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Michigan Cops Destroying Drug Cartels With Microscopic Drug Busts, Seizures Of 20-Year-Old Vehicles

from the defeating-a-giant-means-chipping-away-at-random,-possibly-unrelated-toes dept

Crushing drug dealers and criminal cartels: that's the asset forfeiture narrative. The reality is something completely different. It's the government taking property from people with a minimum of due process, urged on by a set of perverse incentives. Law enforcement agencies directly profit from the stuff they take from people, so there's really no reason not to.

When the general public hears forfeiture is being used to target criminal cartels, they tend to think of piles of cash, luxury vehicles, sprawling mansions, and the occasional aircraft. In reality, it's whatever cash cops can find laying around (usually less than $1,000) and vehicles a couple of decades old that are someone's barely-reliable ride.

Whatever statistics can be obtained -- and it isn't much, given the secrecy cloaking these state-ordained seizures -- always tell the same story: 99% of civil asset forfeiture is penny ante bullshit. It's this way for several reasons. First, smaller forfeitures aren't worth fighting in court, so small ball seizures are almost guaranteed to end up in the hands of law enforcement. Second, it all adds up over the year. A bunch of small seizures turns into real money eventually. Third, cops aren't willing to let drug lords walk. But they'll take stuff from anyone they can imagine might be part of a cartel, even when it's someone busted carrying nothing more than a personal stash.

And that's if they even find contraband at all. The absence of criminal evidence seldom deters seizures, and forfeitures have been expanded to cover vehicles driven by impaired or uninsured drivers.

Wayne County, Michigan is no exception to this particularly depressing set of rules. As the Michigan Capitol Confidential reports, local law enforcement has seized millions of dollars worth of property, but a closer examination of the data shows its forfeiture programs prey on the poor and/or drug users who have nothing to do with the supply side of the Drug War.

Altogether, there were 736 asset forfeiture proceedings in Michigan in 2017 during which someone lost property to the government despite never being charged with any crime; this happened 380 times in Wayne County. A state law passed in 2015 requires law enforcement agencies across Michigan to submit data about forfeiture to the Michigan State Police.

Jarrett Skorup of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, who co-authored a recent report on civil forfeiture, said the data shows nearly all of those Wayne County seizures involved vehicles valued at less than $1,000. He said it’s likely that these forfeitures disproportionately affected low-income individuals, who are less able to afford an attorney or navigate the legal system to reclaim their property.

The report [PDF] doesn't break down the total value of vehicles seized, but the numbers bear out Skorup's claim. The state as a whole reported $13 million in net total proceeds from all property forfeited. $11 million of that was cash. There were 7,999 vehicles seized statewide. Simple division says that's only $250 per vehicle. State agencies also seized other property that wasn't vehicles or cash, further lowering the per vehicle estimate.

Now, there are a few unknown factors that may bring that number back up slightly. It's unclear whether this reflects proceeds after auctions, etc. that would result in a lower net total for the state due to differences in expected property value and its actual value after "disposal." This may raise the per vehicle value, but there's still a long way to go from the $250 baseline and a dollar amount that would suggest something other than what appears to be happening here: thousands of seizures of vehicles worth less than the legal costs that would be accrued fighting the forfeiture.

There's more disturbing data in the report beyond the apparent wholesale forfeiture of cars whose value barely exceeds the going rate for scrap. A vast majority of those targeted by forfeiture -- with or without accompanying criminal charges -- were caught with the lowest amounts needed to trigger criminal charges. 88% of cocaine-related seizures involved the less than 50 grams. 83% of marijuana-related seizures also involved the lowest amounts needed to charge someone. And so on down the chart of criminal charges.

The lowest-level busts make up the vast majority of all seizures. It makes sense that officers would encounter users far more often than dealers. What doesn't add up is the narrative: that forfeitures are essential to destroying drug cartels. All it's really doing is depriving people of property and disproportionately punishing the demand side of the drug problem.

Serious crimes barely register. There are thousands of drug-related forfeitures -- with more than 80% of those covering bare minimum possession. The list of serious crimes -- ranging from grand larceny to child molestation to home invasion -- makes up only 95 of the state's ~6,000 seizures. The only other big chunk (984 forfeitures) is related to prostitution charges, showing the state is willing to take away vehicles for engaging in consensual sexual transactions.

