Rights and wrongs

Police and prosecutors use bureaucratic confusion to keep assets they seize from the innocent

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news@sfbg.com

On a February evening in 2011, Derrick Walls ran into a friend at a bus stop near Third Street and Palou Avenue in the Bayview. Walls was headed to view a used car he thought he might be interested in buying. The men chatted briefly and, as the 44 bus rolled into sight, Walls shook his friend's hand to say goodbye.

Seconds after they parted ways, a police cruiser passing on the other side of the street pulled a U-turn, screeched to a halt, and discharged police officers who quickly apprehended both men.

"I guess they thought they saw something," recalled 43-year-old Walls. "I was just talking to my friend. I was going to leave because the bus was coming and I shook his hand to say 'see you later' and I guess the cops saw that and thought it was a transaction."

The officers searched both men at the site. Their discovery of cash on Walls and drugs on the other man seemed to confirm that they had just witnessed a drug deal. The $1,680 Walls had saved up for a new car was alleged to be the sale's proceeds and confiscated on the spot as evidence.

Later on at the station, a strip search of Walls yielded no evidence of drug possession or intent to sell. His friend copped to the drug charge but confessed that he'd purchased his stash elsewhere — not from Walls.

Three days later, Walls was released from custody and all charges against him were dropped. Two and a half years later, however, the city still has his money.

"I never went to court or anything," recalled Walls. "You would think they would just give my money back right then. But they told me to go to [the civil courthouse on] McAllister Street to some other people."

 

TWICE WRONGED

How assets seized in a criminal investigation migrate from the jailhouse to the civil courthouse — and how those wrongfully accused of crimes can get their money back — is not always clear.

"The state has such incredible power to wield and people have very little recourse," says attorney Nick Gregoratos with Prisoner Legal Services, a division of the San Francisco Sheriff's Department that helps the accused assert their rights.

San Francisco Police Department spokesperson Gordon Shyy would say only that the police follow the Department of Justice's Asset Forfeiture Policy Manual and that they "don't seize assets on the street, they take things as evidence."

But that "evidence" often stays in the bank accounts of police or prosecutors, subsidizing their operations. DOJ guidelines say that when assets from a criminal investigation cease to have evidentiary value, they can be returned through an administrative or civil process.

"Approximately half the time, people contest the amount or contest it in its entirety," said Assistant District Attorney Alex Bastian, who estimates that the San Francisco District Attorney's Office handles 200 to 250 asset forfeiture cases per year.

"There are certain situations where if a charge is dropped, there is still, in fact, a forfeiture proceeding that goes forward," Bastian explained. "There's a criminal proceeding beyond a reasonable doubt and the civil [case] is a preponderance of evidence and the burden of proof is on the party contesting the forfeiture."

Contesting an asset seizure can be difficult if the claimant is incarcerated or poor. Regulations seem designed to induce fatigue and resignation in those without a lawyer and the costs associated with retaining a lawyer often exceed the amount of money seized in the first place. In some cases, claimants have a right to court-appointed counsel, but they aren't made aware of that fact.

Gregoratos represented Walls and has, over the years, worked with many others like him who have been deprived of their property without due process.

Comments

been no problem.

Not that I believe his "buying a car" story anyway.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 01, 2013 @ 3:18 pm

this is simply a troll barrier

it is a signpost to indicate to the reader that other anonymous posters on this thread are beginning to purposely diminish the conversation into reactionary hyperbole and/or petty, mean spirited, personal attacks and irrelevant bickering

the barrier is put in place to signal that there is probably little point in reading more replies in the thread past this point

proceed at your own risk

Posted by troll barrier on Oct. 02, 2013 @ 8:40 am

Do you even bother reading the stories before writing your ignorant comments?

Posted by Guest on Oct. 07, 2013 @ 5:22 pm

this is simply a troll barrier

it is a signpost to indicate to the reader that other anonymous posters on this thread are beginning to purposely diminish the conversation into reactionary hyperbole and/or petty, mean spirited, personal attacks and irrelevant bickering

the barrier is put in place to signal that there is probably little point in reading more replies in the thread past this point

proceed at your own risk

Posted by troll barrier on Oct. 07, 2013 @ 6:29 pm

Hey, money confiscated from people goes to help pay for the "City family".

I assume that the SFBG would approve!

You certainly don't see the SFBG complaining about $500 traffic tickets, which are just as ridiculous.

Posted by Reality barrier! on Oct. 07, 2013 @ 11:06 am

this is simply a troll barrier

it is a signpost to indicate to the reader that other anonymous posters on this thread are beginning to purposely diminish the conversation into reactionary hyperbole and/or petty, mean spirited, personal attacks and irrelevant bickering

the barrier is put in place to signal that there is probably little point in reading more replies in the thread past this point

proceed at your own risk

Posted by troll barrier on Oct. 07, 2013 @ 3:08 pm

The Guardian has no problem fining and feeing the citizens for the city family, whats the big deal?

Posted by Matlock on Oct. 07, 2013 @ 5:00 pm

this is simply a troll barrier

it is a signpost to indicate to the reader that other anonymous posters on this thread are beginning to purposely diminish the conversation into reactionary hyperbole and/or petty, mean spirited, personal attacks and irrelevant bickering

the barrier is put in place to signal that there is probably little point in reading more replies in the thread past this point

proceed at your own risk

Posted by troll barrier on Oct. 07, 2013 @ 2:54 pm

Those who are meagerly able to keep a vehicle registered and on the road -- possibly a vehicle which is their only practical means to continue working the night shift can be put into car-less unemployment and poverty due to government practices with regard to tickets and towing.

Parking tickets are now seen as a green alternative "revenue enhancement" -- i.e. tax -- and they are a regressive tax.

If not promptly paid, the tickets skyrocket in value in a manner which has no relation to the cost of deferred collection; it is an extra punishment to those who are living paycheck to paycheck and cannot always pay all their bills on time.

If the people's cars are towed, they are similarly confiscated after massive towing and storage fees are added to the bill.

This practice of allowing public servants to benefit from taking stuff is a bad idea.

Posted by lillipublicans on Oct. 07, 2013 @ 4:46 pm

It's not poor people that suffer the greed and incompetence of the city, it is everyone.

Posted by Matlock on Oct. 07, 2013 @ 5:02 pm

* The actual cash should be held in an evidence room and not deposited into a bank account until after a conviction.

* If there is no conviction, then the agency should have the responsibility of returning the property to the person. If you went to the suspect and took property out of their hand, why should you not go to them and return it to their hand?

* In the case of a conviction, the money should not pay for law enforcement, but it should go to something else that benefits the community where the crime occurred. Otherwise, how would the agency not get addicted to that method of funding?

Posted by Rocket on Oct. 07, 2013 @ 4:56 pm

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