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Mayor Lightfoot’s plan to use asset forfeiture to curb violence looks like an empty move

This might’ve worked in the 1980s against East Coast mob bosses and South Florida drug dealers, but there’s good reason to believe it will be useless here.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot
Mayor Lori Lightfoot wants to seize the assets of alleged criminals in order to curb violence in the city.
Sun-Times files

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s new plan to seize the assets of gang members looks like a disturbing indication that her administration is in over its head when it comes to solving Chicago’s violent crime problem.

Last week, the mayor proposed an ordinance to allow authorities to use asset forfeiture laws to sue gang members and snatch up their valuables.

“Killing babies, killing children, killing old people indiscriminately. That is absolutely not acceptable,” Lightfoot said. “And we’ve got to put a marker down that we as a city are using every tool in our toolkit to push back against these violent gangs that are leaving a trail of blood and death and misery in their wake.”

The mayor and the police should, of course, take a hard stand against the violence, and we don’t disagree that gangs are part of the problem.

But asset seizures strike us as an outdated approach that might’ve worked in the 1980s against East Coast organized crime bosses and South Florida drug dealers, but would be virtually useless in curbing the violence on the streets of Chicago today — especially given that the violence is concentrated in poor neighborhoods where assets are few to begin with.

Plan is ‘2% reality’

Suburban prosecutors have used the Illinois Street Gang Prevention Act to sue gang members in civil court for monetary damages. But attorney John Mauck, who successfully defended four men against a Kane County asset forfeiture lawsuit similar to the type Lightfoot is pushing, says that most of the hundreds of suits against alleged Kane and DuPage County gang members have failed to collect any real money.

Lightfoot’s plan, Mauck says, is “98% political and 2% reality.”

He also points out that such lawsuits mostly target low-income gang members who can’t get court-appointed lawyers in civil cases the way they would if they were charged with crimes in criminal court. Which means we’re not talking about kingpins and high rollers awash in money, jewels and expensive high-end cars.

But you wouldn’t know that listening to Chicago Police Supt. David Brown.

“They’re flashing guns, money, this lifestyle that glamorizes cars, jewelry,” Brown said last week. “It is a very strategic move that the city is taking to take their stuff — take the glamor off of being in a gang.”

More likely than not, the reality is closer to how Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell, Jr., saw it, in a Twitter post last week.

“My prediction: We’ll take a lot of Camrys and Civics from unsuspecting grandmas,” Mitchell tweeted. “They’ll sue a bunch of poor people that the city will end having to pay damages back to [because] of mistakes . . . and it’ll do nothing to actually stop the shootings.”

And if those who are caught don’t have much “stuff” to take, then what good is this law, both as a crime deterrent and as means to defeat the activities of criminal groups?

“It’s a toothless charade,” Mauck says. “They can get dozens of court orders, but it will not stop crime.”

Under Lightfoot’s plan, at least half of the assets seized would go to helping victims and witnesses of street gang violence, which makes sense. But Freddy Martinez, director of the non-profit Lucy Parsons Labs, says his group’s research shows that the average seizure is only about $1,000.

“So, we’re not talking about, they’re taking down like Pablo Escobar,” Martinez told WTTW. “We’re talking about just everyday people; people have had their rent money seized.”

Better ways

This editorial board has long been skeptical when it comes to asset forfeiture laws. Too often such laws put the cart before the horse, allowing authorities to seize belongings before a suspect is even charged with a crime — and sometimes they never are. As we wrote in 2016, in a nation where people are supposed to be left alone as long as they follow the law, that doesn’t sit right.

Lightfoot’s asset forfeiture plan, ineffectual as we suspect it will be, at least doesn’t pretend to offer a shortcut or quick fix to stem Chicago’s problem of gun violence. It is realistic in that way.

We just think the city would be smarter to concentrate on more promising long-term solutions, such as staffing up its detective division and leaning into efforts to stop the flow of illegal guns.

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