D.C. Must Defend Some Forfeiture Claims

     (CN) – Car and cash forfeiture claimants can pursue certain due process claims against Washington, D.C. police for alleged violations that occurred before new rules were adopted, a federal judge ruled.
     Twenty-two civil asset forfeiture victims sued the District of Columbia in 2013. Their class action lawsuit details their efforts to retrieve their property, sometimes with little police cooperation.
     Prior to a February amendment to municipal forfeiture laws, the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department could legally seize vehicles, currency or other property from citizens without first obtaining a warrant. The individual would then be required to pay a bond at a portion of the item’s appraised value before he or she could claim an interest in the seized property.
     If the claimant did not pay the bond, the mayor’s office would determine whether the property was forfeitable, delegating authority to the MPD’s property clerk, who was required to return property that was not considered forfeitable evidence in a criminal case.
     Some claim they were denied an opportunity to challenge forfeitures altogether without proper hearing notifications, except for the few who were privy to allegedly “secret” proceedings held by the MPD property clerk, where some property owners are given an opportunity to contest the forfeiture, according to court records. The MPD denied the existence of secret hearings.
     While the old process allowed victims of forfeiture to challenge property seizure through criminal court proceedings, a number of claimants say they were not criminally prosecuted and therefore ineligible to participate in the process. Some say it took hours of research to track down their cars while others allege police withheld seizure warrants and tried to discourage claimants from recovering their property or initiating bond hearings.
     Changes enacted earlier this year tightened up D.C. forfeiture laws, imposing a stricter set of regulations for notice of seizure, requiring the MPD to take inventory of seized property and removing drug possession as a forfeitable offense, according to court documents. The claimants’ lawsuit challenges alleged violations under the old rules.
     Judge Christopher Cooper of the D.C. district court dismissed the claimants’ Fourth Amendment claims because they are challenging the adequacy of forfeiture procedures, not the underlying seizures – a challenge that falls under the Fifth Amendment, not the Fourth. He also granted D.C.’s motion to dismiss their challenge of a bond-posting requirement, as well as claims related to cash seizure hearings and notices.
     “The court will also dismiss plaintiffs’ claim that the constitution requires a prompt hearing after seizures of cash, as it finds that any relief an interim hearing could provide is outweighed by the government’s interest in retaining seized currency,” Cooper wrote in his July 21 ruling. “The court will dismiss as well plaintiffs’ challenge to the statute’s lack of a requirement that MPD give notice at the time of seizure, which it finds is consistent with due process, and plaintiffs’ claim that the content of the notice MPD sent to claimants is insufficiently detailed.”
     However, the judge denied D.C.’s motion to dismiss remaining claims, ruling that problems appear to exist in police methods for sending forfeiture notices.
     “The government must provide a prompt opportunity for owners of seized automobiles to challenge the reasonableness of the seizure and propose means to protect the government’s interest short of retaining their cars until the conclusion of forfeiture proceedings,” Cooper wrote. “The court further finds that while the MPD notices comport with due process, certain plaintiffs have plausibly alleged that the district does not issue the notices (or follow up on returned notices) in a manner reasonably calculated to reach claimants.”
     In addition, Cooper found alleged due process violations related to “secret” forfeiture procedures plausible. He also ruled that a number of claimants were wrongfully denied bond exceptions.
     “Although the statute’s bond requirement does not facially violate due process, certain plaintiffs have sufficiently pled that the district denied them bond waivers and reductions in violation of their due process rights,” the judge wrote. “The court will therefore deny the district’s motion to dismiss as to these claims.”
     Neither the D.C. mayor’s office nor the MPD responded to a request for comment from Courthouse News.

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