This abuse of a law enforcement tool has gotten the county sued. Multiple citizens are seeking to have the program found unconstitutional. Two of the plaintiffs listed in this story by the Detroit News have waited years for a hearing on seized vehicles, one of which is a 1998 Toyota Avalon, to give you some idea what kind of prime drug-dealing vehicles the county targets.

The small bright spot in all this is there's a bill seeking to institute a conviction requirement for forfeitures. If state agencies have to be able to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, they'll be far less likely to engage in specious seizures based on little more than the agency's desire to have more money/stuff. Unfortunately, the bill appears to be waiting for its Senate counterpart to arrive and it's been waiting almost six months at this point.


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Nov 2018 @ 3:45pm

    Remember, if you don't like the weather, move.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Nov 2018 @ 4:03pm

    When law enforcement becomes a profit making venture, corruption follows.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 2 Nov 2018 @ 4:13pm

      Re:

      When __ becomes a profit making venture, corruption follows.

      A. Law enforcement B. Politics C. Violating privacy D. All of the above

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Sharur, 5 Nov 2018 @ 11:57am

      Re:

      Or more generally (courtesy of my father, a systems engineer):

      Systems will move to increase their metrics of success. To make a system move in the direction you want, make a metric for it (and tie consequences, both good and bad, to it). If you use a proxy metric, then the system will move to increase the proxy by what ever means is easiest, even if that is not what you wish to increase.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 Nov 2018 @ 8:43pm

      Re:

      Kinder gentler nation means that people are going to disappear.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    creek, 2 Nov 2018 @ 4:56pm

    victory is near

    ... hey, cops are just heroic soldiers in the government "War on Drugs" -- which has been a huge success in past half century. Victory is near. Illegal drugs have almost completely vanished from America.

    Just one more century and 10 million more cops -- then the Drug War will be complete glorious victory.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Glenn, 2 Nov 2018 @ 5:38pm

    Yeah, if "the government" wanted to stifle drug cartels, then it would decriminalize/legalize drug dealing in order to tax it to death. Prices would drop due to competition, people would actually "use" less, govt. coffers would still fill up though. A significant number of designer drugs would never have been created, esp. the more deadly ones. Of course, there would be much less need for more cops with more and more expensive "toys" (most of which are used against people having nothing to do with drugs). Ah well, control freaks gotta control.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 2 Nov 2018 @ 6:01pm

    Gee why do it to poor people...
    because no one cares & no one will listen to them.

    If they were taking away Buffy or Biffs new mustang that mommy & daddy got them because they had a joint, there would be outrage.

    This way it is just a tax on poor bad people, they had to have been bad the cops pulled them over. We can feel that it is the poor peoples fault because if they had just behaved they never would have been stopped, because the cops are never mean to nice upstanding people.

    Notice how there isn't any public outcry anymore over what they were doing in Ferguson putting poor people on a debt hamster wheel where they could never catch up?
    The budget filled out by the people least able to afford it & who no longer look to the police to protect them because they know they are just a cash cow to them, not a citizen worth protecting.

    This country is really fscked up...
    We can watch body cam video of a cop executing someone & still not convict them, but we assume the people robbed of their cars for being 'drug dealers' were very bad people who had millions from their dealing.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Nov 2018 @ 9:10pm

    What doesn't add up is the narrative: that forfeitures are essential to destroying drug cartels. All it's really doing is depriving people of property and disproportionately punishing the demand side of the drug problem.

    This is trickle-up forfeiture. By stealing the vehicles of the people least able to fight back, the cops hurt drug trafficking in multiple ways at once:

    • The now vehicle-free users have more trouble commuting to meet their dealer
    • Users who persist in buying drugs will now have to flee drug enforcement officers on foot, rather than induce a car chase
    • The users now need to spend their very limited resources securing a replacement vehicle, so they can't spend that money on drugs

    Besides, if the forfeiture were used against the advertised targets, those targets can afford an attorney to contest the seizure.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Nov 2018 @ 9:35pm

    If drugs are required to commit a forfeiture...

    One authentic drug bust cache can go missing to fuel oodles of "minimum drug busts".

