The Hidden Costs of Crime

As reported by Gregory Smith in the August 8, 2010 edition of the Providence Journal, the cliché "crime doesn't pay" is more accurate than people think. Under both Federal and Rhode Island law, police departments have the authority to seize assets and property of arrested suspects. Most of the assets and goods seized are from arrested drug dealers. However, under Rhode Island law, other crimes subject criminals to property forfeiture. They include transportation of illegal firearms/explosives, violation of the hazardous waste statute, operation of a "chop shop," illegal gambling, counterfeiting, leading the police on a high speed chase and running a horse in an illegal race.

Under Rhode Island law, police are permitted to seize any property and assets that are connected to the illegal activity. The law is designed to prevent suspected criminals from enjoying the profits of their crimes. The most common connection is that the property or assets were purchased using money earned through criminal activity. However, houses and motor vehicles can also be seized when they are used as bases of operation or means of transportation for criminal activity. The forfeiture proceedings are civil in nature, not criminal, and therefore, do not require that the suspects be convicted for any crimes. Instead, the person whose property or goods was seized must prove that the property was not connected to the crime(s) in which they have been charged.

Rhode Island passed its first forfeiture statute in 1987 to allow for forfeiture in connection with narcotics cases. Rhode Island General Laws §21-28-1.02(29) defines narcotics as:

(29) "Narcotic drug" means any of the following, whether produced directly or indirectly by extraction from substances of vegetable origin, or independently by means of chemical synthesis or by a combination of extraction and chemical synthesis:

(i) Opium and opiates.

(ii) A compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, or preparation of opium or opiates.

(iii) A substance (and any compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, or preparation of it) which is chemically identical with any of the substances referred to in paragraphs (i) and (ii) of this subdivision.

(iv) Any other substance which the attorney general of the United States, or his or her successor, or the director of health, after investigation, has found to have, and by regulation designates as having, a potential for abuse similar to opium and opiates.

The possession, distribution or manufacturing of narcotics drugs are all crimes outlined in Rhode Island General Laws §21-28-4.01:

§ 21-28-4.01 Prohibited acts A - Penalties.- (a) Except as authorized by this chapter, it shall be unlawful for any person to manufacture, deliver, or possess with intent to manufacture or deliver a controlled substance.

In addition to severe criminal penalties such crimes can also lead to civil forfeiture of property. Forfeiture has yielded substantial results. From 2004-2009, Rhode Island police departments and other agencies have made $8.7 million in sales of forfeited assets. The money is distributed to various groups, 70% to law enforcement, 20% to the Department of Attorney General and 10% to the Department of Mental Health, Retardation and Hospitals to be used for substance abuse programs. When assets are seized through the joint work of both the Federal and State government, the money is distributed by the U.S. Marshals Service and the Rhode Island Department of Attorney General. The money is distributed proportionally to the organizations which aided in the investigation and led to the forfeiture.

Most municipalities and police departments use the funds to pay for salaries, surveillance equipment, software, training and buildings. State law requires that the money be used for a "bona fide law enforcement purpose." The seized motor vehicles may be used by police departments for surveillance vehicles. Cars that are too expensive to maintain or use are sold, as is the real estate. Some assets, even if connected to criminal activities are not cost effective to seize, such as electronics or other low value items. If seized, the police have to keep the items secured until ownership is determined. Although people have the right to contest forfeiture proceedings, only about 10% actual do so.

Get in touch with our office for help if you are facing criminal charges.

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