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*** UPDATED x1 - Court: Expensive cars can’t be seized *** “Every year, police take millions of dollars from ordinary Chicagoans and spend it behind closed doors”

Friday, Sep 30, 2016

* Chicago Reader

When the clerk called Willie Mae Swansey’s case in a crowded courtroom last February, the 72-year-old approached the judge slowly, supporting herself with a four-pronged cane. It had been a busy afternoon in the Daley Center’s civil forfeiture courtroom, with more than a dozen quick hearings and a pair of trials preceding her own. The crush of defense lawyers and hopeful claimants had thinned by the time Swansey stepped up to the bench. She steadied herself beside a prosecutor and stood with a stately straightening of her back.

Swansey was here to reclaim her car. The Chicago Police Department had seized the 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser two years prior, arresting the driver, Swansey’s son, and charging him with manufacturing or delivering 15 to 100 grams of heroin. The car had been impounded ever since. Swansey herself was never charged with a crime, and it was her name, not her son’s, on the title. All the same, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office had agreed with CPD that the vehicle, which the office valued at $1,400, was worth keeping for good.

Swansey was prepared to tell the court that her 53-year-old son, Vincent Turner, had taken her keys without her permission. She wanted to explain that she needed her car not only for basic needs like groceries and laundry, but also because she and her granddaughter, whom she cares for, make frequent trips to doctors’ offices and hospitals. Swansey suffers from congestive heart failure, while her granddaughter has cerebral palsy and experiences frequent seizures. She wanted also to stress she had no knowledge that her son had drugs in her car.

“Ain’t no way I’d let them take my car for drugs,” Swansey later said. “That’s not me. I’m not that kind of person.”

But at her February trial date, she wasn’t allowed to argue her case. The judge simply asked if her son’s criminal case had been resolved. It hadn’t, so by law, the judge was allowed to delay the civil litigation until after the criminal case was over. They would reconvene in two months, the judge said.

This was the ninth time Swansey had appeared in civil forfeiture court and the ninth time she was told she’d have to come back. A lawyer, had she been able to hire one, could have filed a hardship motion that would allow Swansey access to the car while she waited. A lawyer might have also convinced a judge to hear the case immediately, since Swansey didn’t plan to contest the allegations against her son.

But for the fixed-income retiree, hiring a lawyer was not an option.

“I’m a poor black woman,” Swansey says. “I don’t have no money for an attorney.” Instead, she continued to represent herself.

Go read the whole thing. I mean it. The. Whole. Thing.

Kimberly Foxx needs to address this problem as soon as she’s sworn in as state’s attorney.

*** UPDATE ***  Put into the context of the cops seizing a poor woman’s $1200 car, this is just infuriating

Drunken drivers with prior convictions for driving under the influence might consider driving expensive cars, given a recent ruling by an Illinois appellate court.

“That’s, essentially, the policy that’s being espoused by the Fifth District (Appellate Court),” said David Robinson, a state appellate prosecutor who came out on the losing end of a case in which the court reversed a trial judge and ordered a pricey motorcycle returned to its owner.

In a Sept. 22 ruling, the Fifth District Appellate Court reversed a ruling by Crawford County Circuit Court Judge Christopher Weber, who had upheld the seizure of a $35,000 Harley-Davidson trike from a woman who was a passenger when her husband was busted for driving under the influence. In reversing the forfeiture, the appellate court ruled that vehicle’s value was out of proportion with the misdeed, and so seizure was unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment, which bars excessive fines to punish wrongdoing.

In reversing the trial judge, the appellate court said that the financial circumstance of the trike’s owner didn’t matter – whether she was rich or poor, the vehicle’s value alone made the seizure a “harsh penalty” that was out of step with the gravity of the offense, the appellate court ruled.


- Posted by Rich Miller        

  1. - anon - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 10:06 am:

    John Oliver did a great segment on his show covering this topic in depth.

  2. - anon - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 10:06 am:

  3. - Almost the Weekend - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 10:10 am:

    Surprised this money wasn’t used to line their own pockets or go to lavish conferences.

