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After police in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, took her car, Malinda Harris did not get a chance to contest the seizure for five and a half years. After the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute threatened to file a lawsuit on her behalf last March, the county agreed within a week to return the car, which she finally got back this summer.
The contrast between those two timelines shows how easy it is for the government to seize innocent people's property under civil forfeiture laws, which allow law enforcement agencies to supplement their budgets by confiscating assets they claim are connected to criminal activity. Harris' experience with legalized larceny, which she describes in congressional testimony she will give today, illustrates how that system is rigged against property owners from beginning to end.
The Berkshire County Law Enforcement Task Force seized Harris' 2011 Infiniti G37 on March 4, 2015, because her son, Trevice, was suspected of selling drugs. Although Harris had let Trevice borrow her car, the cops did not allege that he used it for drug dealing or that she knew about his illegal activity.
Harris did not get a receipt, and she heard nothing more about her purloined property until October 2020, when she received a civil forfeiture complaint that had been prepared the previous January. As Goldwater Institute senior attorney Steven Silverman noted in a February 25 motion, Massachusetts "does not provide any deadline [by] which the Commonwealth is required to initiate forfeiture proceedings."
Like most states, Massachusetts lets police seize property when they have "probable cause" to believe it was used for drug trafficking. But once they have met that minimal threshold, the burden of proof shifts to the owner, who must show that the property is not subject to forfeiture—a rule that helps explain why Massachusetts was the only state to receive an F in the Institute for Justice's 2020 report on civil forfeiture laws.
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