March 10, 2021
Six years ago, police showed up at Malinda Harris’s home and demanded the keys to her car. They confiscated her property, treating her as if she were a criminal. But she wasn’t even accused of a crime. Now, thanks to the work of the Goldwater Institute, Malinda is getting her car back at long last.
Malinda is just one of the latest victims of civil asset forfeiture, laws under which police can take, keep, and profit from someone’s property without even charging them with a crime—much less convicting them of one. Goldwater is a national leader in fighting civil forfeiture—and standing up for average Americans against government theft. Last year, for example, 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. Goldwater is also making efforts to reform civil asset forfeiture laws around the country, working with state legislatures to change these laws that unfairly harm innocent Americans.
Malinda Harris owns a 2011 Infiniti G37, which she allowed her son, Trevice, to use. But in March 2015, police in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, took away Malinda’s car under the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws, suspecting that Trevice had used it in a crime. Malinda, though, had not been accused of any wrongdoing, and she had no idea that her son might have been involved in illegal activities, either. But police confiscated her car nevertheless.
Then her car sat in police custody—and years went by. 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.
Last week, the Goldwater Institute announced that it was stepping in to help Malinda and stand up to this egregious government theft. And now, just days later, Berkshire County has agreed to give the car back. This quick reversal demonstrates that the civil forfeiture was conducted because it was allowed to happen by law, not because Malinda broke any laws. Civil forfeiture laws offer a perverse incentive for law enforcement to police for profit at the expense of the innocent.
Hundreds of millions of dollars are forfeited every year across America. And in Massachusetts, the situation is particularly bad: 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.
Furthermore, the Institute for Justice finds that while the average currency forfeiture in states across the country is a little under $1,300, it can cost more than double that to hire an attorney to fight a relatively simple state forfeiture case. So in many circumstances, it just doesn’t make financial sense to fight a forfeiture, even if you’re completely innocent.
“Civil asset forfeiture often forces people with limited means into complex legal proceedings against bright, ambitious, and well-resourced prosecutors. Those affected by civil asset forfeiture are not provided with a public defender, and the law does not clearly provide private attorneys any monetary incentive to take their case on,” said local counsel Will Wray who is representing Malinda. Wray is a part of the American Freedom Network, Goldwater’s nationwide network of pro bono attorneys. “I’m glad that the Goldwater Institute is out there to support people like Malinda Harris, and I’m happy that I was able to assist.”
“We are very pleased that Malinda will finally be getting her car back. While it is great news that Malinda’s car will be returned to her, so many other Americans never get their property back, even if they haven’t been accused of any crime whatsoever,” said Goldwater Institute Senior Attorney Stephen Silverman. “States ought to take action to reform asset forfeiture laws so that the system isn’t stacked against innocent Americans like Malinda.”