Police in Illinois can seize your property without convicting you of a crime

Police in Illinois can seize your property without convicting you of a crime

Illinois police have taken in a total of $72 million in seized property over the past two years.

When Judy Wiese went to sleep Aug. 31, 2015, she was worried about her grandson. He’d taken her car to work that day. And he was supposed to be home that night.

Judy awoke at 1:30 a.m. to the sound of the telephone ringing. Police had arrested her grandson for driving on a revoked license. And they had seized Judy’s car in connection with the crime.

Judy hadn’t known about the revocation of her grandson’s license. And she didn’t know what civil asset forfeiture was. But she was about to find out.

Her grandson was sentenced to 10 days in jail, but it would be five months until she saw her car again. Five months of missing therapy appointments for her broken arm. Five months of struggling to find rides to the grocery store. Five months of anguish for a single, 70-year-old woman born and raised in Moline, Ill.

“I’d never even had a traffic ticket,” she said.

Asset forfeiture laws were expanded across the country in the 1980s to whack drug kingpins, enabling police to seize the fruits of their illicit labor. But in Illinois, a broken system with perverse incentives is hitting up innocent grandmothers, too.

Through civil asset forfeiture, Illinois police departments may take and keep property they suspect is related to a crime. But they need not issue a warrant or even bring any criminal charges to do so. The owner of the property must then use his or her resources to prove in court the property wasn’t related to criminal activity.

Innocent until proven guilty? Not in Illinois. Not for Judy. In civil asset forfeiture cases, the burden of proof is dropped squarely on the shoulders of the accused, not the accuser.

Living on $733 a month, Judy couldn’t afford a lawyer. And the worry of the case was wearing on her. She was diagnosed with walking pneumonia.

“The doctor said it was the stress,” Judy said. “It was awful. I didn’t know what to do.”

She tried to represent herself in court. It didn’t go well. She didn’t respond correctly to the forfeiture complaint, and failed to get her response notarized. But thankfully, a local reporter took an interest in her struggle. Rachel Warmke published Judy’s story in The Dispatch in January.

Larry Vandersnick, a former Henry County state’s attorney, saw the story and offered to represent Judy pro bono. He quickly reached a settlement with the Rock Island County state’s attorney. Judy had her car back in a matter of days.

“I was so excited,” she said. “It was like getting a new car.”

Vandersnick believes the state’s forfeiture laws are ripe for reform.

“There’s so many cases that people can’t contest,” Vandersnick said. “The burden of proof needs to be on the prosecutor. It’s quasi-criminal, if not criminal, to take someone’s property from them in this way.”

One of the most concerning aspects of civil asset forfeiture in Illinois is that residents don’t know how prevalent the practice is. That’s because police departments don’t distinguish between criminal and civil asset forfeiture. Criminal asset forfeiture happens after a conviction has been secured against a criminal.

Records obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union’s Illinois chapter show Illinois police have taken in a total of $72 million in seized property over the past two years, through civil and criminal asset forfeiture.

Police agencies in Illinois are allowed to keep 90 percent of the proceeds from the sales of seized property. No matter how much integrity a department has, many people say this “policing for profit” model is cause for concern.

“Many departments try to make it look like it’s policy driven,” said south suburban police sergeant Glenn Nixon. “The reality is that it’s a revenue generator.”

In 2010, former Grant Park Chief of Police Scott Fitts was sentenced to 63 months in federal prison for an elaborate scheme involving civil asset forfeiture. The disgraced police chief accepted bribe money from nearly 100 individuals in exchange for dropping their charges and keeping the cash he seized from them through civil asset forfeiture.

The system should have been reformed after such a large scandal. But it wasn’t.

When it comes to forfeiture cases, Illinois received a D- from the Institute for Justice for the quality of its protections for property owners.

Many states have taken steps to reform their civil asset forfeiture laws. Most recently, on April 19, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts signed a bill to banish civil asset forfeiture from the Cornhusker State. Michigan, Minnesota and New Mexico have all recently reformed civil asset forfeiture as well.

Illinois should follow suit.

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