A Washington State couple is suing a county government in Arizona for initially refusing to return their property because of alleged paperwork errors.
In May 2016, Terry and Maria Platt’s son was detained by police for allegedly violating restrictions on car window tint while driving his parent’s car. Searching the Platts’ vehicle, officers found cash and a small amount of marijuana, both of which the son confessed to owning.
The Platts’ son was released and no criminal charges were filed, but Arizona government officials refused to return the Platts’ car, saying the couple failed to use the words “under penalty of perjury” when demanding the government cease the “uncontested forfeiture” process and return their property.
The Navajo County government returned the car, claiming paperwork errors were made, but state law allows the government to seize it again any time between now and 2023.The Platts are continuing their challenge, alleging the government violated their constitutional rights to due process.
Lying About Paperwork
The Platt family’s lawyer, Paul Avelar, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, says Arizona government officials lied about the case.
“The Platts responded within the 30-day window by sending back a petition to the prosecutor with over 29 pages worth of records proving that it was their car,” Avelar said. “The prosecutor didn’t consider that petition. Instead, the prosecutor turned around and filed in court what’s called an ‘application for forfeiture,’ and that application said that the Platts had not objected to this forfeiture, even though the Platts did object.”
Collaborating Against Citizens
Avelar says law enforcement and criminal justice agencies are working together to conceal civil-asset forfeiture abuses.
“We don’t even know the extent of the issue or how many civil forfeiture cases have resulted in the seizing of property when criminal charges were never filed against the person related to the forfeiture,” Avelar said. “It’s becoming increasingly obvious that we don’t know how these law enforcement agencies are really spending all of this money.”
‘Few Due-Process Protections’
Jon Riches, general counsel for the Goldwater Institute, says civil-asset forfeiture encourages government agencies to ignore people’s rights.
“In the case of forfeiture, there are so few due-process protections built into the system that agencies have learned that this practice can easily generate additional revenue,” Riches said. “In some unfortunate cases, forfeiture funds are used to supplement law enforcement budgets for operational expenses.”
Riches says the government should be required to prove a person’s guilt in asset forfeiture cases, instead of requiring citizens to prove their innocence.
“If someone claims to be an innocent owner of seized property, the burden should be on the government, as it is in every other criminal context, to prove that the property owner is actually guilty and not on the property owner to prove his or her innocence,” Riches said.