    CPD needs an overhaul, you can’t hire all these new police officers and have old officers train them. The status quo in this department isn’t effective.

  4. - Nail - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 10:11 am:

    Ok maybe bad judgment on the example cited, but overall, I’m ok with this law, would be happier if it went to the operating budget, but that’s the difference between he City and ever other municipality.

  5. - Anonymous - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 10:16 am:

    If he took the car without permission and used it for illegal purposes, she should’ve claimed it was stolen and had him charged.

  6. - charles in charge - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 10:19 am:

    Nail, this isn’t just a problem in Chicago, and prosecutors are part of the problem, not just police. The state law needs to be reformed. For one example of forfeiture abuse outside Chicago, please see:

  7. - Thoughts Matter - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 10:19 am:

    They didn’t charge her with a crime, the car belongs to her. Legislators need to stop this NOW. Doesn’t matter what her son was doing while driving it- they obviously don’t think she was involved since they didn’t charge her.

  8. - Will Guzzardi - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 10:22 am:

    Just to be clear this is *definitely* not just a CPD issue. LaSalle County’s SA created an entire enforcement unit funded by forfeiture proceeds and spent the money in all kinds of questionable ways, for instance:

  9. - Will Guzzardi - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 10:22 am:

    Oops @charles in charge beat me to the draw. Great minds!

  10. - Rich Miller - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 10:22 am:

    ===she should’ve claimed it was stolen and had him charged===

    Her own son. Who obviously has a severe narcotics problem.

    What a mensch you are.


  11. - Last Bull Moose - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 10:25 am:

    The Sheriff of Nottingham would be pleased with our civil forfeiture laws.

    This system encourages police misbehavior and is structured to permit corruption. We should not allow civil forfeiture without a criminal conviction.

  12. - Michael Westen - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 10:27 am:

    It is a big problem, and not just in African-American communities. PD’s across the land look on these forfeitures as a revenue enhancer. Shameful.

  13. - Response - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 10:29 am:

    Rich, you are wrong. She should have claimed it was stolen and charged the son. Part of the problems plaguing the city (and country) is the family / friends “enable” criminals.

  14. - cdog - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 10:30 am:

    from the article,

    “When a government agency is allowed to handle the forfeiture proceeds it brings in—as is the case with both CPD and the Cook County state’s attorney’s office—it controls both “the sword and the purse,” like an army that is also its own taxing authority.”

    Takes a lot of money to keep a “black site” operating. /s

    (It’s also shares similarities with putting the bookkeeper in charge of collecting, depositing, and posting the cash.)

  15. - SAP - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 10:31 am:

    ==In order to have a chance at getting their property returned, claimants must put down a bond toward their asset when first submitting the official paperwork. This means that Swansey had to pay $140 (10 percent of her car’s value) just to start the process. Then, to appear in court, she had to pay an additional $177 fee.

    To Swansey, who lives on a $655-per-month social security check, these costs are substantial. Successful claimants will have 90 percent of their bond returned; unsuccessful claimants get nothing back.==

    Jeez…this is Kafkaesque.

  16. - Honeybear - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 10:31 am:

    There are few forms of corruption that I hate more than civil forfeiture. It is every kind of wrong. It’s a cancer on our democratic body.

  17. - Ice Man - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 10:32 am:

    Thanks for sharing and shining a light on this issue! I wasn’t aware of it before. This is nuts.

  18. - Ebenezer - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 10:41 am:

    Response -
    When your kid has a serious drug problem, you just want them to survive. Some days that means calling the cops and having them charged. Some days its not calling. Don’t pretend its easy.

    On a different note, what message does the states attorney think this sends to the community.

  19. - Team Sleep - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 10:45 am:

    Where did my comment go?!

    Ebenezer - with respect there is a difference between having a drug problem and possessing enough heroin to distribute it. The same goes for meth. My home turf has been ravaged by meth over the last 15 or so years. I feel empathy for those who battle it but that empathy disappears when someone tries to sell it to others in the community.

