COMMENTARY: Metro trying to keep public in the dark about its use of civil forfeiture

In recent years, a number of states have implemented policies that have curtailed the abuse of “civil asset forfeiture” by law enforcement agencies. Nevada isn’t one of those states.

Instead, the rate at which Nevada authorities have exploited the practice has accelerated rapidly, according to the Nevada attorney general’s 2017 Forfeiture Report released this month.

Making matters worse, the state’s largest beneficiary of civil forfeiture — the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department — is using a legally dubious argument to keep the public in the dark when it comes to how, exactly, the department uses the practice.

Given the due-process concerns related to forfeiture, Nevadans deserve better.

Civil forfeiture refers to the law enforcement practice of seizing a person’s property based on the mere suspicion that such property was connected to criminal activity, regardless of whether criminal charges are ever filed against the owner. In forfeiture proceedings, individuals are required to spend their own time and money defending their seized property in court, with no presumption of innocence.

It’s a system that completely upends the American notion of due process.

Moreover, because the seizing law enforcement agency is often permitted to keep all or a portion of the proceeds generated by the forfeited property, there is a perverse incentive for authorities to abuse the practice to bolster their budgets — a phenomenon commonly referred to as “policing for profit.”

It’s difficult to comprehend how such a seemingly anti-American practice can flourish, unchecked, in the supposed “Land of the Free” — yet the situation is only worsening in Nevada, and the public is being left in the dark as to why.

According to the AG’s recent report, the amount of forfeited property in Nevada totaled $3.7 million during fiscal 2017, a 12 percent year-over-year increase.

Interestingly, the report also provides renewed evidence that the value of forfeited property is oftentimes petty, thereby belying law enforcement’s justification for the use of civil forfeiture — namely, that the practice is crucial for the purpose of crippling major crime syndicates.

The AG’s 2017 report documents multiple instances of forfeitures within Metro’s jurisdiction where the value of the property in question is less than $1 — hardly enough to bring any major criminal enterprise to its knees.

These instances suggest that local law enforcement is literally taking quarters out of the pockets of individuals through a practice that provides minimal due-process protection.

As multiple studies have documented, such forfeiture patterns often amount to legalized theft against the state’s poorest, who are disproportionately targeted by the practice.

Metro’s reluctance to be transparent about its forfeiture activities, however, makes things even worse. It has left the public no way to investigate the extent to which there might be abuse or mismanagement.

In fact, the Nevada Policy Research Institute has been trying for months to ascertain the underlying fact patterns behind such petty cases, to no avail.

Instead of providing the relevant records, Metro’s Office of Public Information has consistently denied the requests on the basis that “arrest reports are considered criminal history which cannot be disseminated to non-media.”

This response is peculiar, given that media outlets are no more entitled to public records than is the general public, nor are criminal history records specifically exempted from the purview of Nevada’s public-records law.

Thus it appears that the department is unlawfully keeping these records from seeing the light of day — an especially troubling thought, given the perverse incentive civil forfeiture provides for abuse by authorities.

Ideally, state law should simply prohibit the practice of civil forfeiture — allowing only for criminal forfeiture in cases where illegal conduct has been proven and due process rights are protected for the property’s owners.

In the interim, however, Nevadans should at least demand transparency from our law enforcement agencies regarding the use of civil forfeiture. After all, without such transparency, it is virtually impossible to assure the public that our local law enforcement agencies are not, in fact, “policing for profit.”

Daniel Honchariw is a policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a free-market think tank, and author of the report, “Who Does Civil Asset Forfeiture Target Most?”

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