Chris Johnson Blasts Delaware’s Civil Forfeiture Law…

Filed in Delaware, Featured by on May 15, 2018

…and calls for specific reforms.  I’ve written about this issue in the past. As enforced in Delaware, it’s legalized thievery by the police from those least able to defend themselves.  The legislation was sold as a means of keeping drug kingpins from enjoying the spoils of their filthy lucre. I suppose you could make the case that that’s a worthwhile cause. In practice, the police steal stuff from those suspected of criminal offenses and, even if there are no subsequent charges, the onus is on those who had their stuff stolen to try to get their stuff back. Meanwhile, the cops and the AG’s office sell off the stuff and then dedicate the funds to certain police-related projects. Oh, and in Delaware, a ‘non-public’ body comprised solely of public officials from the police and the AG’s office decides who gets the money. And they don’t tell the public who got it.

Chris Johnson lays out his alternatives to civil forfeiture in this excellent piece.  Read it in its entirety. For those with short attention spans, here is what he proposes:

The problem is this: Financially incentivizing law enforcement to take private property leads to abuse, and is a fundamental misalignment of incentives. It’s perfectly acceptable for police to seize a weapon used to commit a crime — but directly causing financial trauma and even homelessness can create more crime than it solves. The ugly truth is that poor people who cannot afford lawyers to get their property back are disproportionately affected by these policies; in terms of impact, civil asset forfeiture can be thought of as a tax on poor people that law enforcement itself can levy almost whenever it wants.

There are clear reforms that would ameliorate some of the problem. For one, property not belonging to someone convicted of a crime could be protected from forfeiture. Second, any contested property could require law enforcement — not you — to prove the connection and necessity of the seizure. Finally, separating the proceeds of seized property from going to law enforcement budgets — perhaps sending that money instead to public defense organizations, schools, or public housing networks — would sever the direct financial incentive police have to seize your stuff.Senate Bill 60 is an excellent piece of legislation that addresses many of these issues.

Have I mentioned that not only is Chris Johnson by far the most progressive choice for AG, but he’s the only one who has not been part of the AG’s office that enables these civil forfeiture laws?

This is only one reason why I support Chris. His vision for the office is to transform it from the traditional model that has been in effect forever.  He is serious about decarceration, and he understands how getting away from the traditional Delaware Way ‘lock ’em up’ mentality can be not only a means of ensuring that justice is even-handed, but can also be an economic boon to the state and a means of freeing up lots of money spent on the costs of incarceration for better uses.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t link to Chris’ site:

I’m no longer remiss. Feel free to remit some funds into his campaign coffers.

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  1. jason330 says:

    This guy is legit. At last we have a Democrat talking about this.

  2. Alby says:

    This should be an interesting race. You have two insiders, both white (Jennings and Mullaney) and two relative outsiders, both black (Johnson and Roberts). Jennings is the party choice. Mullaney will show how many (or more to the point how few) Gordon dead-enders remain. Johnson and Roberts will fight for the progressive vote. Whatever the outcome, it will be a rough measure of how strong each faction is.

  3. Agreed. Don’t you also have a battle for the Bidenistas between Jennings and Mullaney as well? Joe’s always been a big ‘Tommy’ Gordon guy.

  4. Alby says:

    Jennings has a much bigger base than that. If I’m setting the morning line, she’s the clear favorite. Doesn’t mean others don’t have a chance, but it’s going to be very tough.

  5. Jason330 says:

    Wrong thread.

  6. Rufus Y. Kneedog says:

    When I see the listings in the News Journal, the thing that strikes me is the paltry sums involved; usually something like $600 cash and a 15 year old Acura Integra. But I’ll bet more than once the $600 was someone’s paycheck and the Acura was their ride to work.

  7. Alby says:

    If you want me to talk about civil forfeiture, I’ll be forced to point out that the attorney general lacks the power to do anything about this.

  8. bamboozer says:

    Local politics aside Civil Forfeiture is legalized theft, there is no sugar coating it. The bizarre concept that their charging the property with a crime, usually a crime that is never specified, puts the icing on this evil cake. As noted the original claim was that it would be used against drug lords only, when it became obvious the police stood to gain a lot of money and property that all changed.

  9. Alby says:

    This goes back to a Supreme Court ruling back in 1996. It would take legislation to change the code to disallow this. Do you think Pete Schwartzkopf would introduce a bill to deprive the police of this loosely regulated stream of cash?

  10. Dana Garrett says:

    I’m surprised Matt Den didn’t go after civil forfeiture. It reeks of abuse.

  11. Alby says:

    His office was “studying” it.

    Someone should get Pete on the record with his thoughts about it.

    Dana: Damn right it does. Rufus is right — they’re auctioning off vehicles that Rent-a-Wreck wouldn’t take. It’s yet another way of ripping off the poor.

  12. RE Vanella says:

    It doesn’t matter what Pete thinks. He’s Mitch’s friend and does Mitch favors.

  13. Alby says:

    It doesn’t matter to Mitch, maybe, but we need to highlight how regressive Pete is if we want people to turn elsewhere for leadership.