  20. - DD - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 10:49 am:

    The ISP is guilty of this as well

  21. - cdog - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 10:50 am:

    If anyone hears about a Go Fund me page, I am in.

    It would be awesome to get this lady a car and a lawyer.

  22. - fed up - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 11:00 am:

    This is wrong. Hopefully we see some legislation proposed quickly.

  23. - @MisterJayEm - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 11:05 am:

    “She should have claimed it was stolen and charged the son. Part of the problems plaguing the city (and country) is the family / friends ‘enable’ criminals.”

    She should have done something no decent parent would ever do sounds like a very thoughtful and effective public policy.

    – MrJM

  24. - Rabid - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 11:10 am:

    Audit every task force,don’t let them keep their booty

  25. - Anon Downstate - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 11:13 am:

    “This system encourages police misbehavior and is structured to permit corruption. We should not allow civil forfeiture without a criminal conviction.”
    This entire ‘civil forfeiture’ aspect of criminal law is ay out of control. And as others have pointed out, it’s a nationwide problem.

    In fact, there are localities where law enforcement has been known to go out with ’shopping lists’ to acquire items through ‘voluntary’ civil forfeiture (as in “we won’t charge you if you sign over your rights to the items in question”).

    In fact, one of the reasons so much law enforcement is against de-criminalizing marijuana is that this removes an opportunity for law enforcement to have more civil forfeiture.

    Link is:

    You see incidents like this occurring, and it’s no wonder there’s little or no willingness or enthusiasm in the general population to work with law enforcement.

    Maybe somebody needs to ask Rahm why he thinks adding a few hundred more cops to the streets is going to make that much of a difference when to a fair portion of the population, they feel that law enforcement are the thieves (using civil forfeiture).

    Why work with the same people (law enforcement) who are actively trying to steal from you and your neighbors?

  26. - Earnest - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 11:23 am:

    The issue itself aside, that’s some great reporting.

  27. - Anonymous - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 11:28 am:

    The money should go to the Public Defender and Legal Aid to remove the incentive for abuse by law enforcement.

  28. - phocion - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 11:32 am:

    Built-in incentive to do the wrong thing. Sounds like Wells Fargo.

  29. - NIU Grad - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 11:34 am:

    I had hope that Foxx would address these issues…until she started raising funds from Burke, Madigan, and the old crew…we’ll see if she can break from that crowd after their fundraising.

  30. - Drug Cop - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 11:38 am:

    While there are changes that should be made at the federal and state level when it comes to forfeiture laws, the instance cited, while not a positive example of the laws, is very rare. In regards to civil vs criminal conviction, when targeting gangs and drug trafficking organizations, the money is often held and transported separate from the drugs. Large amounts of cash are taken from these criminal groups where there may be no criminal charges against the mule driving or holding the cash, but many others will usually be charged in conspiracy. I’ve been in this business a long time and not once have I experienced the laws abused as outlined in the example. They are a great tool for hitting the gangs and criminal organizations where it hurts most. Again, there are abuses, and laws do need some tweeking, but overall the laws work.

    In reading some of these comments I shake my head. I won’t stoop to insults, but please educate yourselves before making ridiculous comments based on the bad example presented.

  31. - Rich Miller - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 11:41 am:

    ===The money should go to the Public Defender and Legal Aid to remove the incentive for abuse by law enforcement. ===

    That’s not a bad idea.

  32. - Big Muddy - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 11:44 am:

    Ald. Burke is slipping. That’s a lotta cabbage he could be controlling. It’s dark money too. Think of the mischief he could cause with that!

  33. - wordslinger - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 11:48 am:

    It’s a national problem and a national disgrace.

    Every year, state and federal officeholders across the country, Democrats and Republicans, from every point on the political spectrum, express outrage at stories like this and claim they’re going to do something about it.

    And nothing happens, every year.

    What’s with the brick? Do these robbing law enforcement agencies and local governments have that much clout on the state and federal levels?

