Man says VCU Police unlawfully took money under civil asset forfeiture law

Published: Jul. 25, 2016 at 9:16 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - A 20-year-old Colonial Heights man says on Black Friday last year, a VCU Police officer unlawfully took his money under the civil asset forfeiture law.

The law, which has been around for decades but changed in 1991, allows police to confiscate a person's assets when the officer believes the car, money or assets are connected to a drug crime.

The assets can be seized even without a person being convicted. Police can then use the assets to fund body cameras and other things within their department. Other asset forfeitures go towards the state's literary fund.

Raeqwon Hinton, of Colonial Heights, says he went to a club in Richmond the day after Thanksgiving last year. He saw a friend, who was sick, and told him to sleep in his car while he went into the club. A few moments later, Hinton says his friend called him, saying police were searching his car.

Hinton came outside and asked what was happening.

"[The VCU Police officer] basically said, 'you know what you have in your car,'" Hinton said. "And I was like, 'No, I do not know what I have in my car.' Then he put the handcuffs on me."

Hinton was arrested and charged with possession and distribution of marijuana, but he says the scale and marijuana police said they found was never put on the car or in the evidence bag.

What was put in the evidence bag was the $1,074 Raeqwon had in his pockets. He said he received the money from his paycheck from his job at the Walmart Distribution Center.

Hinton said he had he tried to show police.

"I had proof, and I showed him and everything and that's why I'm really mad," Hinton said. "I really work, and he really tried to say that was drug money."

Hinton, although arrested, was released and his money was confiscated because the officer believed his money was related to drug sales, which means they were able to confiscate it under the civil asset forfeiture law.

According to the Department of Criminal Justice Services, the entity that collects civil asset forfeiture data from police, more than $100 million was distributed to local agencies since 1991 through civil asset forfeiture.

In six years worth of data that was obtained, more than $33 million worth of assets were disbursed across police departments, the commonwealth's attorneys, and other agencies in Virginia. The Richmond region received one of the highest disbursements.

In more documents obtained from the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), police in the region are confiscating everything from cars, to televisions, to cash, which is the most frequently confiscated item. These are items that the ACLU says is encouraging "policing for profit."

"Basically, there is an incentive there for police to go out and target folks and seize assets because there is a lower standard of proof," said Charlie Schmidt of the ACLU.

That standard of proof is to go before a judge in civil court without ever necessarily being convicted of a crime.

The state just has to prove there is a substantial connection, unlike a criminal case that has to prove beyond reasonable doubt that a person committed a crime.

Mike Doucette, the Lynchburg commonwealth's attorney, says the ACLU is confusing Virginia law for the federal law and that the majority of people whose items are confiscated under civil asset forfeiture in Virginia are also convicted of a crime. If they are not convicted, they are typically given their money or assets back.

"The other concern is if you change the standard of one linked to a conviction that almost encourages prosecutors to seek convictions when they may not have previously, is a huge ethical issue," said Doucette.

Doucette also points out that the assembly recently changed the asset forfeiture "burden of proof," which means the commonwealth has to show to give the public more confidence in the system. It went from preponderance of the evidence to clear and convincing evidence in determining that property is subject to forfeiture in civil asset forfeiture cases.

The ACLU says the change is not enough; the ACLU believes people like Raeqwon Hinton should be convicted of a crime before their money is confiscated.

Doucette also noted that the Virginia Crime Commission did a study and found there to be no evidence of abuse within the civil asset forfeiture system in Virginia; the cases of abuse tend to come from the federal system.

The ACLU said the reason is because there is no statute of limitation with asset forfeiture, meaning many people wouldn't want to come forward in fear they would eventually be charged.

Doucette counter argues that if someone did not commit a crime, they should not be fearful to come forward.

The ACLU argues that police target minorities or people of lower incomes who do not have the funds or resources to fight the state.

In Hinton's case, he was never convicted and his charges were set aside and eight months later he still hasn't received his money back.

The VCU Police Department provided this statement in regards to Hinton's case:

On Nov. 28, 2015, at 1 a.m., a VCU Police officer found a vehicle parked in a VCU parking lot on the 900 block of West Grace Street. An occupant in the vehicle appeared to be asleep and the officer conducted a welfare check. During the check the officer smelled what he believed to be marijuana. During a search of the vehicle, the officer found a scale and what he believed to be marijuana. Officers conducted a field test of the substance and it tested positive for marijuana.

The occupant of the vehicle indicated that Mr. Raeqwon Hinton had driven the vehicle to that location. Mr. Hinton was detained and officers found more than $1,000 in Hinton's pockets. The money was seized during the arrest. Hinton, 19 (now 20), of Petersburg, was released on a summons for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute (a misdemeanor).

As is the proper procedure, the currency, a total of $1,074.00, was placed into escrow. With asset forfeiture, a court order is required to release the funds to the owner. The CAO civil attorney handles this, sends the release order to VCU Police and a check is processed for the owner.

Since the time of the November arrest, Mr. Hinton's charge was nolle prossed by the Richmond Commonwealth Attorney's Office.

As of today, July 21, 2016, the VCU Police Department is working diligently with the Richmond Commonwealth Attorney's Office to return Mr. Hinton's money that was seized during the Nov. 28, 2015 arrest. We are awaiting the necessary court order to release the funds back to Mr. Hinton as soon as possible.

While the officers on scene were wearing body cameras, the footage was not saved by the officers, nor was it requested by the commonwealth attorney's office. When body-worn camera footage is not retrieved from the system and saved, it is automatically purged from electronic storage after 90 days.

The commonwealth attorney's office said they sent a "notice" to Hinton after the asset forfeiture; the defendant has 20 days to reply through a formal "answer," which is often filed first as a demurrer or motion to dismiss. The attorney's office said Hinton sent his answer back late, which is grounds for them to keep the money confiscated. However, they said if Hinton can provide the pay stubs, proving the money was from his pay check, they
would work with him to get the money back, without even going to court. Typically, folks like Hinton have to fight to get their money back in civil court.

As of Monday, the VCU Police Department said the court order would be available to release the funds back to Mr. Hinton.

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