POINT: Is asset forfeiture a proper means of enforcing the law?
Yes. Real-world application shows it as an appropriate tool to fight dangerous criminal activities
By THOMAS D. GIBBONS
Do you believe that drug cartels should be allowed to bring heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine into our community or profit from those sales? Should a street gang be allowed to use a neighborhood home as a base for repeated drug activity and shootings? Do you think that a child pornographer should be allowed to keep the home-made movie studio used to record horrible crimes?
If you answered “no” to each of those questions, you belong to the majority of Illinois residents who support the proper use of asset forfeiture laws by law enforcement to keep our community safe.
Imagine the following scenarios:
I. A Mexican drug cartel packs bricks of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine into hidden compartments in a vehicle that will head to Chicago for distribution, via I-55. The drugs that don’t end up on the streets in Chicago are driven to another distribution point in the region – often the city of St. Louis, Missouri. There, they are distributed throughout Central and Southern Illinois and Missouri. Once the drugs are delivered, the vehicles are loaded with bundles of cash profits for the cartel and payment for the next load of drugs that will poison our community;
II. A local street gang lives in a house by a neighborhood grade school, inciting constant disturbances, violence, drug trafficking, shots-fired calls and even murder – shooting and killing the driver of a passing car who, then, crashed into the grade school building; or,
III. A predator lures a child into his home-made movie studio to make child pornography and cause irreparable harm to another innocent victim. Once filmed, those terrible movies can be uploaded to the Internet for other predators to view.
Keeping those examples in mind, imagine a world where when the drug trafficker, street gang or child pornographer are caught, the law prevents police and prosecutors from seizing the drug money from the drug trafficker, the gang’s headquarters or the child pornographer’s home movie studio. The criminals get to keep their illegal profits and the instrumentalities of their harmful crimes. That sounds like madness to me, but some people believe that the laws should be changed to work this way.
These examples come from actual cases we have prosecuted in Madison County, and they show the real-world application of asset forfeiture laws as an appropriate tool for law enforcement to use against dangerous criminal activities.
Fortunately, since the 1960s, police and prosecutors in Illinois have had the ability to recover the proceeds and instrumentalities of criminal enterprise. Over time, these have been expanded to deal with emerging threats. With these tools, we are able to prevent further risk of harm by dangerous offenders and support our local law enforcement and other anti-drug efforts.
While these laws are very useful, we have always been open to improvement. Illinois has done just that with asset forfeiture laws over the years. There have been rare, but harmful abuses of the law, and they taught us that we needed more robust constitutional protections for the rights of citizens in asset forfeiture proceedings. In 2012, the Illinois legislature enacted amendments to provide greater protection for the rights of citizens, especially by ensuring better notice and faster hearings (within 14 days of seizure) to determine probable cause for seizure of assets. Only by showing probable cause can the State continue the forfeiture process. If the judge finds no probable cause, the seizure ends and the property is returned to the owner. Additional changes are under consideration, and we should expect this process of re-evaluation to continue.
What happens to the forfeited assets?
So, what happens to the money and seized items? Forfeited vehicles are often used in undercover operations or for other needs of departments, or sold at auction. All monetary proceeds are divided by a statutory formula among the participating agencies. As state’s attorney, I, like my predecessors, have used the small portion our office receives from these funds to support enhanced investigation and prosecution of drug crimes, as well as drug prevention efforts in our community. The following are a few of our notable uses of asset forfeiture funds:
– Grants to local law enforcement for equipment and software to examine cell phone data in criminal investigations;
– Grants to local police departments acquiring new K-9 units;
– Paying for increased interstate highway patrols to catch drug traffickers;
– Anti-heroin / anti-opiate advertising;
– Support for Police Department summer youth camps; and,
– Red Ribbon Week Poster Contest pizza parties for winning classes.
I truly believe that this is exactly how these funds are intended to be used, and all of these enhanced services happen at absolutely no cost to taxpayers. We take drug dealers’ illegal profits and turn them back around on the dealers by supporting better law enforcement and a safer environment for our kids.
Criticism of asset forfeiture
Critics of asset forfeiture sometimes mislabel it as a “money grab” or they consider it an abuse of civil rights – citing the few rare occurrences where these laws are misapplied, or even misstating the facts and circumstances of cases to garner sympathy or scorn. There will always be a rotten apple that tries to spoil the bunch, so it is imperative that prosecutors and police do everything they can to ensure that the process is applied appropriately and fairly with careful adherence to the law and vigilant protection of the constitutional rights of citizens.
I am honored to serve the citizens of Madison County, and their safety and well-being are always front and center in my mind. As a father of two growing boys, I know how important it is to have a safe environment for all kids to grow up in. We need every opportunity and tool available to win the fight to keep our community safe. I am committed to winning this fight, and am grateful to have asset forfeiture as one of the tools in my arsenal of protection for the citizens I serve.
Thomas Gibbons is state’s attorney of Madison County.