    I can’t think of anything more un-American than depriving citizens of their money and property, without charge or due process, then putting the onus on them to “prove” they’re “not guilty” before making them whole.

    It’s theft and robbery. Where’s the political leadership to end it?

  34. - yinn - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 11:52 am:

    Separate from forfeiture accounts but no less prone to misuse are the so-called administrative tow fees allowed by Illinois statute. I’ve read stories from Ogle, DeKalb, and McHenry counties due to scrutiny from Shaw Media.

    City of DeKalb passed its administrative ordinance in early 2013 and its police chief received undocumented “permission” of some sort to use it as an off-budget slush fund to buy goodies for the PD and its new station. They generated and spent more than $350,000 that first year that you could only find out about if you got hold of the auditor’s Letter to Management (that now must be included in the audit report, but back then you had to FOIA it).

    Following newspaper reports, Ogle County and City of DeKalb reversed their policies regarding these accounts, and now the funds are publicly accounted for in budgets.

    I know state rules for Chicago can be quite different from those for cities with fewer than 500,000 in population, but the unfair application of fines, fees, and forfeitures, along with off-budget use, actually appear to me to require statewide legislative solutions.

  35. - crazybleedingheart - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 12:00 pm:

    $3.2M in nonitemized expenses under $5,000 is a lot of happy hours.

  36. - Amalia - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 12:01 pm:

    the money and the process should be changed. but when cars and guns used in crimes are in the names of other people, that is a convenience which criminals use to their advantage. it’s sad that a family member is exploited, but often it is not exploitation but lending with some knowledge.

  37. - NIU Grad - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 12:18 pm:

    yinn - Thanks for bringing up DeKalb. Almost immediately after passing their broad ordinance, city police began targeting poor student/minority communities to tow vehicles parked illegally or vaguely connected to minor crimes. The owners of the property were advised not to hire attorneys, as the towing storage costs (going to the City) would increase heavily by the day.

  38. - MyTwoCents - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 12:28 pm:

    And then there’s this article, where apparently if your vehicle is worth too much it can’t be seized in a DUI case:

  39. - cdog - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 12:29 pm:

    “It’s theft and robbery. Where’s the political leadership to end it?”


    And in the absence of political leadership, those who have the right qualities might want to watch for the next “Citizen Watchdog Training” put on by the Edgar County Watchdogs. (The anti-corruption group currently being followed by 60 Minutes for a segment on civilian anti-corruption efforts.)

    CPA’s with friends, FOIAs, and fierce attitudes to insure what is right, can accomplish great things.

    Civilian forfeiture audits would change the dynamics with this, substantially.

  40. - crazybleedingheart - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 12:33 pm:

    ==it’s sad that a family member is exploited, but often it is not exploitation but lending with some knowledge.==

    Which is illegal.

    The issue is that the state would rather steal from poor people than make the case that they have broken the law.

  41. - cdog - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 12:36 pm:

    I should have said this more clearly…

    Civilian audits of forfeiture units would change the dynamics of this.

  42. - @MisterJayEm - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 12:36 pm:

    “it’s sad that a family member is exploited, but often it is not exploitation but lending with some knowledge.”

    Friends of criminals?
    Family of criminals?

    Just have the cops take their stuff and I’m sure they’ll straighten right out.

    – MrJM

  43. - ArchPundit - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 12:37 pm:

    ==The money should go to the Public Defender and Legal Aid to remove the incentive for abuse by law enforcement.

    Rich beat me to it, but yes, great idea.

  44. - wordslinger - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 12:43 pm:

    To the update: The appellate court ruling is appalling and ignores the original intent of civil forfeiture laws.

    These laws were originally meant as another tool to go after big-time drug dealers and Mafia kingpins.

    The idea was “prove you obtained this property through lawful means, and you can have it back.”

    So much for original intent.

    Now, it’s just a governmenf cash cow to tune up poor people.


  45. - Anonymous - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 12:50 pm:

    ==“Citizen Watchdog Training” put on by the Edgar County Watchdogs==

    “Training” from a loony tunes group? Yeah, I’ll pass.

