Imagine being pulled over by a state police officer. Imagine being accused of various crimes — smuggling cigarettes, having drugs in the car, and committing gift card fraud. Imagine the officer searching your car, yourself, and your bag or purse. Imagine the officer taking over $10,000 in cash, as well as your smartphone and gift cards.
And imagine being let go with a warning. No arrest, no conviction — yet police kept your possessions.
According to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, that’s what one couple says a West Virginia State Police trooper did to them in June. Moreover, the couple says, their possessions were only returned to them months later after a newspaper started inquiring about the confiscation.
The Gazette-Mail writes:
On June 9, Tanya Smith — who was almost eight months pregnant — and [husband Dimitrios] Patlias were headed to the Hollywood Casino in Jefferson County. They had capitalized on several promotional offers and had 13 and 14 (respectively) $100 gift cards on them, along with the cash.
The trooper pulled them over, Smith said in an interview, and ranged from accusing them of smuggling cigarettes, to having drugs in the car, to gift card fraud. After searching the car, their persons, and Smith’s purse, the trooper let them go with a uniform warning citation.
However, he also took the $10,478 in cash, the 78 “gift cards” in the car, and Patlias’ smartphone, according to a property disposition report. Smith said 27 of those cards were gift cards, the rest of them were the kind of rewards program cards you get from any chain business.
Patlias and Smith wound up returning to their home in Egg Harbor City, New Jersey, stripped of all their cash but $2, without ever having been charged with a crime.
Law enforcement had the right to Patlias’ and Smith’s property under the legal process of civil asset forfeiture, which allows law enforcement officers to seize and keep property if they suspect a crime, even if the property owners are never convicted or even arrested and charged.
Not only is this an abuse of power that utterly disregards due process, but civil asset forfeiture directly benefits law enforcement, so it thus encourages law enforcement to police for profit, rather than to pursue justice.
Furthermore, police possessing the ability to confiscate possessions from someone who is not convicted of a crime does not enhance law enforcement’s ability to keep citizens and communities safe. In fact, civil asset forfeiture breaks down, rather than builds, trust between community and law enforcement, which in turn results in more tense and dangerous interactions between law enforcement and citizens.
And not all victims of civil asset forfeiture are as lucky as Patlias and Smith, who ultimately had their property returned to them — all because the press started digging into the incident.
According to the Gazette-Mail, Smith had spent more than two months contacting anyone, including the police, the county prosecutor, and local politicians, who she thought could help her and Patlias obtain their confiscated property. Smith says it was only after the Gazette-Mail contacted the police to investigate the incident that police returned the possessions in full, four days later after the newspaper reached out.
But this incident does not appear to be the only use of civil asset forfeiture in West Virginia, nor does the lack of communication and transparency appear to be out of the norm.
The Gazette-Mail reported that the West Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union provided the newspaper with law enforcement documents regarding civil asset forfeiture obtained via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
According to the Gazette-Mail:
The documents obtained and accompanying responses show most agencies don’t have any espoused policy or training for officers regarding asset forfeiture. There is no statewide tracking system, and recording varies by county and municipality.
While most records indicated goods were forfeited in accordance with convictions, this was not an absolute rule.
Most counties said they had no written policy to provide [in response to media inquiries] regarding training or general procedure with seizures and forfeitures.
Because civil asset forfeiture is the government bypassing due process, it should be discontinued, immediately. But until that happens, it is unacceptable that there is no state-wide uniform policy and that there is such poor record-keeping.
State and local government must require law enforcement to keep detailed and comprehensive records regarding when civil asset forfeiture is used and what items are confiscated, and these records should be publicly, quickly, and easily accessible online or via request.
Law enforcement must have a written, uniform policy regarding the use of civil asset forfeiture, and law enforcement must be held accountable to an outside entity that monitors the use of it.
Penalties should be levied on any governments and law enforcement not willing to comply with such requirements.
Civil asset forfeiture should be eliminated, but until that happens, law enforcement must be held to the highest standard in an attempt to curtail as much abuse of power as possible and to improve relations between law enforcement and the communities they serve.
We often assume that there are details to an incident we don’t know about; surely, we think, the officer had reason to suspect Tanya Smith and Dimitrios Patlias of a crime. But their property was returned more than two months later without them ever being charged or even arrested. If the Gazette-Mail hadn’t contacted the police, would it ever have been returned, or would the police have kept innocent citizens’ property indefinitely?
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent those of any other individual or entity. Follow Sarah on Twitter: @sarahmquinlan.