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Forfeited Property: A Police Department’s Secret Stash of Money?


Forfeited PropertyWhen property, such as automobiles, money, houses, and other assets, are taken by the police during the course of an investigation, the state has the option to keep the property or money that has been seized. If the police believe that the forfeited property or money is somehow tied to a crime, then the state can move the court to keep the forfeited property. This process is known as civil forfeiture, and the proceeds from the sale are split between the state’s attorney’s office and the Illinois State Police, and the police have full discretion to decide how the money is used. The Chicago Police Department has made millions of dollars since 2009 selling forfeited property that has been seized from residents in Chicago through civil forfeiture.

How Something Can Unfairly Become Forfeited Property

If the police believe that a car or other property was used in a crime, then the police can move to keep the property, even when an owner was not arrested or charged with a crime at all. One unfortunate case occurred when a woman’s son used the woman’s car to sell drugs. The man was arrested, and the woman went several times to court to try to get the car, but the judge stated that he would not do anything with it until the son’s case was over. Since the woman could not afford an attorney, she had to wait until the case was over, and when the case finally ended, the judge refused to give the car back to the woman because he assumed that it would be used to sell drugs again. So, even though the woman was not involved with the sale of drugs and did not approve of her son selling drugs, the woman still did not get her car back even when her son’s case was over. Unfortunately, this happens more often than it should in Chicago. Around the country, there are most likely thousands of cases of forfeited property like this one.

How Much Money Has the CPD Made from Forfeited Property?

In 2009, the Chicago Police Department began keeping track of how much money the department brought in from civil forfeitures. Since 2009, the CPD has brought in 72 million dollars, has kept 47 million for itself, and has sent 7.2 million to the Illinois State Police and 18 million to the Cook County state’s attorney’s office. This income is not shared with the public. The Bureau of Organized Crime oversees what is done with the money. This income is basically an off-the- books stream of revenue.

How does the Chicago Police Department use the money from civil forfeitures?

hh_polizeihauptmeister_mzThis money is usually used to find the day-to- day operations of the narcotics unit by purchasing surveillance equipment that is controversial without being scrutinized by the public for purchasing these items with taxpayer money. More specifically, this money funds cell phone bills for undercover police officers and rental cars for undercovers to use. Some of the surveillance equipment that the police department purchases with this money is very high-tech.  These pieces can target and track cell phone use. Also, the equipment can automatically read license plates as cars pass by so that police can tag and track the locations of the cars. People do not know that the police have these items because the items are bought with money obtained by civil forfeiture.

Is Civil Forfeiture an Abuse of Power?

Some believe that this is not an abuse of power because it is taking property used in the course of a crime, and many have very little sympathy for a person who is selling drugs or doing other illegal activities. If taking the property can lead to someone’s rehabilitation, then maybe it is better to take the property. But, sometimes taking someone’s property can hurt the person more than it harms the person, especially when there it is a family car that is taken and the wife or husband depends on the car to take the children to school, go to work, and take care of the family. What happens in that situation? As mentioned earlier, usually, unless the person can afford an attorney, there is no opportunity to get the car back until after the case is over, and even then it is difficult, so the state ends up taking the car and selling it. Perhaps it is time for Illinois to rethink how we approach civil forfeitures to accommodate those who cannot afford an attorney.

About the Firm


Ronald F. Wittmeyer, Jr. practices plaintiffs' personal injury law at his office in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

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