Civil asset forfeiture is the most infamous game in law enforcement. While in its pure form, seizing the luxury cars, boats, homes and cash of drug dealers can be a useful tool in taking profit out of crime, in the real world far too many police and sheriffs offices use it to finance and enrich their operations, leading to startling abuses.
Now, this is an old story. Go through newspaper archives across the country and you'll find investigative pieces going back more than a decade documenting problems with police departments taking people's stuff for their own use, often without even bothering to charge the owner with a crime.
No one is immune. Pro basketball player Corie Blount was a victim in 1998 when he was pulled over in Ohio on Christmas Eve for having tinted windows and no front license plate. His car was searched after a drug-sniffing dog alerted to the car. No drugs were found but the Ohio State Highway Patrol discovered $19,000. Without any evidence of criminality, the money was taken and turned over to the Drug Enforcement Administration for seizure. It took months of negotiations with the federal government to finally get the money returned.
In the aftermath of this and other such scandals, state legislatures and even Congress have made some attempts at reform, but law enforcement has vehemently resisted the only real reform: taking the profit motive out of seizures by not letting police keep the dough.
Slapping their fingers from the cookie jar is the only way to protect against abuse. But police are addicted to this narcotic of easy money and fancy wheels and they are not giving up their drug of choice easily. Imagine trying to evict Tampa Police Chief Bennie Holder from the seized $38,000 Chevy Tahoe in which he is driving around these days, or trying to decommission some of the 42 other seized cars, including a Lincoln Navigator and a Ford Expedition, top Tampa police brass use. It is not going to happen.
In Utah, a highly popular voter-passed initiative in 2000 sent all proceeds from asset seizures to an education fund. But since then, local police agencies and prosecutors have done everything possible to stymie the measure, from going to court to challenge the initiative's constitutionality (they lost), to simply ignoring it and illegally keeping the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Finally, in June, a court ordered the money into the school fund.
Responding to the ruling, Salt Lake County District Attorney David Yocom echoed the sentiments of a number of other officials by predicting the end of local forfeitures. "Doing forfeitures is way down the line in my priorities," Yocom told the Associated Press.
Astounding. If police and prosecutors don't get to keep the money, if it goes instead to public education or something equally worthy, they are not going to bother with seizures? Funny, I thought forfeitures were done for a law enforcement purpose, as a way to prevent criminals from living large on their lucre, as a disincentive to crime. Now it turns out, it is all about who gets the money. Well, fancy that.
And this is where the federal government steps in. Numerous states have enacted laws diverting some or all of asset seizure profits into a state general fund or other specialized fund. This is what legislatures do, they develop funding priorities for state revenues. But for nearly 20 years the federal government has colluded with local law enforcement to skirt state law and put the money back into the pockets of the seizing agency.
Under the process known as adoption, the Justice Department actively encourages local policing agencies to turn over their seized assets. The department will then do the forfeiture and return 80 percent of seizure proceeds to the local agency. So, for a mere 20 percent off the top, any pesky state laws can be circumvented.
Thanks to a wonderful series by reporter Karen Dillon at the Kansas City Star (www.kcstar.com/projects/drugforfeit) we know something of the extent of the avarice. For example, she documents that in Wisconsin, where forfeited money goes into an education fund, only $16,906 was sent to the fund in the year ending June 1999. In six months of the same year, $1.5-million in seizures was sent by local law enforcement to the federal government.
Michael O'Hear, professor of law at Marquette University Law School and an expert on forfeiture issues, says this equitable sharing or adoption process is how the federal government gooses local law enforcement to crack down on drug trafficking.
"When equitable sharing got set up in the mid-1980s," O'Hear says, "there was this huge burst of activity by local police doing drug enforcement. Whether it's unsavory or not it does seem to be true that local police departments have been very influenced by the existence of financial incentives to do drug enforcement."
In fiscal year 2002, the Justice Department returned $188-million to state and local police agencies, $15-million to Florida alone. All this money drives local law enforcement to find any way to get a piece, even if it means bypassing state due process rules. Some states require a conviction before assets can be forfeited, and other states - including Florida - don't allow police to seize a primary residence, but none of those rules exist under federal forfeiture, so local law enforcement simply sends the seizure cases there.
This unscrupulous pact has been going on for years, but few politicians, state or federal, have been willing to challenge it. Police and prosecutors have a grip so tight on this money that no one and nothing - not even the law - can seem to pry it loose.