Guest post by Randolph Vesprey and Brenna Stewart, ACLU-DE's summer 2014 legal interns.
Deficiencies in Delaware’s police and court procedures can result in nightmarish situations for people who have assets that are wrongfully seized or for those who don’t have the assets needed to pay fines. So either with money or without, you could find your civil rights violated but have few options for recourse.
Civil Asset Forfeiture
Civil asset forfeiture—which allows the government to confiscate property and money linked to crimes—is, in theory, a lawful practice. However, under Delaware law, the government can seize your property simply by alleging it is connected to illegal activity, even without charging you with a crime. This can include cars and homes that the police say were involved in drug activity or even cash that officers find in a “stop and frisk” action and claim is connected to a drug sale.
Where are the due process procedures required by the Constitution? They don’t exist.
In order to recoup your seized belongings, it’s up to you to prove those items weren’t used in illegal activities. And since it often costs more than the seized items are worth to hire a lawyer to prove their innocence, in most cases the police end up selling what they seize and pocketing the profits.
The government banks on that income too. Our federal government annually budgets almost $5 billion from civilly seized assets. The protections provided by federal law for asset forfeiture are insufficient, and Delaware law provides even less protection.
At the other end of the spectrum, Delaware frequently imprisons defendants for failing to pay fines and court costs because they are poor. Last year, we assisted a man who was jailed because he had no money to pay $75 due the court. After two weeks, he saw a judge who ordered him released with instructions to try again to pay, as the Constitution requires that no one be imprisoned for failing to use funds they don’t have to pay a fine.
When we asked his public defender how often people waited a week or two in jail before seeing a judge who determined that poverty was the cause of nonpayment and released them, the answer was “all the time.” Changing that practice is constitutionally required, and would be to everyone’s benefit.
Delawareans deserve a criminal justice system that doesn’t allow the police to profit from the hard earned assets of innocent people or leave people in prison because they are too poor to pay a fine. The ACLU of Delaware is committed to protecting Delawareans from the gap between asset forfeiture protections and actual wrongful seizure practices, and is working to limit the incarceration of those who are trapped by poverty.