Common Cause Delaware Urges Greater Transparency and Accountability in Civil Forfeiture Program

    Media Contact
  • Claire Snyder Hall

Common Cause Delaware (CCDE) is urging the State Prosecutor to provide reporters and the public with access to critical information about a program which allows police to seize money or property linked to alleged criminal activity.

“The Civil Assets Forfeiture Program gives police tremendous power to seize private property and requires the owner to prove in court that the assets were not linked to illegal activity – even if the owner is not charged with a crime,” said Claire Snyder-Hall, CCDE’s program director. “We take no position on the wisdom of the program but we’re adamant that as a hedge against potential abuse it must be open to public scrutiny.”

Over the last few months, CCDE has been in conversations with the Attorney General’s Office about how to make the program more transparent and also ensure accountability. The organization provided state officials with a list of detailed proposals in February and is awaiting a response.

The Wilmington News Journal’s recent report on the program (2/28/16), including findings that state law shields police and prosecutors from having to tell taxpayers how they spend the money and property seized from citizens suspected but not necessarily charged with a crime, highlights the need for greater transparency, Snyder-Hall said.

“We’re concerned that police departments apparently are not complying with requirements that they provide the state auditor with a ‘detailed and complete accounting of the disbursement of all such funds from the prior fiscal year,’” she added.

“We have some basic questions. First, what are the police practices which result in property being forfeited? Second, how does the Special Law Enforcement Assistance Fund (SLEAF) operate? Third, which agencies are receiving SLEAF benefits?

“We would like the public to be told which law enforcement agencies are empowered to make seizures and how they are trained; which police agencies are making seizures and their value; and how many seizures are challenged by owners and with what result. We also would like SLEAF to disclose who sits on the committee; the disbursement guidelines they use; which law enforcement agencies are entitled to apply for funds and which receive funds; and the findings of legally required audits.

“It is clear that the wisdom of Delaware’s civil forfeiture program should be debated, however intelligent debate can only occur if the program’s operation is fully understood.”

In addition to these requests for transparency, Common Cause Delaware urges the adoption of the following guidelines, based on standards established by the National District Attorney’s Association:

  • Under no circumstances should a law enforcement agency be rewarded for seizing assets by receiving a grant from SLEAF.
  • Law enforcement agencies should be encouraged to avoid making small seizures less than $500 which could be viewed by the community as mere harassment, serve no law enforcement purpose and are very difficult to challenge in view of the cost of such a challenge.
  • All law enforcement agencies authorized to make civil forfeitures should be required to include a section in their operating procedure manuals providing guidance for the use of this tool.
  • All law enforcement agencies should be required to specify in their procedures that property subject to civil forfeiture is subject to the same control procedures that govern any other seizure of property.