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What role does civil forfeiture play in Virginia’s justice system?

A close-up photo of the words police on a police car from Chesterfield County.
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VPM News Focal Point
Chesterfield Police received the most money back from seizures in fiscal year 2023.

Civil forfeiture laws give police the authority to seize property allegedly involved in illegal activity. To get the property back, the burden of proof typically falls on the owner, who must demonstrate innocence. Over the years, Virginia has made efforts to reform these laws to provide more protection for property owners. Yet, the Insititute for Justice, a non-profit law firm based in Arlington, gives the state a D- grade for its forfeiture laws.


MANDREL STUART (STAUNTON RESIDENT): They took my money, counted my money, wrote me a receipt for my money, and after they tore my whole vehicle up, they sent me back on the road.

KEYRIS MANZANARES: Under civil forfeiture laws in Virginia, police agencies can seize property if it's alleged to have been involved in a crime. That's what happened to Mandrel Stuart in 2012 when Virginia State Police seized $17,550 from him during a traffic stop. The Stanton native says he was driving in Northern Virginia with cash to buy restaurant equipment. He was never charged with a crime.

MANDREL STUART: You have to prove yourself to be innocent when you're supposed to be already innocent and have to be proven to be guilty. They already assume that you're guilty and you have to prove that you're innocent.

KEYRIS MANZANARES: In 2020, the General Assembly amended the asset forfeiture law to require a criminal conviction for all forfeitures. But there are exceptions to this requirement. Kirby Thomas West is a lawyer with the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm based in Arlington.

KIRBY THOMAS WEST (ATTORNEY, INSTITUTE FOR JUSTICE): Civil forfeiture is a subset of our property rights work, and it's extremely important part of that property rights work because it's a place where we see a lot of abuse and a lot of situations in which the government is taking private property from individuals who really did nothing wrong at all.

KEYRIS MANZANARES: Thomas West says, the Institute for Justice gives Virginia a D- grade when it comes to their civil forfeiture laws.

KIRBY THOMAS WEST: The government is actually bringing the case against your property. So civil forfeiture cases have these bizarre names like the United States versus a Ford F-150 or the Commonwealth of Virginia versus $21,000 in U.S. currency. And that's the fiction that you know, we're not saying that you necessarily have done something wrong. What we're saying is that your property has done something wrong. Your property has been connected to some kind of crime. There's also a financial incentive that is really pernicious, and that is that law enforcement often keeps the proceeds of civil forfeiture. For example, in Virginia, law enforcement keeps 100% of the proceeds from civil forfeitures, and 90% of that goes back to the agencies that were doing the seizing.

KEYRIS MANZANARES: In fiscal year 2023, the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services reported that law enforcement agencies seized cash, cars, and property valued at more than 7 million dollars. Chesterfield police received the most money back from seizures, nearly $800,000. Virginia State Police received a little over $338,000. Both agencies declined in-person interviews with VPM. In a statement VSP said quote, "State police asset forfeiture fund spending is restricted to training, rent, and animal resources. The one thing state police policy does not allow any asset forfeiture funds to be used on is salaries.” When asked how they use civil asset forfeiture as a crime fighting tactic, Chesterfield police responded in an email saying, "Seizing cash, equipment, and drugs is a way to negatively impact or stop large scale narcotic operations."

KIRBY THOMAS WEST: The ultimate recommendation when it comes to civil forfeiture is always eliminated. The way that the government should take property is through criminal forfeiture, right? No one should lose their property unless the government has borne its burden to actually charge them and convict them of a crime.

KEYRIS MANZANARES: In Stuart's case, he hired a lawyer and got his money back, but he still faced loss.

MANDREL STUART: Like I said, I lost my restaurant. That was a big thing. I lost my restaurant and I lost time. You can't get that time back.

KEYRIS MANZANARES: Reporting for VPM News, I'm Keyris Manzanares.


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