  46. - anon - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 12:58 pm:

    In reversing the trial judge, the appellate court said that the financial circumstance of the trike’s owner didn’t matter – whether she was rich or poor… ===

    An inexpensive vehicle would represent a proportionally greater loss to a poor defendant than an expensive vehicle represents to a 1 percenter. If the judge really cared about justice, he would consider income, not simply the value of the vehicle. So the vehicle is confiscated from a poor offender, who can’t afford to replace it, while it isn’t confiscated from the rich guy who can afford to replace it. Justice in America has a class bias.

  47. - crazybleedingheart - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 1:15 pm:

    No crying mayor speech over this yet.

  48. - DuPage Dave - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 1:29 pm:

    It seems obvious that this is another tax on low-income people. I’m glad that this is getting some exposure and perhaps some legislative attention.

    But does anyone trust the Chicago PD to change their way of doing business?

    And yes, crazybleedingheart, I look forward to the Tearful Mayor addressing this issue….

  49. - striketoo - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 2:40 pm:

    Why poor people think the system is “fixed”. It is.

  50. - Gooner - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 2:52 pm:

    One thing to keep in mind —

    This is yet another story about severe criminal issues for non-violent drug offenders.

    The focus on treating this as a criminal matter, rather than a health care matter, is of the great failings of our government both locally and nationally.

  51. - Payback - Friday, Sep 30, 16 @ 3:39 pm:

    Drug Cop @ 11:38 am- “…the instance cited, while not a positive example of the laws, is very rare.”
    Then I guess all us “civilians” who pay your salary should just trust police like you not to abuse them too much. Thanks, I feel better now.

    “Large amounts of cash are taken from these criminal groups where there may be no criminal charges against the mule driving or holding the cash, but many others will usually be charged in conspiracy.”
    You’re right, let’s just go back 800 years like before the Magna Carta was signed and take people’s property before they are found guilty in court. It’s easier that way. For you.

    “I’ve been in this business a long time and not once have I experienced the laws abused as outlined in the example.”
    (Trust me, I’m one of the good guys here.)

    “They are a great tool for hitting the gangs and criminal organizations where it hurts most. Again, there are abuses, and laws do need some tweeking, but overall the laws work.”
    The ends justify the means. Oldest excuse in the book for unjust laws.

    Thanks for providing a great example of why police unions whose members enforce laws should be kept at least ten miles away from the Capitol anytime the legislature is in session.

  52. - Lynn S. - Monday, Oct 3, 16 @ 11:28 pm:

    To those who advocate for forfeited funds going to the Public Defender’s office, not the State’s Attorney or the Police Department:

    There’s a few issues with that approach.

    1. If these funds were used to fund the PD, I could see lots of local politicians seeking to “zero out” the local taxes that fund the PD’s office. Sort of like the scam that got played on Illinois taxpayers and the State Lottery (for the young ‘uns among us, when the lottery came into being, the public was told that lottery money would be used to supplement education funding. Then the Legislature started reducing state funds to education keeping the districts at a level close to where they had started, and the Legislature used lottery funds for slush fund projects.

    2. If it isn’t an ethical violation to fund the PD’s office with forfeiture funds, it gets awfully close. And imagine how that type of funding would wreak havoc on the relationship with PDs and their clients. If I were a PD client in a case that included a forfeiture, I would be concerned how vigorously the PD would defend me and my property rights, with the PD knowing that if I lose my property the PD pays more of their own bills…just seems like a set-up that could bring on lots of ethics charges.

    I heartily agree that civil forfeiture laws are a cancer on our legal system and our democracy. They are yet another toxic legacy of the “War on Drugs”, another avenue to deprive certain members of our society of their rights and property with little to no due process.

    When are we going to start pressuring our Congress, state legislatures and local governments to change these unjust laws? Rich, can you provide some political cover to any legislator who starts to take this on?

Sorry, comments for this post are now closed.

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