November 12, 2020
Imagine you are sitting in your home when the police knock on your door. Officers enter and search your entire home, seizing your personal property. After your property is taken, you are given a slip of paper listing your seized belongings. The police then leave, and you are left with few answers.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened to Luis Garcia.
Luis lives in Mesa, Arizona, and is a contractor for the Univision television network. He is also active in his community and helps organize local youth soccer events. Last fall, Luis collected $5,300 for the Copa Univision Arizona 2019 Youth Soccer Tournament from various local teams. After collecting the money for the tournament, Luis returned home. Soon after, his Mesa home was raided by the Scottsdale Police Department based on an investigation into Luis’s adult son. Although Luis was not implicated in any wrongdoing, the police searched his entire home. When law enforcement found $5,300 that Luis had collected for the soccer tournament, they took it as evidence, despite there being no connection between the money and any alleged illegal behavior.
In Arizona, law enforcement can seize the property of an innocent owner as evidence without proof of illegal behavior and for an indefinite amount of time. Under Arizona’s civil asset forfeiture laws, law enforcement can also permanently take title to the property in a process that is heavily weighted in favor of the government and against property owners—and that is expensive to fight. If you are an innocent owner of property that has been seized by the government, the burden is on you, not the police, to prove your innocence. Of course, proving a negative is exceptionally difficult, and in some cases, impossible. The result is that many innocent owners lose their property through no fault of their own, either because they cannot meet the government’s high burden of proving their innocence or they cannot afford to defend themselves.
Luis was never charged with or suspected of connection to any crime. Yet police seized his property without direction, instruction, or mechanism by which to get it back. To ensure that the Youth Soccer Tournament could still take place, Luis took out two title loans on his two cars to cover the seized funds. In short, the Department seized an innocent person’s money with no cause or explanation.
In October, the Goldwater Institute sent a letter to the Scottsdale Police Department demanding the return of the $5,300 to rectify the erroneous seizure. Shortly after the Department received Goldwater’s letter, we learned that Luis’s funds would be returned to him.
Fortunately, the prosecutors involved in this matter did the right thing and returned the improperly seized money. Unfortunately, because it took so long for the funds to be returned, Luis was unable to keep up with the title loan payments and lost both of his cars. He now has to walk everywhere, including to pick up the check for his erroneously seized funds. Returning the money does not compensate Luis for the enormous stress he has endured for the past year through no fault of his own, nor does not protect others from the same thing happening to them through a system that is designed to fail innocent owners.
There are simple reforms than can be put into place to help protect innocent owners. These include requiring a conviction of a crime prior to law enforcement gaining title to seized property, and putting the burden of proof on law enforcement to prove the property was involved in illicit activity, rather than on the innocent owner to prove a negative. Until reforms like these are passed, innocent third parties like Luis face a difficult, and in many cases, cost-prohibitive battle to protect their property. You can read more about Goldwater Institute’s work on civil asset forfeiture here.