Civil Asset Forfeiture

Written by Lucy Parsons Labs

Since 2015, Lucy Parsons Labs has been investigating the use of civil asset forfeiture by the Chicago Police Department (CPD), the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, and the State of Illinois.

Civil asset forfeiture is a process by which police and prosecutors keep cash, cars, and other valuables from people after seizing the property during a traffic stop, an arrest, or an investigation. In Illinois, as in many states across the country, the state does not need to convict the person of a crime, or even to bring charges against them, before maneuvering to keep the person’s property.

Before we began investigating CPD’s use of civil forfeiture, no one knew how much money the department made through the process or how it spent its secret income. After numerous FOIA requests and lawsuits, Lucy Parsons Labs—in collaboration with Muckrock, independent journalist Joel Handley, and the Chicago Reader—liberated the full record of CPD’s forfeiture income and expenditures from 2009 through 2015. For the first time Chicagoans could see that CPD took between $4 million and $9 million from citizens every year. Without any outside oversight, CPD used this money to wage its daily war on drugs—through routine payments for police vehicles, computers, and cell phones—and to purchase controversial surveillance equipment like Stingray cell-phone tracking equipment, Automatic License Plate Readers, and PENLink equipment, all without any public record.

Separately, Lucy Parsons Labs analyzed more than 23,000 civil asset foreitures within Cook County and determined that the vast majority took place in the parts of Chicago and the county that are already the most heavily policed: poor, predominantly black and brown neighborhoods on the city’s South and West Sides. This work was cited by the Washington Post and Reason as evidence of discriminatory policing.

You can read our full investigation, “Inside the Chicago Police Department’s Secret Budget,” at the Chicago Reader. You can learn more about our collaboration with Muckrock and how we conducted the investigation here. And you can peruse our searchable database of the more than 560 checks we obtained from CPD.

Following our investigation, there were calls for reform in the Chicago City Council and the Illinois legislature. While city leaders expressed concern that the police department was able to use forfeiture money at its own discretion, and had hidden the funds from the City Council and the mayor’s office, there have so far been no proposals to change the practice within the city government.

However, in September, Illinois adopted a new law titled the Seizure and Forfeiture Reporting Act, which will bring some reforms to the process beginning in January 2018. (In a letter supporting the reform bill, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx cited our research.) The most important changes will be that CPD and other law enforcement agencies across the state will need to report publicly the money they make and spend through civil forfeiture; that small amounts of marijuana can no longer justify the seizure and forfeiture of cash or other assets, less than $500; and that the burden of proof will be on the state, as opposed to the victim. (Currently, the state only needs to prove that police and prosecutors have probable cause that the asset was connected to a crime, while a person seeking to get their property back needs to meet the higher standard of a “preponderance of evidence” to prove they were in possession of the property legally.)

Lucy Parsons Labs supported a previous effort to reform civil forfeiture in Illinois that would have been significantly stronger—forcing the state to convict a person of a crime before being able to forfeit their property and pooling all of the forfeited assets into an account run by the state. As it stands, even after the Seizure and Forfeiture Reporting Act takes effect, people in Illinois can and will still lose their cash, cars, or other assets without ever being convicted of a crime. Prosecutors will still only have to meet a low legal standard to justify forfeiture. And individual police departments like CPD will be able to use forfeiture money in any way they see fit. While LPL is happy to see that its work has helped bring some changes to the civil forfeiture process, there is still much work to be done.