March 2, 2021
Malinda Harris is a grandmother in Massachusetts whose car was unjustly confiscated by the police and has been held in their possession for five years, even though she did not break the law. Now, she has teamed up with the Goldwater Institute to fight this government theft and get her property back.
Malinda owned a 2011 Infiniti G37, which she allowed her son, Trevice, to use, since he only owned a motorcycle. But in March 2015, police in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, seized Malinda’s car under the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws, suspecting that Trevice was trafficking drugs. Malinda had not been accused of any crime and had no idea that her son might have been involved in illegal activities.
Then her car sat in police custody—for five years. It wasn’t until October 2020 that Malinda finally received the legally required notice that state officials were planning to confiscate her car. “The stress of this forfeiture…there’s no words for it,” Malinda said.
Today, the Goldwater Institute is stepping in to defend Malinda in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ case against her, standing up to the government’s seizure of her car.
Getting the car back has a particularly personal significance for Malinda. Trevice was tragically murdered in an unrelated incident in December 2018, and Malinda has been desperately hoping that she will be able to leave something behind for her granddaughters—Trevice’s two girls, who are 18 and 9. But now, her car is on the verge of being gone forever, going to the government instead of going back to its innocent owner.
“Sadly, Malinda’s predicament is not a unique one,” said Goldwater Institute Senior Attorney Stephen Silverman, who represents Malinda. “Across the country, there are countless examples of government taking property from Americans who haven’t committed any crime.” Malinda is also being represented by local counsel Will Wray; Wray is a part of the American Freedom Network, Goldwater’s nationwide network of pro bono attorneys.
The fear and uncertainty of Malinda’s situation is shared by thousands of Americans who have had their property confiscated by the government and have been forced to fight for their rights on an unequal playing field. Civil asset forfeiture allows police to take, keep, and profit from someone’s property without even charging them with a crime—much less convicting them of one. It is such a lucrative tool that hundreds of millions of dollars are forfeited in just this way every year across America.
And in Massachusetts, its impact is particularly severe: A recent comprehensive study gives Massachusetts an “F” with respect to its civil asset forfeiture rules. In the Bay State, innocent owners—whose property is used by someone else to commit a crime—are still required to prove themselves innocent, rather than the government being required to prove them guilty. Massachusetts confiscated at least $327 million through civil asset forfeiture between 2000 and 2019.
From coast to coast, the Goldwater Institute has been leading the charge against this egregious form of government theft. Last year, Tucson handyman Kevin McBride was left stranded when police confiscated his Jeep—his primary source of income—using civil forfeiture laws and demanded $1,900 to return it. The Goldwater Institute threatened to sue the government and Kevin got his Jeep back. In another Arizona case, Luis Garcia, a contractor with the Univision television network, collected $5,300 to support a youth soccer tournament, but when the Scottsdale Police Department raided his Mesa home—based on an investigation into Luis’s adult son—the charity money was wrongfully seized. Luis had never been charged with—or even suspected of being connected to—a crime. The Goldwater Institute got involved, and Luis’s money was returned soon after.
“Civil asset forfeiture abuse will only stop when people stand up to and fight against these abuses,” said Silverman. “I admire Malinda’s courage and strength and look forward to Malinda getting her day in court.”