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Chicago City Council set to vote on controversial civil asset forfeiture ordinance

The ordinance, backed by police and the mayor's office but opposed by civil rights groups and the Cook County State's Attorney's Office, would allow the city to seize property from individuals convicted of gang activity.

CHICAGO (CN) — A controversial crime prevention ordinance is headed to the Chicago City Council for final approval next week, after passing through the city's Public Safety Committee on Thursday evening by a 10-4 vote. Called the "Victim's Justice Ordinance," it would allow the city to file civil lawsuits against gang members and seize property from individuals convicted of "streetgang-related activity."

"Upon application by the Corporation Counsel, the court in its discretion may order that the following are subject to seizure and forfeiture: (1) any property that is directly or indirectly used or intended for use in any manner to facilitate streetgang-related activity; and (2) any property constituting or derived from gross profits or other proceeds obtained from streetgang-related activity," the ordinance states.

The ordinance was first introduced to the City Council in September 2021 by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who is under pressure to address violence in Chicago with the 2023 mayoral election cycle looming. In 2021 Chicago saw the most homicides since 1996, and Lightfoot said in January that the ordinance would attack the wallets of those who commit violent crime. The ordinance also states that the proceeds of any assets seized from gang members would go to support the victims and witnesses of gang-related crimes.

“There’s a huge profit motive that these gangs have to wreak havoc and commit violence across the city and we want to take that profit motive away,” Lightfoot said in January. “I think that’s absolutely a tool that we need to be using.”

Despite Lightfoot's convictions, her proposal got a frosty reception in September, and members of the city council's Socialist Caucus quickly shunted it to committee. At the time they feared the ordinance would prove ineffective or worse; that it would only further victimize low income, Black and Latino communities. Both critiques have since been echoed by criminal attorneys and civil rights groups like the Illinois ACLU.

"Civil asset forfeiture against gang members has been allowed in this state since the early nineties, and it's never worked," ACLU spokesman Ed Yohnka said, citing a similar Illinois state law that has been on the books since 1993.

"The ordinance is ripe for abuse, and has the potential for doing far more harm... Any identification and application is completely subjective and at the whim of who; the Chicago Police Department?" Chicago criminal defense Attorney Dena Singer said. "Unsuspecting Individuals will get swept into this because of the government's overreaching hand. Not to mention this does nothing to actually stop violence in communities.”

The Cook County State's Attorney's Office also opposes the ordinance, on the grounds that asset forfeiture often breeds resentment of the legal system by impacted citizens.

"The Cook County State’s Attorney Office recognizes asset forfeiture can further the distrust residents have in the criminal justice system and the lack of trust in the system makes it even harder to solve violent crimes," a statement on the issue from Cook County State's Attorney Kimberley Foxx read. "With this in mind, under State Attorney Foxx, there have been stricter requirements for asset forfeitures, which are used only in response to underlying crimes.  We do not support the expansion of the use of asset forfeiture." 

Representatives of the mayor's office and the Chicago Police Department said Thursday that they took these criticisms to heart, and that the draft of the ordinance they presented to the Public Safety Committee on Thursday had been updated to be more specific. Per the latest draft, Deputy Mayor John O'Malley said that the city was mainly targeting established gang members and gang leaders. The city could only sue those who had been convicted of at least two criminal offenses within the last five years, O'Malley said, one of which must be "a violent or predatory felony motivated by gang-related profit."

"We are not talking about low-level drug dealers on the street," O'Malley told the committee. "We are talking about established gang members who do have assets."

Other supporters of the ordinance also added that its worth went beyond the actual money value of any property seized from gang members or won via injunctive civil lawsuits. The CPD's Counterterrorism Bureau Chief Ernest Cato called the ordinance a "tool of deterrence" that would make individuals think twice before committing violent crime in the city.

Chicago Police Deputy Director of Prosecutorial Strategies Elena Gottreich agreed with Cato, and assured the committee that "this will not lead to an inundation of asset forfeiture."

O'Malley also pointed out that, using the 1993 Illinois state law, the counties surrounding Chicago — such as DuPage and Kane Counties — have won injunctive relief and damages in suits filed against their own local gang members.

He cited the Kane County State's Attorney's Office as saying that the state law has "been effective in the past, in this jurisdiction and others, at undercutting street gangs and their ability to carry out their criminal conduct."

These arguments didn't fly with some more progressive members of the committee, as well as several non-committee City Council members who weighed in on the debate. Pointing out that none of the extra-county cases O'Malley highlighted involved actual asset forfeiture, several City Councilors asked if O'Malley and other supporters of the ordinance could provide any hard evidence showing forfeiture deterred violent crime.

They could not.

Gottreich countered that "the logic follows that laws deter crime," but this was an insufficient answer for the ordinance's critics.

"Correlation is not the same as causation," Alderwoman Rossana Rodriguez said. "We need something better than the word of the county that this works."

Alderwoman Maria Hadden, meanwhile, argued that the labor costs of pursuing an asset forfeiture case could outweigh the money value of whatever property the city was able to seize.

"Best case scenario, it'll cost us $7,000 in staff time to go after one of these cases... asset forfeiture is clearly completely financially worthless in what this [ordinance] proposes," Hadden said. Her criticism was shared by the ACLU.

"This is not going to be a windfall for the city. Just the legal fees will cost more than what they seize," Yohnka said.

The ordinance still passed committee despite these and other criticisms — including the racial connotations of how the word "gang" is defined, and the paradox of pressing a civil lawsuit against an organization that the state doesn't legally recognize.

"How do you sue the Latin Kings?" Hadden asked at one point.

The Public Safety Committee's institutional stamp of approval bodes well for the ordinance's adoption by the City Council next Wednesday. The progressive and socialist critics of the ordinance remain a minority in City Hall, and Mayor Lightfoot has a history of getting her way when it comes to introduced legislation. Despite this, Yohnka said Lightfoot would be better off committing her energies to other strategies to combat violent crime.

"There's this sense of, 'we have to do something [about violent crime],' even if it's a bad idea," Yohnka said. "Candidly, if this kind of thing worked, [violent gang crime] would have been solved years ago."

Mayor Lightfoot herself did not immediately return a request for comment.

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