A couple nights ago, thirty people gathered in the sleek offices of a venture capital firm in Manhattan. It wasn’t a board meeting, though. It was an inaugural night two years in the making: the launch of IMPACT, a non-profit incubator and think-tank that has been the brainchild of Matthew and Michael Kopko and Nic Poulos. The vision was straightforward enough. Leverage our collective networks to bring together a group of people with the talents and resources to affect change in some area involving the public good. A few months ago, Mike asked me to join in helping launch IMPACT. I was glad to join the team.
As we planned the first event, it ended up taking on an unusual format for a non-profit. Five people would pitch the group on an idea they were passionate about, and the group would vote on which pitch they thought was most important to them. The winner would have a chance to convince each member of the IMPACT community that they should dedicate their time and resources to helping this cause—and, ideally, lay out a plan to accomplish the goal. Think of it as a non-profit Shark Tank.
As the planning progressed, I decided I wanted to pitch an idea of my own. So I submitted as one of the five pitches. Before the event, Mike made a prediction. “I think you are going to win,” he said to me. “But I think you will struggle to turn your vision into an agenda of action items that people can act on.”
Mike was right on both counts. The group voted for my pitch to combat civil forfeiture abuse in New York City, but I ultimately struggled to develop a concrete list of goals that would allow us to make immediate traction. While I am very good at communicating a vision and convincing people of it, working through the nitty-gritty of accomplishing that vision is a weakness of mine.
I am now in a position where I can leverage a highly competent and connected network, but I need to establish a plan to do so. In keeping with the spirit of IMPACT’s crowdsourcing, democratic approach, I’d like to share my pitch with you. If you have any interest in it, and think you can help, please contact me. I think it has great potential and I would hate for it to flounder because of my own shortcomings. I could use your help.
I’d like to start with a story. Jennifer Boatright and Ron Henderson were driving through Texas with their two children, on their way to buy a used car. They were stopped by a police officer for “driving in the left lane for more than half a mile without passing.” Subsequent to the traffic violation, their car was searched for drugs.
No drugs were found, but the cash they had saved to buy the car was found. Because Boatright and Henderson were driving from Houston, “a known point of distribution of illegal narcotics,” to Linden, “a known place to receive illegal narcotics”, the officer believed the money was involved in the narcotics trade, and arrested the family.
The local DA told the couple that they could either face charges for money laundering and child endangerment – which would drive their children into foster care – or they could sign over the cash to the city, in which case they were free to go. Which forces one to wonder: if the authorities truly believed the children were in danger, why would they release them to their parents for a few thousand dollars?
What happened here is known as ‘civil forfeiture’, originally a federal program to seize the assets of criminals, especially those involved in the drug trade. This was useful because the owners of these valuables—and the perpetrators of the crimes—were often out of the country and therefore unavailable for prosecution.
See, you do not need to be found guilty of a crime to be victim to a legal civil forfeiture. Something akin to ‘probable cause’ is a sufficient standard. Which makes sense in its original intended use. But as state and local authorities began adopting their own versions of the policy, its use has broadened and grown unregulated.
As a reporter for The New Yorker described, many of the judges, police officers and attorneys she has interviewed, “expressed concern that state laws designed to go after high-flying crime lords are routinely targeting the workaday homes, cars, cash savings, and other belongings of innocent people who are never charged with a crime.”
The problem is ubiquitous. In 2011, the state of Georgia acquired nearly $3 million, more than half of which was comprised of items worth less than $650—in other words, not the estates of cartel lords. An Oklahoma DA hired Desert Snow L.L.C., a private company drug-interdiction task force, to manage and acquire forfeitures. Think of them as a domestic Blackwater. Although they weren’t law officers, they regularly received 25% of seizures.
A lawyer who specializes in these cases claims, “Forfeiture cases like these are almost impossible to fight. It’s the Guantánamo Bay of the legal system. One of the main problems…is that you’re not assigned a lawyer, it being a civil and not a criminal case. Most people can’t afford lawyers, and that gives the government a tremendous advantage.”
Looking at the local level, the NYPD also participates in civil forfeiture, arguably to an abusive extent. 85% of civil forfeiture cases in New York City never result in criminal charges. Estimates by the Office of Management and Budget suggest that New York will raise $5.3 million from civil forfeiture in 2014.
So how do we fight the abuses of civil forfeiture? I know we have several lawyers in the room, and I am sure that their legal expertise could be a useful guide. But I would suggest that we not start our fight in the courtroom. Civil forfeiture abuse has been a problem for a long time. It has a slew of class-action lawsuits in its wake. And it’s still around.
Rather, I would recommend that we establish a fund and a committee to oversee that fund. The purpose of the fund will be simple: those who believe they have been the victim of civil forfeiture abuse can plead their case. If the committee decides an abuse has occurred, it can issue a grant at the value of the victim’s provable losses, or some percentage thereof.
The solution is effective on several levels. It restores the lost assets to victims of abuse, but it also sends a clear message: the citizens of New York will not tolerate abuse by our public servants, and we will constructively take matters into our own hands to remedy those wrongs. Imagine the light such a story could shine on the problem: a new generation of New York investment bankers, lawyers, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists combatting police corruption in our city by restoring the stolen property of our poorest and most vulnerable citizens.
That’s my pitch. I would appreciate your feedback and support.