  14. Trueblue says:

    Agreed Chris is by far the most progressive candidate in this race who is not afraid to say “Black lives matter”. I don’t believe we need a former prosecutor running the AG’s office as it will remain the same as it has always been. If you believe the DE criminal justice system is broken he is the one to support and bring about the change we need in this office.

  15. Alby: The AG’s Office joins with the cops to form that SLEAF Committee that determines who gets the spoils. I don’t know if the AG’s office DRAFTED the bill that exempted SLEAF from FOIA, but they sure didn’t oppose it.

    The AG’s Office is NEVER powerless to propose and push for legislation. There’s a bill in the General Assembly right now that would reform civil forfeiture. Matt Denn hasn’t lifted a finger in support of it. Neither did any of his predecessors once the law was on the books. I think it’s b/c they’re afraid of pissing off the cops who run this state.

    Chris Johnson is now on the record as supporting civil forfeiture reform. As well as marijuana legalization. I believe that the two issues are linked b/c the cops LOVE to stop and search people and their possessions based on their suspicion that pot is present. Phony pretexts for illegal search and seizure, IMHO.

  16. Alby says:

    “propose and push for legislation”

    But not vote on it. And so powerless, though not in an absolute sense.

    Yet, while what you say is true, any of us can propose and push for legislation, and none of us would have more to lose by backing such legislation than the AG. The difference between the situation in Philadelphia and the situation here are the public records of the respective police departments. Any public survey will show high trust in the state police. That’s undeserved, but there it is anyway.

  17. Another Mike says:

    There is little appetite in Dover to address the legalized theft that is civil asset forfeiture. By the way, the Institute for Justice graded Delaware a D- for its forfeiture laws and pointed out that no public accounting of the money seized or to whom it’s given is required by law. (

    I would add a few more things to his proposals. One, CAF should not be an option for any amount lower than, say, $10,000. Then cops wouldn’t be able to take someone’s 15-year-old car. Second, if a citizen takes the state or law enforcement agency to court and wins his or her money back, that person should not be on the hook for legal fees. Third, any state statute should prohibit law enforcement from participating in the federal equitable sharing program. That prevents them from shifting from a state to federal program. The financial difference is that the federal government keeps (I believe) 20 percent of what local agencies seize.

  18. Great points, Mike. While I agree that there is ‘little appetite’ to address civil forfeiture in the General Assembly now, an AG determined to reform the practice could make a huge difference in implementing such reforms. It’s not that complicated an issue. And, once people understand the legalized theft that is going on, you could find a groundswell of support.

    I also think that an AG committed to reforming this practice might be able to find some administrative ways to modify its most draconian elements.

    All you need is an AG committed to righting this blatant example of government-sanctioned thievery.

  19. Alby says:

    “All you need is an AG committed to righting this blatant example of government-sanctioned thievery.”

    I beg to differ. Quite obviously you need a General Assembly willing to go along with him. Let’s not get carried away with irrational exuberance about this.

    “once people understand the legalized theft that is going on, you could find a groundswell of support.”

    People couldn’t care less, until it happens to them.

  20. jason330 says:

    “People couldn’t care less, until it happens to them.”

    So true. Most Americans are slow witted children operating under the influence of the just-world fallacy.

  21. I disagree, somewhat. A lot of people know someone to whom it’s happened. They also understand that it could just as easily happen to them. They also understand that there is a double standard of justice operating in Delaware. They could well be attracted to a campaign like Johnson’s.

    As to Alby’s point, if Johnson were to win on the basis of a popular reformist agenda, elected pols, who are committed to nothing more than their own electoral preservation, would be afraid of being left behind.

    Not irrational exuberance (at least not much), but a vaguely-optimistic scenario.

  22. Alby says:

    So you think the same people whose racist backlash demonized BLM, a movement dedicated to stopping the slaughter of unarmed people, will instead be moved by police stealing some poor schmuck’s old beater?

    I don’t see how. This simply isn’t on most people’s radar. The percentage of American voters who thirst for social justice is vanishingly small.

    If you’re going to elect a crusading AG — it’s been done before, though mainly in the wake of Watergate, back when people where shocked by government corruption — shouldn’t he crusade on an issue he actually controls?

  23. Alby says:

    @jason: I used to think they were only in favor of gun nuttiness because they hadn’t been shot. Steve Scalise disproved that theory.

  24. This is AN issue, not THE issue. AN issue that could have at least a meaningful impact in the primary for AG. The people who demonized BLM would not be moved to vote for Johnson or any progressive. This issue IS on the radar of those who have been directly or indirectly impacted. Combined with the other elements of his platform, Johnson can put together a winning coalition. He at least demonstrates consistency in his approach to the issues. In other words, he’s believable.

  25. jason330 says:

    El Somnambulo has a point. And yesterday’s primary results are good news for Johnson. While it isn’t Watergate levels of revulsion, people are pissed off at the go-along-to-get-along ethic dominating the Democratic Party right now.

  26. You’ve got three candidates who, to a large degree, favor the traditional role of the AG’s office, and one candidate who proposes serious reform. Hey, I think that Alby’s right that Jennings is the morning line favorite. But Johnson, with longer odds, could be the better bet.