Asset Forfeiture Is Just Cops Going Shopping For Stuff They Want
from the only-thing-more-violated-than-citizens-is-the-ideal-itself dept
The New York Times has obtained some rather enlightening footage from law enforcement asset forfeiture seminars. In it, various speakers — including police officers and attorneys — present this extremely popular law enforcement program as a great way for agencies to get the things they want. Without a trace of self-awareness or remorse, speakers indulge the perverted incentives that have seen this swell from $407 million (in 2001) to $4.3 billion in 2012.
In one seminar, captured on video in September, Harry S. Connelly Jr., the city attorney of Las Cruces, N.M., called them “little goodies.” And then Mr. Connelly described how officers in his jurisdiction could not wait to seize one man’s “exotic vehicle” outside a local bar.
“A guy drives up in a 2008 Mercedes, brand new,” he explained. “Just so beautiful, I mean, the cops were undercover and they were just like ‘Ahhhh.’ And he gets out and he’s just reeking of alcohol. And it’s like, ‘Oh, my goodness, we can hardly wait.’”
Too bad the cops couldn’t wait. No Mercedes for them. The city attorney notes, not without remorse, that if they hadn’t jumped the gun and had waited until the intoxicated man had actually entered his vehicle, the police could have scored a brand new Mercedes for nothing more than a drunk driving violation.
Other officials involved in law enforcement asset seizures were even more blunt. According to the head of the forfeiture unit in Mercer County, New Jersey (Sean McMurtry), assets seized are closely tied to law enforcement agency “wish lists.”
Mr. McMurtry made it clear that forfeitures were highly contingent on the needs of law enforcement. In New Jersey, the police and prosecutors are allowed to use cars, cash and other seized goods; the rest must be sold at auction. Cellphones and jewelry, Mr. McMurtry said, are not worth the bother. Flat screen televisions, however, “are very popular with the police departments,” he said…
Mr. McMurtry said his handling of a case is sometimes determined by department wish lists. “If you want the car, and you really want to put it in your fleet, let me know — I’ll fight for it,” Mr. McMurtry said, addressing law enforcement officials on the video. “If you don’t let me know that, I’ll try and resolve it real quick through a settlement and get cash for the car, get the tow fee paid off, get some money for it.”
Prosecutors at this seminar noted that seizures are rarely challenged. Further adding to the imbalance are “first hearings,” which are presided over by prosecutors whose offices often directly benefit from asset seizures, rather than by more impartial judges.
Adding to this farcical display of “justice” is the fact that many law enforcement agencies have expanded the reach of these programs. What used to be limited to fraud or drug cases — with the intent being to reimburse the defrauded and cripple the finances of powerful drug dealers — is now just another form of punishment, one that allows law enforcement agencies to stock up on flat screen TVs and vehicles.
[M]cMurtry… said forfeiture contributes to only a small percentage of local budgets but it is a good deterrent and works especially well against repeat offenders, such as domestic violence perpetrators who repeatedly violate a restraining order.
As noted earlier, agencies are also seizing the vehicles of drunk drivers, even for first offenses. A police officer attending this seminar notes that the vehicle seized often doesn’t belong to the drunk driver, but another family member, like a parent or spouse. But the officer (and the department he represents) doesn’t care. The vehicle is as guilty as the suspect, even if the vehicle doesn’t belong to the suspect. This allows the PD to punish an innocent party for the wrongdoing of another (and, of course, take advantage of the seized asset).
Officials may argue that seizures are a good deterrent, but that was never the program’s intention. It was about providing retribution to members of the public (in fraud cases) and weaken large-scale criminal enterprises (like drug syndicates and organized crime). Now, law enforcement agencies are using it to punish drunk drivers and restraining order violators. Vehicles and cash have been seized in cases related to prostitution, shoplifting — even statutory rape.
Law enforcement agencies have found a steady stream of income and they love it. Officers aren’t just taking advantage of an easily-abused system. They’re actively engaged in telling others how to get the most out of asset forfeiture. The New York Times reviewed footage of three law enforcement seminars and saw all of the following:
In the sessions, officials share tips on maximizing profits, defeating the objections of so-called “innocent owners” who were not present when the suspected offense occurred, and keeping the proceeds in the hands of law enforcement and out of general fund budgets[…]
Officials offered advice on dealing with skeptical judges, mocked Hispanics whose cars were seized, and made comments that, the Institute for Justice said, gave weight to the argument that civil forfeiture encourages decisions based on the value of the assets to be seized rather than public safety.
The Dept. of Justice is actively involved in this exploitative use of asset forfeiture laws. According to documents obtained by Muckrock, the DOJ provides a way for agencies to skirt restrictive state laws and directly profit from asset seizures.
Unless their state specifically prohibits it, agencies enrolled in the equitable sharing program can petition a DOJ agency to “adopt” their seizure.
In an adoptive seizure, if the local agency has seized the property without any help from the feds, they get to keep 80 percent of the profits while the DOJ takes the rest.
Proceeds from joint seizures, in which DOJ agencies cooperate with their local counterparts in the investigation, are split based on how much effort each agency contributed.
Even if local governments attempt to head off the inevitable result of these perverted incentives (like Missouri does by diverting asset forfeiture proceeds to its education fund), the federal government is there to kick that door wide open — yet another way the government of and by the people directly contributes to the abuse of the very same public it’s supposed to be protecting.