Baltimore police have seized more than $10 million from people during drug and gambling investigations over the past five years — but rarely return it.
Data presented to the Baltimore City Council this week showed that police keep about 94 percent of the cash they seize from residents, even though conviction rates are much lower.
From 2013 until 2017, Baltimore police seized more than $10.3 million, but only returned about $643,000.
In District Court, about three times as many people are cleared of criminal charges as are convicted. In Circuit Court, about half of those charged are convicted.
Police presented the data to the council Tuesday after Councilman Robert Stokes Sr. called for “a full accounting of all seized guns, drugs, dirt bikes, and cash over the last five years, along with a thorough explanation of how this material was disposed of, how long the disposal process typically takes, and what the best ways to include community representatives in that process may be.”
Under Maryland law, police are allowed to seize money that is found during investigations.
Residents who are cleared of wrongdoing can fill out a form seeking to get the money back. The form is not available online. A police department lawyer then reviews the form about three months later. If the police department lawyer believes the money should be returned, the form is forwarded to the city’s finance department for a refund.
The police lawyer uses a standard of whether the police involved in the case had “probable cause to believe the money was associated with a drug or gambling incident” — not the court standard of whether there is “beyond a reasonable doubt” that a person committed a crime.
Residents can contest the police lawyer’s decision in court.
Maryland law allows for a lower standard for civil forfeiture than criminal convictions. The government must only prove there is “a preponderance of the evidence” that the money was used or obtained illegally.
Money that is not returned goes to the city’s general fund. Stokes said in future years he wants to see a specific line item in the city’s budget to know exactly what is being purchased with money seized from residents.
Jennifer Egan, an assistant public defender, said most people try to get back their property seized by police — but often give up because the process is so burdensome. Egan said for her clients it’s mainly small amounts of cash and cell phones they want returned.
“They make it incredibly difficult to get your property back. Most people try for months and end up giving up,” she said. “It seems to be intentionally difficult. The ripple effects are substantial for people living in poverty. It is not a little deal. If we understand that lots of crime is economically motivated, taking money and assets from people doesn’t do much to disincentivize that.”
Cash seized by Baltimore police / cash returned
2013: $2.4 million / $0
2014: $1.8 million / $245,000
2015: $1.8 million / $91,000
2016: $2 million / $153,000
2017: $2.4 million / $152,000
5-year total: $10.3 million / $643,000
Source: Baltimore Police Department