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A Massachusetts grandmother is calling for reform of the asset forfeiture system after the state wrongfully suspected her car had been involved in a crime and seized it for six years.
Malinda Harris, now a 61-year-old single mother who resides in Springfield, looked on in March 2015 as police confiscated her 2011 Infiniti G37 after it was believed to have been involved in the commission of a crime in Berkshire County. On the same day the vehicle was seized, Harris, who was living in a shelter at the time, had loaned the car to her son, Trevice, who police suspected was dealing drugs.
It was not until October 2020, five years after the seizure, that Harris received legal notice that the state would be keeping her car permanently unless she talked to them. After receiving the notice, and not being able to afford a lawyer at the time, Harris received assistance from the Goldwater Institute – which helped her get her car back earlier this year.
Malinda Harris provides testimony to members of the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee (Screenshot of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee hearing)
“I’m one of countless Americans who have had their property taken away under civil asset forfeiture laws,” Harris wrote in a March 2021 USA Today op-ed. “There are so many of us that billions of dollars of property are seized every year. Unlike so many other victims, I decided to fight the government to get my property back.”
Harris testified before members of the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee on Wednesday, detailing the civil asset forfeiture and describing it as a “very difficult time” amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They had no warrant, they didn’t show me any paperwork, I never got a receipt for my car, they basically told me they were taking the car and that’s what they did,” Harris told members of the committee.
“The forfeiture was very stressful,” Harris said, commending the Goldwater Institute for stepping in to help resolve the matter. “My thoughts were all over the place and this was a very difficult time.”
Harris told the committee that she does not believe “people should be allowed to police for profit,” insisting that the state “should have a better burden of proof” before being allowed to seize someone’s personal property.
The Goldwater Institute noted that Harris’ car, which sat unused in an impound lot for more than half a decade, was “undriveable due to non-maintenance and neglect” once she regained possession. However, after “minor repairs and replacing the tires,” Harris was able to give the car to her granddaughter, one of Trevice’s daughters who began college this fall. Trevice was murdered in an unrelated incident in December 2018.
According to the House Oversight committee, the government “does not need to convict or even charge individuals before seizing their assets” and in some states, law enforcement agencies are “allowed to keep 100 percent of the seized assets proceeds, creating a perverse incentive for agencies to abuse the civil rights of Americans in exchange for profit.”