Opinion | The Scandal of the Predatory City – By Bernadette Atuahene – The New York Times


Ms. Atuahene is a law professor at IIT, Chicago-Kent College of Law.

Credit…Claire Merchlinsky

“I coined the term “predatory cities” to describe urban areas where public officials systematically take property from residents and transfer it to public coffers, intentionally or unintentionally violating domestic laws or basic human rights.

Ferguson, Mo., is one well-known predatory city. As a 2015 Department of Justice report showed, the police in Ferguson systematically targeted African-Americans and subjected them to excessive fines and fees. The U.S. Constitution does not allow judges to incarcerate defendants for unpaid debts without first determining their ability to pay. Nevertheless, local courts issued arrest warrants for unpaid fines and fees without these determinations. Minor offenses, like parking infractions, resulted in jail time, although lawmakers did not contemplate or approve such severe punishment. The Ferguson Police Department and courts prioritized revenue raising over public safety, transforming Ferguson into a predatory city.

New Orleans is another. In 2018, a Federal District Court ruled that the revival of debtors’ prisons in New Orleans violated the 14th Amendment. At the time, Orleans Parish Criminal District Court’s primary source of funding was the fines and fees it collected. This created a structural incentive for judges to aggressively and erroneously pursue payment from those with no ability to pay, turning New Orleans into a predatory city.

Washington, D.C., is yet another predatory city. While civil asset forfeiture laws allow the police to seize property that they suspect was involved in a crime, in Washington, D.C., property owners had to post bonds of up to $2,500 in order to challenge the seizure. If the owner could not raise money in time, the D.C. Police Department sold the property, and the money went into its annual budget. In a two-year period, the Police Department made $4.8 million in profit by seizing money from over 8,500 people as well as seizing 339 vehicles. According to a federal court, this abuse of civil forfeiture laws was illegal.

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