By Kiannah Sepeda-Miller
SPRINGFIELD — Kara Bland’s 2010 Chevy Malibu still had temporary plates when police seized it for a crime she did not commit. She loaned it to the father of her daughter, who was arrested after picking up someone who had marijuana on him.
For six weeks, Bland took her 6-year-old daughter to school on a Chicago city bus and relatives helped her run errands before a judge released the car on bond. It took a total of nine months to officially regain ownership and cost her $1,000.
“They intentionally try to make this process as difficult and confusing as they can … so that people will eventually give up,” she said.
Bland, 24, was a victim of a contentious practice that allows law enforcement to seize vehicles, cash and other property thought to be connected to a crime, and to profit from it. The plight of innocents whose property is seized has helped fuel a flurry of legal changes throughout the country that seek to limit such police powers.
Since 2014, 19 states and the District of Columbia have altered some aspect of their forfeiture laws. Twelve states now require a criminal conviction to formally confiscate assets in most or all cases, and nine others, including Illinois, are considering adopting such standards.
Illinois’ current forfeiture standard risks providing some law enforcement agencies with an “unfettered piggybank,” said state Sen. Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat who is sponsoring the current legislation. In addition to requiring a conviction before property could be permanently confiscated, the bill would reduce the financial incentive by channeling forfeited assets toward funding social services and specific law enforcement programs through grants.
“This is an extraordinary use of government power,” Harmon said. “If it’s not used judiciously, it’s a real overreach.”
According to a 2016 report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and the conservative Illinois Policy Institute, law enforcement here collect roughly $30 million in forfeited property annually that they are not required to report publicly. The proposed changes would require law enforcement agencies to openly catalog what they seized and why.
Law enforcement advocates say civil forfeiture is about more than raising funds. It’s a way of undercutting criminal enterprises by seizing the cash they use to operate, said Howard Williams, a former police chief who now teaches at Texas State University and wrote a book about forfeiture.
“You cripple their ability to operate,” he said.
The Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police opposes the new legislation in its current form, fearing it would essentially end the practice, said association lobbyist John Millner, Elmhurst’s former police chief and a former state senator. The Illinois State Police declined to discuss specifics, but like the police chiefs, a spokesman said the agency is working with the proposal’s sponsors to ensure it would protect innocent property owners but not hamstring officers’ ability to deter criminal activity.
In addition to requiring that someone be convicted of an alleged crime, the Illinois plan would make the government prove an owner consented to his or her property being used for illegal activity, instead of requiring owners to show they weren’t connected. This would rectify what House sponsor Democratic Rep. Will Guzzardi, of Chicago, characterized as a “guilty-until-proven-innocent” provision.
“If we’re going to punish people for alleged involvement in a crime, we should be very, very sure that there’s been a crime and they’re connected to it,” said Ben Ruddell, an ACLU attorney.
Ruddell said the proposal would also eliminate a requirement that owners pay bond equal to 10 percent of the property’s value just to argue it was wrongfully seized.
Andrew Hemmer, a Cabrini Green Legal Aid attorney who represented Bland for free after she could no longer afford her initial lawyer, said the majority of seizures are never challenged in court. Contesting a forfeiture is a “harrowing” procedure, Hemmer said. It’s a costly, sometimes years-long court proceeding. And a low-income challenger can’t turn to a public defender because the cases are technically against property, not people.