On November 18, 2009, Shukree Simmons, who is African-American, was driving with his business partner on the highway from Macon, Georgia, back to Atlanta after selling his cherished Chevy Silverado truck to a restaurant owner in Macon for $3,700 of sorely needed funds. As Mr. Simmons passed through Lamar County, he was pulled over by two patrol officers who stated no reason for the stop, but instead asked Mr. Simmons numerous questions about where he was going and where he had been, and even separated him from his business partner for extended questioning. The officers searched both people and the car, finding no evidence of any illegal activity. A drug dog sniffed the car and did not indicate the presence of any trace of drugs. Notwithstanding the total lack of evidence of criminal activity and Mr. Simmons’s explanation that he was carrying money from selling his truck, the officers confiscated the $3,700 on the suspicion that the funds were derived from illegal activity, pursuant to their authority under Georgia’s civil asset forfeiture law. Despite the fact that Mr. Simmons mailed his bill of sale and title for the truck to the officer, he was told over the phone that he would need to file a legal claim to get his money back.
For most people in Mr. Simmons’s position, the story would end there. To challenge this activity and get their money back, victims of seizures bear the burden of initiating a claim for the money. If no claim is filed, the police can keep the money. It is unlikely that regular folks whose money is taken will be equipped to seek out the appropriate statute and comply with the requirements for making a claim. While lawyers are available to do this work, the price is high — in Georgia, a standard retainer fee is $5,000. Many people lack the resources to pay that price, and even if they had them, it would not make sense to pay more than the value of the seized funds.
Luckily for Mr. Simmons, he spoke to a lawyer who referred his case to the ACLU, which became involved in December 2009. The ACLU sent a letter to Lamar County Sheriff Larry Waller asserting Mr. Simmons’s right to the money and seeking its return. Waller responded that he agreed that the state had no right to the funds, but directed Mr. Simmons to initiate a claim. The ACLU pushed back, and in early January the Sheriff returned the money to Mr. Simmons.
Asset forfeiture laws create huge incentives for law enforcement officers to police for profit. In 2003, the total amount forfeited to Georgia law enforcement was $38,330,861. Georgia’s law permits one-third of seizure proceeds to return to local law enforcement, which can be used for any law enforcement purpose except for the payment of salaries or rewards. The rest of the money goes into the local general fund, and must be used for programs such as drug treatment and witness protection. However, in Georgia and most other states, if police want access to more of the money for their budgets, they may turn over a drug-related seizure to the D.E.A., thereby federalizing the seizure. The DEA “does the paperwork”, handles any claims to the money by individuals (who must sue in federal court), and returns 80 percent of the money to the police, with no state law strings attached. Police may then use the funds for any law enforcement purpose, including payment of salaries. This process, known as equitable sharing, permits local law enforcement to do an end run around state civil asset forfeiture laws.
Reports from other asset forfeiture cases in the media and in lawsuits indicate that police do not seize assets from all equally. Instead, they target those persons they associate with criminal behavior and drug trafficking. The result is a regime of racial profiling of black and Latino drivers on the highways, who are stopped and stripped of their money based on minimal or non-existent evidence.
Mr. Simmons’ case demonstrates the extent to which civil asset forfeiture laws, formed to assist officers in fighting drug crimes, are misused against people of color in cases in which there is no evidence of criminal activity. Mr. Simmons was never arrested and never charged. Instead, the Sheriff’s department took his money, admitted that it has no right to keep the money, and told Mr. Simmons that he must make a legal claim to get it back. The ACLU seeks to challenge this and other civil asset forfeiture law abuses. The era of easy money for police departments by wrongfully taking cash from vulnerable drivers must end.