Missouri Law Enforcement Is Dodging State Forfeiture Laws To Screw Schools And Keep Drugs Flowing Into The State
from the to-serve-and-protect-their-own-interests dept
The journalists at St. Louis Public Radio are the latest to dig into their state’s asset forfeiture programs. Despite the state receiving a decent grade from the Institute of Justice for the controls it places on state-level forfeitures, the station found plenty of abuse thanks to the federal loophole, which allows law enforcement to bypass all the built-in protections legislators have enacted.
Missouri law around asset forfeiture contains some fairly strong protections. Civil asset forfeiture can only take place after a conviction or a guilty plea in a criminal case. In addition, the money is set aside for schools. The Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning legal advocacy group, gave Missouri a grade of B+, among the best in the country. In the federal system, however, no criminal conviction is required, and police departments can keep up to 80 percent of the money they seize.
Prosecutors like Tim Lohmar in St. Charles County make the decision whether to handle potential asset-forfeiture cases with state charges, or at the federal level. The vast majority of the time, Lohmar chooses the federal process.
This has resulted in a windfall of over $1 million for local law enforcement agencies. Thanks to federal adoption, the money train never stops, no matter what state laws require. If the forfeiture is tied to criminal charges, the money goes to local schools. Cops aren’t fond of sharing, so only three of the 36 forfeiture cases processed by Lohmar last year included criminal charges for the person the cash was taken from.
The preference to grab cash, rather than drugs, has led to some completely nonsensical defenses of civil asset forfeiture.
“When you seize a thousand pounds of marijuana in the St. Louis area, you’re really not hurting the operations of a drug cartel in Mexico, because the cost to produce that thousand pounds is negligible in the grand scheme of things,” [State Rep. Justin] Hill said.
We’re expected to believe cultivating and processing drugs is a zero cost effort but lost cash can never be replaced. It stands to reason that the production and sales of drugs aren’t going to stop, so the seizure of a few thousand dollars from a random driver is also pretty “negligible in the grand scheme of things.”
And we know cops don’t actually care about stopping the drug flow. They allow the drugs to make their way into St. Louis and camp out on the roads leading away from the city to seize cash they believe resulted from the drug sales they can’t be bothered to stop.
[Sgt. Carmello] Crivello, like most highway interdictors, focuses on the westbound lanes of the interstate, targeting cash, rather than drugs, that comes through Missouri in the eastbound lanes.
“The westbound, generally speaking, are the profits from the drug sales,” said Crivello in an interview, “… so stopping westbound (is) more likely to hurt drugs … (You) hurt the cartels more than you hit the pocketbooks.”
Repeating the same fallacy doesn’t make it true. Law enforcement agencies like cash and the federal loophole that allows them to keep 80% of what they seize. What they don’t like is the work that comes with actually dismantling drug cartels which, at some point, has to involve drug seizures and arrests, rather than pocketing cash and sending drivers on their way.
The state’s law enforcement agencies have a chance to do some truly great things with forfeiture money. As was noted earlier, adding arrests to seizures routes funds to the state’s public school system. Rather than be an active contributor to their communities — both by funding schools and actually taking drug runners off the street — cops are seizing cash and asking the feds to launder the proceeds so they can bypass local schools and any pretense of stopping the flow of drugs into the state.
Of the $19 million collected in asset forfeitures over the past three years, $340,000 has gone to schools. That’s less than 2 cents on the dollar. Most of the rest of the money went to law-enforcement agencies for new equipment, squad cars, weapons, ammunition and jail cells.
Legislators enacted reforms almost two decades ago. Law enforcement immediately found a way to circumvent these restrictions. For a brief moment a few years ago, the federal government closed the escape hatch. That has been reopened and it certainly won’t be closing again while Trump is in office. Fortunately, state legislators are aware of what’s happening and are attempting to close this loophole.
Missouri State Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, has tried unsuccessfully during recent legislative sessions to pass a reform measure that would reduce the number of forfeitures that go the federal Equitable Sharing route and thus circumvent state law. Opposition from law-enforcement groups has kept the proposal bottled up in committee.
Dogan is considering two forms of the bill. One would bar officers from sending forfeitures of less than $100,000 to the federal program. An alternative, more palatable to law enforcement, would set the cap at $50,000. In other words, the small seizures would have to comply with state law, while the big seizures could go the federal route.
Doing this would force state cops to play by the rules set up in 1991 — the ones that gave the state residents some of the best protections in the country. It would make them focus on actually stopping the drug trade, rather than directly profiting from it.