    I mean... how likely is it that all of those people had exactly the minimum amount of drugs on them? Eh?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 3 Nov 2018 @ 6:53am

      Re: If drugs are required to commit a forfeiture...

      afaik, one does not even need to have drugs in order to be charged for possession.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    GEMont, 3 Nov 2018 @ 10:49am

    The manufactured crisis and the impossible solution

    <tl;dr> You are truly fucked.

    rant:

    Methinks if you take an honest look at just who is behind the profit side of the illegal drug economy, all this will make perfect sense.

    The extremely wealthy love to invest their cash in things that show a good fast profit return. There is no better investment field than the illegal drug economy. Drugs are dirt cheap to make/grow. A dollar spent will return hundreds, if not thousands in return.

    But the laws..... well, if you're law enforcement people are included in the profit side of the illegal drug economy too, then they have no reason to stop the drug trade, and thus no reason to target either the cartels, or their financiers.

    On the other hand, since drug users have their "rights" stripped by the laws, they make the perfect target for law enforcement's reverse Robin Hood actions - for legal forfeiture-based theft by the cops, which leaves the users on the street to gather more stuff for later repeat forfeitures. A renewable resource!!

    Once the cops can make a buck from the illegal drug economy, they become a part of that economy and will thereafter do whatever it takes to keep the ball rolling and the cash flowing in, which means actually protecting the drug economy financiers and the cartels.

    In case you have not noticed yet, its also the wealthy who create the laws of the land.

    This "problem", like most of the problems now facing the American people, has been manufactured by the American Wealthy, to provide a new source of tax free, unreported income, and has proven to be the most lucrative business model since War.

    The problem however, is almost impossible to fix.

    The American people are worshipers of the wealthy and will do nothing to reduce the ability of the wealthy to turn a profit, simply because they too want to be among the wealthy and want to make sure all of those extra ways and means of making money remain intact in case they too should some day become a member of the 1%.

    Its the American Dream.

    The American public is thus incapable of dealing with this problem in a sensible fashion and will continue to allow the billionaires to drain their wealth until as always, the fascists have shipped their host's wealth to their off-shore vaults and then migrate to take up residence in the next wealthy country. Shake and repeat.

    Remember, Fascism is a for-profit business model, not a form of government.

    ---

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 3 Nov 2018 @ 11:01am

      Re: The manufactured crisis and the impossible solution

      "The American people are worshipers of the wealthy "

      Not everyone

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 4 Nov 2018 @ 9:51am

        Re: Re: The manufactured crisis and the impossible solution

        RE ""The American people are worshipers of the wealthy""
        ========================================================

        "Not everyone."

        True.

        But you three guys really don't count much against the horde of wannabe millionaires.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 Nov 2018 @ 9:06pm

      Re: The manufactured crisis and the impossible solution

      Oh I want to go to your school and get that education that teaches you Americans worship wealth.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Bruce C., 4 Nov 2018 @ 6:50am

    So, to coin an analogy

    Civil forfeiture is to poor people of color as binding arbitration, add-on fees and bit-cap limits from telecom companies are to the white middle-class.

    Both are methods of nickel and diming people in ways that they don't dare (or care) to protest, but raise significant amounts of cash for the perpetrator.

    And, as usual, the poorest people are the ones being screwed the hardest.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 4 Nov 2018 @ 7:23am

      Re: So, to coin an analogy

      "Civil forfeiture is to poor people of color as binding arbitration, add-on fees and bit-cap limits from telecom companies are to the white middle-class."

      Poor people do not need/use the internet? This is news to me.
      I recall a news bit on tv that was discussing how the homeless use their cell phone to find daily necessities like food and work.

      In addition, why are middle class folk not screwed by asset forfeiture? There have been many reported instances of this occurring to middle class people. Is there insurance (/s)?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Not.You, 5 Nov 2018 @ 12:54pm

    If you combine this with those horribly unreliable field test kits they use to test for drugs you could literally get your car stolen by the cops and face drug possession charges for the crime of possessing a wide variety of innocuous substances.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-watch/wp/2015/02/26/a-partial-list-of-things-that -field-testing-drug-kits-have-mistakenly-identified-as-contraband/?utm_term=.5d89e3705802

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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