Frank Ranelli owns a small computer repair shop in Ensley, Ala., a suburb of Birmingham. In addition to repairing customers’ laptops on site, he also offers a few computers and other electronics for sale.
Ranelli was working at his store one morning in 2010 when nearly two dozen police officers burst into his business. They accused him of selling stolen goods and confiscated a roomful of customers’ computers in for repairs, as well as some Ranelli was selling. By the time they were done, the cops walked out with 130 computers, plus Ranelli’s records and business computer.
In court, the one charge police leveled — receiving stolen goods — was quickly dismissed when Ranelli produced paperwork showing he’d legally purchased a laptop authorities thought he’d obtained illegally.
But that was just the beginning of his ordeal, as AL.com reports:
[N]one of the property seized by police that summer morning more than seven years ago has been returned to him.
Sgt. John Carr, a Homewood Police spokesman, said Wednesday that the department “really can’t comment on any of that stuff in regards to the property, because it’s tied up in a civil lawsuit right now.”
Ranelli has been trying since shortly after the raid to recover the items the officers took from his business and is currently in a protracted legal battle to force Homewood Police to return them. The latest in a years-long series of related court dates is scheduled for next summer.
Though the Kafkaesque stupidity of Ranelli’s particular situation is cranked to 11, his experience is sadly not unusual. He’s one of thousands of victims (some yearly figures can be found on page 37 of this 2015 report from the Institute for Justice) of civil asset forfeiture in America every year, struggling to regain property the government took from him even though he is no longer charged with, nor has he has not been convicted of, any crime in connection with all those computers.
In a twist of cruel absurdity, Ranelli’s innocence actually makes his situation more difficult. With civil asset forfeiture, the burden of proof is on you, not the police, to show that you didn’t obtain property or cash from any criminal activity. Ranelli has no right to an attorney or a speedy trial because he’s not on trial — thus that court date scheduled fully eight years after the original seizure.
“It’s really hard to fight the system,” explains Joseph Tully, an attorney familiar with Ranelli’s case. “If it was a private citizen who stole your things, you could go get your things, or in the olden days you could get your shotgun and pay the thief a visit and say, ‘Give me my stuff back.’ But you can’t do that in this case, because it’s the police.”
Needless to say, Ranelli is beyond frustrated with his plight. “Here I was, a man, owned this business, been coming to work every day like a good old guy for 23 years,” he told AL.com, “and I show up at work that morning — I was in here doing my books from the day before — and the police just f**ked my life.”
As the AL.com report details, police in Alabama are infuriatingly good at doing that. Click here to read the rest of the story — but be warned, the account of cops seizing $70 from a little girl’s piggy bank might actually ruin your day.