United Airlines’ Legal Department
in partnership with
Seyfarth Shaw LLP and Cabrini Green Legal Aid
for their project to help low-income individuals recover vehicles and assets seized by the police.
Under current state civil asset forfeiture laws and the Chicago municipal code, police are authorized to seize property that they suspect has been used in connection with criminal activity. Until a recent change in the law, which became effective on July 1, 2018, people navigating Illinois’s civil asset forfeiture process had to prove their innocence in order to receive their vehicles back. Additionally, at trial, the property owner was responsible for proving that the property was exempt from forfeiture. Following the passage of the civil asset forfeiture reform bill, the government now has the responsibility of proving the property is subject to seizure.
Even with some of the recent updates and changes to the asset forfeiture process in Illinois, numerous articles have been written about the discriminatory impact of this procedure on people of color and the systemic abuses of power that can take place when law enforcement officials take property from people without due process. The practice has been widely criticized as unfair by policy advocates across the political spectrum. Despite all this, the practice remains prevalent in Chicago and many other jurisdictions throughout the country, with thousands of civil forfeitures taking place every year, resulting in proceedings that are nearly impossible to navigate without an attorney.
In 2016, United’s Legal Department, Cabrini Green Legal Aid, and Seyfarth Shaw LLP developed a pro bono partnership that has provided direct representation to more than 100 indigent clients navigating the City of Chicago’s complex asset forfeiture proceedings. These proceedings required individuals to prove their innocence twice in separate proceedings in order to reclaim property seized during an arrest. In addition to directly representing clients, the partnership has created vital resource materials and standardized forms for self-represented claimants in forfeiture cases; developed a set of pro bono training manuals to assist future claimants; and engaged in advocacy to reform civil asset forfeiture laws in Illinois.
About the CPBO Pro Bono Partner Award
Corporate Pro Bono (CPBO), the global partnership project of Pro Bono Institute and the Association of Corporate Counsel, created the CPBO Pro Bono Partner Award to recognize the unique role partnerships between and among in-house legal departments, law firms, and public interest groups play in providing pro bono legal services.
The award honors legal departments and the organizations with which they partner in the provision of legal services to those in need. The award recipients are departments, law firms, and public interest organizations that have demonstrated an impact on their community through their partnership project, shown substantial involvement in the project by in-house lawyers, made tangible steps toward sustaining the relationship among the partners, developed innovative substantive or structural approaches in support of the partnership’s effort, and addressed a critical legal need or assisted a particularly vulnerable community or target population.
Over the years, the impact and innovation of the projects supported by the award recipients have been tremendously important both in the projects’ ability to address the legal needs of the communities being served and in the role the partnerships have played in supporting and furthering pro bono work, especially within the in-house community. Through these partnerships, legal departments, law firms, and public interest organizations have devised programs that contribute to the legal profession’s efforts to close the justice gap and that create strong legacies of effective pro bono service.