9 Investigates: Feds step up property grab tactic to tackle crime in Charlotte

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Federal prosecutors are stepping up their use of a legal maneuver to snatch up properties from owners who have not been accused of crimes.

The area's top law enforcement official calls it an effective tool to deal with crime-ridden properties, but critics call it "un-American.”

The technique is called civil asset forfeiture. It allows federal prosecutors to start a legal process that could result in the government taking over the land.

Shavon Robinson has seen that process play out from across her front porch. The low-rent Brookhill Village community, where she lives, is currently complying with a settlement agreement reached after the feds sought to seize it in 2016.

As part of that agreement, crews have already demolished a plot of land that was once home to several units. Owners will also have to implement several measures to improve security and vet out future tenants. Robinson is looking to move before her unit is affected by the changes.

"If I find somewhere, moving wouldn't be the issue," Robinson said. "I just haven't found anywhere."

The property has been plagued by crime for years.

Frustrated, the feds began the seizure process. In court records, attorneys for the government detailed an extensive list of crimes to which CMPD officers had responded.

"At some point, we're going to stop asking you to clean up your property and we're just going to take it and do it ourselves," said Jill Westmoreland Rose, U.S. attorney for the Western District of North Carolina.

Rose told Channel 9 that she has asked her office to use the strategy more often. It's often used after local law enforcement has exhausted efforts with the property owner.

Federal officials said they usually use the technique only after there is 6 to 10 years of documented criminal activity on the property. The crimes that occur must be violations of federal law, such as a violation of the Controlled Substances Act or human trafficking laws.

"It's really a pretty lengthy process that starts with a lot of communication between the owners and the people who are actually running the business," Rose said.

Since she took the top spot in the U.S. Attorney's Office in 2015, her office has used the strategy at least five times on pieces of property. It includes Brookhill Village, two hotels and two shopping centers allegedly plagued by drug activity.

It's not often the government actually seizes the land. In three cases, government attorneys have already reached settlements with property owners to make improvements. Two cases are still pending, according to publicly available court records.

"This is an opportunity for them to remedy the situation," Rose said.

Not all property owners quickly settle with the government. Attorneys for the Thomasboro Plaza, a west Charlotte shopping center, bit back in a court filing, calling the move a "blatant effort" by CMPD to shift the efforts of local law enforcement onto the owners of commercial properties. Those attorneys did not respond to Channel 9's request for comment.

Rob Johnson, with the Institute for Justice, agreed the efforts can shift the responsibility of crime control to private owners.

"[The feds are] forcing property owners to assume the role of police," Johnson said.

The Institute for Justice has represented property owners who have successfully fought the government's attempts to take property where crime has occurred.

In one such example, a Massachusetts motel owner contested an attempted seizure after the government accused the property of being host to drug and other activity within the hotel rooms.

"It's wrong and it's un-American, nobody should have to prove their own innocence in order to prevent the police from taking their property," Johnson said.

Despite the Massachusetts owner winning, it was an expensive, time-consuming and stressful process, Johnson said.

Charlotte-area prosecutors plan to continue using the tactic, convinced it will clean up Charlotte's problem properties.

"It's just a natural result of effective law enforcement and the way that we can assist our law enforcement partners and make the community safer," Rose said.