Federal Agents Make More Use Of Seizure Powers

by Mark Friedman  on Monday, Jul. 15, 2013 12:00 am  

While the federal forfeiture civil case of Stephen Parks of Little Rock and his wife, Anna Harper, recently made headlines, government seizures of money and property aren’t uncommon — and they’re on the rise.

The problem with the seizures, critics say, is that the government is taking property from people who haven’t been charged with a crime.

Law enforcement officials, however, maintain that seizing property and then filing a civil asset forfeiture lawsuit to keep it helps return the property to victims. And by moving the property quickly through a civil procedure rather than waiting for criminal charges, police officials can prevent the property from being sold, damaged or spent.

The forfeitures also are a financial boost to law enforcement agencies, which can receive 80 percent of the proceeds seized from drug cases or when there are no identifiable victims, while the federal government keeps the rest of the money.

For fiscal 2012, which ended on Sept. 30, $1.3 million was received from civil asset forfeiture cases in the U.S. District Courts in Arkansas, a twentyfold increase from fiscal 2011 but less than the $1.7 million recovered in fiscal 2010, according to the U.S. Attorneys’ Annual Statistical Report.

The report showed that civil asset forfeiture cases were on the rise in Arkansas U.S. District Courts. There were 19 civil asset forfeiture cases pending in the Arkansas courts as of Sept. 30, 2012, with six cases completed, compared with 12 pending in the previous year and six completed. And for the fiscal year that ended in September 2010, only eight civil forfeiture cases were pending and 10 cases were closed.

The U.S. Attorney’s Offices in Arkansas are on track to collect more money from civil forfeiture lawsuits in the current fiscal year than in 2012. Conner Eldridge, the U.S. attorney for the Western District, which covers Fayetteville and Hot Springs, said he hired an attorney last year, Ben Wulff, to beef up the asset forfeitures in his district.

“Certainly, our goal is to make the proper and appropriate decisions in civil forfeiture [cases]” in order to seize property that’s being used in furtherance of a crime, Eldridge told Arkansas Business last week.

On July 2, Eldridge’s office filed civil lawsuits to support forfeiture claims on three pieces of real estate in Rogers that their owner, Jim Bolt, purchased for nearly $1 million early this year with money he allegedly fraudulently received. The U.S. Marshals have already taken control of the properties, but Bolt hasn’t been charged with a crime as of Wednesday, nor has he responded to the civil suits. Eldridge declined to say if criminal charges were coming against Bolt, citing the ongoing investigation.

(Also see: FBI Takes Volvo Title, iPads, Cash in Bolt Forfeiture Case)

In June, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District received a judgment allowing it to keep $2.3 million seized from a tractor hauling a car during a 2011 traffic stop. In that case, the driver of the vehicle, Lonnie Banks of Temecula, Calif., told officers the money was linked to the transport of drugs. Neither Banks, nor anyone else, filed a claim to get the money back, and it was awarded to the government. Banks, though, has never been charged with a federal crime.

Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice of Arlington, Va., said civil asset forfeiture lawsuits by U.S. Attorney’s Offices nationally are on the rise.



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