said the recommendations before lawmakers are a good starting point. But he urged the Legislature to go further, by requiring a criminal conviction in order to keep someone’s money.
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