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Pulitzer Center Update May 3, 2019

'Taken' Tackles Civil Asset Forfeiture

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Screenshot from the Taken microsite. Image by Dan McCarey. United States, 2018.
English

Taken is a collaborative reporting effort, supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting...

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Graphic designed for the Pulitzer Center's 'Taken' website by Maptian.
Graphic designed for the Pulitzer Center's 'Taken' website by Maptian.

Civil asset forfeiture is a legal tactic used by law enforcement to confiscate personal property from citizens if it is thought to have been used for—or to aid in—a crime. This system has led to abuses as property is often seized from innocent persons who are not convicted of a crime. The practice provides a source of extra funding for police forces.   

Under a program called equitable sharing, state and local law enforcement  hand property over to the federal government and the federal government returns 80 percent of the value.

Tracking the assets once they are seized is a complex challenge.  From cash, to cars, to boats, to jewelry, all records of seized property are supposed to be accessible to the public. Whether these records are comprehensible and readily attainable though is debatable.  The availability of the civil seizure records differs from state to state and methods vary for publicly posting the records by the federal law enforcement agencies. Journalists, as well as the public, have found it difficult to access the many different types of seizure records posted by the federal agencies. Seeing this problem with disclosure, Dan McCarey, the director of maptian.com, came up with a viable solution for making the federal seazure data more accessible— the Taken website.  

Taken is a website that acts as a decoder to the seizure records that are published on asset forfeitures, as well as a public resource that sheds light on the issue by linking to reporting by newsrooms from different states on the topic. With its interactive maps and graphics, Taken tracks forfeiture data as well as compares the amount of the revenue collected over the years from each state.

One of the most important features on the month-old microsite is the Forfeitbot. What the bot does exactly is that it downloads the documents, scans them, and extracts useful data and then pushes it all into a large database. A JavaScript application reads this data, then displays it for the public on the website. The twitter account, @Forfeitbot, automatically tweets each seizure record,  as well as accepts questions regarding specific cases.

"I think there should be a public, accessible, easy-to-use record of what's being seized, especially because the bulk of this was taken without any conviction, " explained McCarey.

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