Leigh Maddox worked for decades as a Maryland state trooper, eventually rising to the rank of captain. And what she and her fellow officers did from time to time to legally seize cash from drivers during stops ultimately changed her entire mind about the controversial police practice known as civil asset forfeiture.
Today, Maddox provides legal aid and advice to everyday Americans who had property or money seized by police, especially when they are charged with no wrongdoing. And she looks back with a heavy heart to earlier incidents in her career that she now considers moments of indiscretion, like towing a person's car because they denied her request to search the vehicle.
'It was very bad behavior.'
"When people assert their rights, things get worse. Pulling people over is very easy because there are so many laws on the books concerning motor vehicles. And then you search their car. And then, sometimes people will say 'no,' right? I've had people that have said no to me and then I decide that their tires are not safe," she recalled in an interview with Circa.
That interview was later featured in the award-winning documentary Seized that debuted this month at the Anthem Film Festival in Las Vegas.
"And so therefore I call a tow truck and tow their stuff away. It was very bad behavior. But I was, you know, 21. I had a gun and a lot of authority and not a lot of common sense at the time."
Necessary budget tool or temptation for abuse?
Those working in law enforcement are divided on whether civil asset forfeiture is a necessary tool for combating organized crime and funding additional police work, or a budget-driven procedure that inevitably leads to abuse and ensnares innocent people.
Forfeiture is a controversial practice where law enforcement officers can seize your property if they allege it is involved with a crime. The government then files a civil suit against your cash, car, home or any other property that was seized. Operating in the civil arena means that the government has a lower burden of proof, you do not have a right to an attorney and you have to prove that your property is innocent to get it back.
Officers incentivized to make seizures
As Maddox grew into her leadership role as a captain, she saw how "[officers] were doing what they were rewarded and incentivized to do." While officers are not directly getting the cash they seize, the department often is. She says that if "they are making big cash seizures that will not go unnoticed by the powers to be in the department."
Maddox explained that when officers pull in more money from forfeitures, they are rewarded with better police cars, better duty shifts, better opportunities for training and even better overtime assignments. Darpana Sheth, an attorney at The Institute for Justice, says that this profit incentive is now "distorting law enforcement priorities so that rather than police for safety or police for justice, we are policing for profit."
'What we ended up doing...was just seizing cash'
Neill Franklin, a 34-year veteran of the Maryland State Police, offered an equally chilling view towards civil forfeiture. Having risen to the rank of major, the second highest in the state police, he oversaw nine drug task forces.
"They do not generally give funding for the operation of a task force. That money comes from the civil asset forfeiture fund," Franklin says.
Since it is more difficult to charge and convict people of crimes, he says that "what we ended up doing as time went on was just seizing cash"
Franklin says that law enforcement should not be directly receiving proceeds for forfeiture because "when [the money] directly affects the decision makers, watch out, corruption is coming." In fact, the corruption did come. He says that one chief was seizing cars and motorcycles and selling them to friends at a greatly reduced price. Franklin said paperwork from some of the sales were 'lost' and "it was bad enough where this chief of police was removed from office."
Law Enforcement in favor of Civil Forfeiture
Most law enforcement, however, view civil forfeiture as a vital tool for conducting drug enforcement. Because drug investigations occur while the crime is being committed, the overtime and necessary backup for undercover buys can become very costly. Civil forfeiture allows police to take the profit out of crime and roll those proceeds back into further enforcement programs.
Chief William Brooks of Norwood Massachusetts is a board member of the International Association of Police Chiefs. When asked about civil forfeiture, he said, "I'm not sure why people are so focused on this. It's probably because they don't understand." Brooks explains that there is a court process behind the seizure and "if you have a cash only case with no drugs and no criminal charges, convincing a court that that money should be turned over is actually more challenging."
When asked about the potential for innocent people being caught in the trap, he said, "I think sometimes we overreact, we have to have a little bit of faith in our justice system that there are protections in place for people whose money and vehicles have been taken."
Brooks underscores this by adding that "the rates of people dying from overdose are much greater than people being killed by drunk drivers."
Criminal vs Civil Forfeiture
It was not until Maddox retired and became a lawyer that she realized the devastating toll this policy can have. Having volunteered at a legal clinic for lower middle class in Baltimore, she has now seen firsthand how lives can be destroyed by this policy.
Sheth says that, "It turns the whole presumption of innocence on its head, which is a hallmark of the American justice system." If the citizen does not fight or loses the lawsuit, the money often goes directly back into the budgets of the police agencies that seized it.
Opponents of civil forfeiture argue that criminal forfeiture could accomplish the same goals but still build in protections for citizens. This would allow property to be seized upon a charge and forfeited upon a conviction. Sarah Love, the public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland, says that this "would be a much better system, and would be a system that safeguards people's property rights."
Bipartisan support but divided Law Enforcement
Civil asset forfeiture reform has support from a wide range of bipartisan groups including the Charles Koch Foundation, The Institute for Justice, the ACLU, and the NAACP.
But law enforcement leaders have many allies on Capitol Hill also making the case not to eliminate what they see as an essential tool.
"If we see a case where maybe something went wrong, that's an anomaly and it's not happening a lot. Drug dealing kills many more people than homicide," Brooks said.
Circa's Seized wins award at Las Vegas Film Festival
The 15-minute documentary produced by Circa on civil asset forfeiture won the Top Short Documentary award at the Anthem Film Festival in Las Vegas this weekend.