PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Police departments across Rhode Island have seized millions of dollars in cash, cars and other assets in recent years using a common law enforcement practice that doesn’t require a conviction for the individuals involved in the case.
All told, law enforcement officials throughout the state hauled in nearly $15.7 million from 3,786 incidents since 2003 using the state’s asset forfeiture law, according to a Target 12 review of data obtained through multiple public records requests. Nearly all of the incidents were drug-related.
Every police department in the state reported at least one case where it obtained cash or property through the seizure process, from Providence to the tiny force on Block Island. The assets are often sold and the proceeds are used to boost public safety budgets.
- Infographic: City by city forfeiture breakdown
- Study: The abuse of civil asset forfeiture
- Read: Rhode Island’s law
In 2013, 22 departments took in more than $1.3 million from 306 incidents, with 138 cases leading to a conviction. But while nearly half of last year’s incidents remain tied up in court, 26 cases saw charges dismissed or dropped.
“I would say that probably happens, if I had to quantify it, I would say 25-30% of the time,” Providence defense attorney John Verdecchia told Target 12.
Guilty until proven innocent
Rhode Island law allows police departments to seize property from any person involved in the “transportation of or in exchange for a controlled substance.” The statute also says that law enforcement can take property they believe was purchased with the proceeds from the drug trade.
In one instance, Pawtucket Chief Paul King said his officers were involved in seizing a house that was used for narcotics and prostitution. King said they turned the property over to the city’s redevelopment authority, who converted it from a rooming house to apartments.
“We were responding to that house two to three times a night,” King said. “We haven’t been to that house in two years.”
Proceeds from the forfeitures are split up three ways, with 70% of the proceeds going back to the police department involved in the case; 20% going to the attorney general’s office; and 10% for the state Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals to fund substance abuse treatment programs.
But for individuals who have had charges dropped or dismissed, getting money or property back isn’t easy.
A 2010 study from the Virginia-based Institute for Justice showed that Rhode Island is one of only 10 states where probable cause is considered the standard of proof when it comes to seizing property, meaning that governments use the “same standard used to justify search warrants and the arrest of suspected law violators and means merely that the government has a reasonable belief that a person has committed a crime.”
“The legal significance of probable cause is the government – the arresting department – has to have some quantum of evidence that a person is breaking the law,” Verdecchia said. “It’s a very, very low threshold.”
Most states, including Rhode Island, require the accused person to prove that their money or assets were not acquired through illegal activities.
The report graded Rhode Island a “C-“ when it comes to its forfeiture laws, noting that “property owners are effectively guilty until proven innocent, as the burden is on the property owner to prove he was not aware of or did not participate in the underlying crime.”
Steve Falvo, a lawyer who works for the attorney general’s office, said any individuals that have an ownership interest in property seized are sent letters notifying them they can contest the forfeiture. Notices are also published in the Providence Journal for a period of three weeks – once each week.
Verdecchia said accused criminals are at a disadvantage because they first have to fight their criminal case and then if they want their property returned, they have to take on law enforcement in a civil case. He said he has represented clients that have had everything from jewelry to televisions seized by police.
“The playing field is not level,” Verdecchia said. “The government has all the leverage. All the leverage.”
Law enforcement officials say they’re justified in holding onto property they believe was used for illegal purposes or acquired through ill-gotten gains.
Paul King, chief of police in neighboring Pawtucket, said his department used forfeiture money to purchase six brand new marked police units “that we just didn’t have in our budget to buy, and our fleet needed it.”
“These assets have been a godsend to the department,” King told Target 12.
Thomas Oates, deputy chief of the Providence Police Department, told Target 12 that the money does help his department but said “we don’t do narcotics investigations or target people with the anticipation that we’re going to seize money or property from them.”
Records show Rhode Island’s capital city is involved in more forfeiture incidents than any other department in the state, seizing more than $3.8 million in assets and cash since 2003.
The Rhode Island State Police ranked second at nearly $2.4 million. Pawtucket and Cranston are the only other departments that seized more than $1 million during that period. Jamestown, New Shoreham, Scituate and West Greenwich all reported less than $5,000 over the 11 years.
Since 2003, 12 incidents have led to seizures worth at least $100,000, but most forfeitures are significantly smaller. The average case during that period brought in $4,142; in 2013, 38% of seizures were for $1,000 or less.
A national issue
Across the country, forfeiture laws have long been a point of contention between civil liberties organizations and law enforcement. In 1999, Rhode Island officials agreed to return $860 to a Providence woman who spent three months in prison on drug charges until she proved she was at work at the time of the alleged drug deal.
More recently, PBS Frontline and the New Yorker have created a national stir after publishing in-depth reports on state and federal forfeiture laws, leading some states to consider changing the way it handles asset seizures.
On May 6, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, signed a bill in to law that makes it easier for individuals who are not convicted of crime to get their money or property back. The law also made Minnesota one of only a handful of states where the government has to prove the assets seized were related to the crime committed.
In Providence, Oates agreed that it is the individual’s responsibility to prove the assets aren’t tainted.
“If they can show us otherwise that the $50,000 we recovered from the safe with the two kilos of cocaine is not related to the cocaine, then they can go ahead and try do that,” Oates said.
Watch the below video to see a breakdown of the numbers, showing which cities and towns confiscate the most items.