Washington Couple Fights Government After Police Seize Car Son Was Borrowing
by Melissa Quinn
Terry and Maria Platt haven’t been to Arizona in more than 30 years, and they weren’t driving the 2012 Volkswagen Jetta that belongs to them when police in the Grand Canyon State seized it in May.
In fact, Terry Platt, 77, and Maria Platt, 74, who goes by Ria, were five states away in Prosser, Washington, where they live.
But that didn’t stop troopers with the Arizona Department of Public Safety and the Navajo County Drug Task Force from taking their car under Arizona’s civil asset forfeiture laws, setting in motion a complex legal proceeding that the Platts say has left them living a nightmare.
Now, Navajo County prosecutors want to keep the Jetta forever, but not if Terry and Ria Platt have anything to do with it.
The Platts’ challenge to Arizona’s civil forfeiture laws began six months ago, in April, when they let their son, Shea, borrow their 2012 Volkswagen Jetta.
Shea used to car to drive from Washington to Florida for vacation, according to court documents, but on May 3, police pulled Shea over on Interstate 40 near Holbrook, Arizona, for a window tint violation.
A trooper with the state Department of Public Safety issued Shea a repair, or “fix-it,” ticket, but then decided to search the Jetta, according to police reports.
Police brought in a drug-sniffing dog, which registered a positive hit on the vehicle, and officers found more than $31,700 in cash, “personal use” marijuana, and drug paraphernalia in the car, police reports state.
The officers arrested Shea on charges of possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia, and money laundering. Shea was released, and as of Sept. 26, there weren’t any pending criminal charges against him.
Police, however, did seize the Platts’ Volkswagen Jetta under Arizona’s civil forfeiture laws, which give law enforcement the power to take property if they suspect it’s tied to criminal activity.
But the vehicle didn’t belong to Shea, and neither Terry nor Ria — who haven’t been charged with a crime — knew of any illegal activity taking place.
Additionally, under Arizona law, law enforcement can’t seize property if they find cash and marijuana under a two-pound threshold set by the state.
Now, Terry and Ria Platt, along with the Arlington, Virginia,-based Institute for Justice, have filed a civil rights lawsuit arguing that not only was the state’s seizure illegal and a violation of their constitutional rights, but also that the state’s civil forfeiture system favors the government over property owners.
“It seems bizarre to me that this can happen in the United States. It doesn’t seem right, and I can’t get my head around it,” Terry Platt said in a video interview with the Institute for Justice. “It’s too unbelievable for me to actually even explain how I feel about it.”
The ‘Worst Nightmare’
According to the Institute for Justice, law enforcement in Arizona seized more than $36 million in cash, cars, and property last year, and the state received a “D” grade from the public interest law firm for its civil forfeiture laws.
“In a very perverse way, Arizona law treats the innocent property owners worse than it treats people who are accused of crimes,” Paul Avelar, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice who is representing the Platts, told The Daily Signal.
Under Arizona’s civil forfeiture laws, the government must only have probable cause to forfeit property, and prosecutors have the authority to decide whether or not to return seized property.
Furthermore, law enforcement agencies in the state can keep up to 100 percent of the proceeds from forfeited property, which opponents of civil forfeiture say creates a perverse profit incentive for law enforcement to seize property without ever charging the owner with a crime.
In Pinal County, Arizona, for example, the county attorney used forfeiture money to pay for his personal home security system, personnel costs, and retirement contributions of employees in his office in 2013.
“[Forfeited] money goes into the accounts that are controlled by prosecutors and held executively for the benefit of the seizing agencies, the agencies that seize the property for forfeiture,” Avelar said.
“There’s no one who can control what they do with those moneys,” he continued. “This can become, essentially, a slush fund for these law enforcement agencies. In some instances, these law enforcement agencies become to a certain degree self-funding.”
After police seized the Platts’ Jetta, the couple received a “notice of pending forfeiture making uncontested forfeiture available.” The notice informed the couple that if they wanted to get their car back, they had 30 days to either file a claim or submit a petition for remission or mitigation with the Navajo County Attorney’s Office.
The Platts said they met with a lawyer, who told them fighting the forfeiture would cost $4,000, so the couple decided to respond to the notice on their own.
Though Terry and Ria Platt filed their petition within the required 30-day time frame, the Navajo County Attorney’s Office said that neither a claim nor a petition had been filed.
The prosecutor then filed an application with the court to forfeit the car, which admitted they did receive the Platts’ petition.
The Navajo County Attorney’s Office, however, deemed it “null and void” because the couple didn’t include the words “under penalty of perjury” with their signatures.
“I can say without hesitation that this was the worst nightmare that can happen in reality. They took my son to jail and seized the car that belongs to my husband and me,” Ria Platt said.
“We’re standing up to stop this because we feel that it’s wrong, definitely wrong. It should be against the law for us and other people. Not just for us, it should just not happen to anyone,” she continued.
A spokesman for the Navajo County Attorney’s Office said the office doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
Arizona was on track to become one of those states after state Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, introduced a bill in January that would’ve required law enforcement to secure a criminal conviction before forfeiting property.
The bill, however, was defeated in committee.
Law enforcement in the state have argued that the practice of civil forfeiture isn’t being abused, and police groups assert that the tool is vital to helping curb drug trafficking and money laundering.
But opponents of civil forfeiture believe that the profit incentive forfeiture laws create leads to innocent people getting caught up in a complex system.
“This case demonstrates not only the dangers inherent to innocent owners under Arizona’s laws, it just goes again to show that civil forfeiture is maybe the most dangerous threat to private property rights in the U.S. today,” Avelar said. “Terry and Ria are, unfortunately, the most recent victims of it, and we’re going to be working to make sure they have their rights protected and respected.”
And the Institute for Justice isn’t the only group suing Arizona over its use of civil forfeiture.
Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union and Perkins Coie filed a lawsuit against top officials in Pinal County, Arizona, for what they say is an abuse of civil forfeiture laws on the part of law enforcement.
The ACLU and Coie are suing Pinal County on behalf of Rhona Cox, whose $6,000 truck was seized in 2013 after her son, who was borrowing the vehicle at the time, was arrested.
Cox initially tried to challenge the forfeiture to get her truck back, but she decided to give up on her efforts after Deputy Pinal County Attorney Craig Cameron sent her an email warning that if Cox lost in court, she would have to pay the state’s lawyers’ fees and cost of the investigation, as required under Arizona law.
Avelar and fellow Institute for Justice Attorney Keith Diggs said in court filings that these “reverse attorney’s fees” provisions “chill the exercise of the right to petition the government.”
But Arizona’s laws haven’t deterred Ria and Terry Platt from fighting to get their car back.
“We’re innocent,” Ria Platt said. “If we weren’t innocent, we wouldn’t have tried to get the car back in the first place. We never did anything wrong.”
Originally published at dailysignal.com on October 12, 2016.