HOLBROOK, Ariz. (CN) — Arizona civil forfeiture laws encourage police to pursue profit over justice, an elderly Washington couple claim in a lawsuit against Navajo County and five police departments.
Arizona state troopers seized the car from William Terence Platt and Maria (Ria) Platt's son in May, after finding "personal use marijuana and drug paraphernalia" and about $31,000 in it, they say in their lawsuit in Navajo County Court. They say the drug and cash belonged to their son, Shea, who was pulled over near Holbrook after borrowing his parents' 2012 VW Jetta for a cross-country trip.
Navajo County Deputy Attorney Jason Moore notified the Platts of the forfeiture proceedings and gave them 30 days to file an objection.
The Platts, who are retired, couldn't afford an attorney, so they filed the petition themselves, claiming an innocent owner exemption. But Moore declared it null and void because of a technicality: It did not include the words "signed under penalty of perjury." Moore said the technical error meant that the Platts had not contested the forfeiture.
Because the prosecutor "tries" the seized property itself, the property owners must prove they are a party in interest, the Platts' attorney Paul Avelar said. This can be a lengthy legal slog, and people often suffer through it without an attorney, said Avelar, who is with the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit public interest law firm in Tempe.
In an interview, Avelar called civil forfeiture "the greatest threat to property rights and due process in our country today. It treats property owners worse than criminals."
The Platts say their son has not been convicted or even charged with a crime, but that doesn't matter in the forfeiture proceeding.
Civil rights advocates say civil forfeiture laws stack the deck against property owners because the state has a financial incentive to keep their property, or sell it. The agencies that seize the property generally keep all the money they get from selling it, though in some cases, some of it may go to victims of a crime.
The Navajo County Drug Task Force, which seized the Platts' car, will send the money they get from it to an "anti-racketeering fund," administered by the Navajo County Attorney's Office. "Accordingly, all defendants, directly or indirectly, will financially benefit from the forfeiture of Terry and Ria's car," the complaint states.
Defendants include Navajo County and its sheriff's and attorney's offices, the drug task force, the Arizona Department of Public Safety, and police departments of Winslow, Holbrook, Snowflake, Show Low and Pinetop-Lakeside.
State law requires counties to report their forfeiture earnings to the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission. In this year's report, Navajo County had a year-end balance of roughly $500,000, after receiving $327,622 in forfeitures and spending $328,233.
The Institute for Justice, the ACLU and other civil rights groups say Arizona is making it more difficult to trace where the money goes. The Criminal Justice Commission reports used to be quarterly, but starting this year counties file only annual reports. Navajo County did not itemize its income or expenses from forfeitures. Avelar said some information can be obtained from public information requests, but it's not readily available to the public.
Prosecutors say civil forfeiture laws allow police to seize weapons, money and contraband from dangerous criminals where criminal proceedings fall short.
"Congress established civil asset forfeiture laws in the 1980s to remove financial incentives from criminal activity and return illegally obtained proceeds to victims and the community,"
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery wrote in a 2015 opinion piece.
"In Arizona, asset forfeiture has been used to disable drug trafficking operations, shut down prostitution rings and pay back victims of large scale financial frauds."
Montgomery wrote that forfeited assets not seized for profit, but are "ill-gotten gains" that law enforcement agencies spend for the public good. For instance, in 2012, police seized more than $2 million and a plane from members of the Sinaloa Cartel after a bust in Tempe.
But Avelar said his clients are not criminals. William "Terry" Platt, 77, is a retired boilermaker.
Avelar said that on Monday the Navajo County Attorney's Office notified him it would return the Platts' car, but the Platts are not going to drop the lawsuit. They want to press forward to prove that Arizona violated their constitutional rights.
In its notice of withdrawal, the Navajo county attorney said that none of the defendant agencies violated a law in the seizure and notice of forfeiture, Avelar said. But Avelar said that makes no difference.
"We are prepared to appeal this all the way to the Supreme Court," Avelar said.
Last year the ACLU filed a lawsuit accusing Pinal County officials of sending seized money to a personal slush fund.
The Navajo County Attorney's Office does not comment on pending litigation.
The Platts want the state's forfeiture laws declared unconstitutional and their enforcement enjoined. They also seek $1 in damages, costs of suit, their car, and Terry's hearing aids, which were in it when it was seized.
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