Your Money Or Your Life: Louisville Cops, Prosecutors Dropping Hefty Trafficking Charges In Exchange For Seized Cash

from the participation-trophies-for-all-drug-war-participants dept

Law enforcement agencies like to portray asset forfeiture as an important weapon in the Drug War arsenal -- one capable of toppling cartels and kingpins. Every so often, a large amount of cash and drugs is trotted out in front of reporters as evidence of this claim.

The reality is much, much different. For all intents and purposes, civil asset forfeiture is a government crime of opportunity. Any search that yields cash is a win for the agencies that profit from the seizure, even when there's no evidence the cash taken has any link to criminal activity. Pretextual traffic stops, knock-and-talks, stop-and frisk programs… all of these have the potential to turn everyday police work into something profitable.

WFPL's examination of the Louisville (KY) Metro PD's asset forfeiture paperwork shows the agency isn't really targeting drug traffickers and criminal organizations with its seizures. It's just lifting money from whoever it can, like people who've done nothing more than produced an offensive odor. (You are not misreading that sentence.)

Theron Carson and his friends were smoking weed and playing video games when the police showed up at his door.

It was 1 a.m., and the officers told Carson someone complained about the smell. The quickest resolution of the problem, they told Carson, was to allow them to search his Newburg apartment.

After police found his weed and his digital scale, they emptied his wallet. Then they charged him with drug trafficking.

Carson, now 24, says he is not a drug dealer. The $1,200 police took was earned legally, he said, and a mix of rent money, bill money and cash he and his girlfriend socked away in preparation for their daughter's birth.

Carson wanted the money back. Prosecutors offered him a deal that would allow him to plead to a misdemeanor… but only if he surrendered all of the cash.

This is standard operating procedure for the LMPD and the prosecutors it works with. Any cash seized is treated essentially as a bribe arrestees didn't know they were offering. In 25% of the cases examined, charges were dropped in exchange for the LMPD keeping the money.

Local prosecutors pretend the money is not a motivator. They're apparently putting alleged criminals back on the street (minus their cash) because they're just so great at prosecutorial discretion... I guess.

Jefferson County Commonwealth’s Attorney Thomas B. Wine said in an interview with KyCIR that losing cash is the “cost of doing business” if you’re caught with drugs and money, regardless of how the case is resolved.

“To somehow suggest that money is going to make a difference for any of us, at least here on the prosecution side, is ridiculous,” Wine said. “It’s not worth it for the prosecutors that I work with.”

So. Much. Discretion.

Wine estimates nearly 98 percent of cases his office prosecutes are settled with a plea deal.

But no profiting from cash grabs. No sir.

Kentucky law dictates that the police department keeps 85 percent of what it seizes, and the rest goes to the state’s prosecutors.

The LMPD seizes nearly $1 million in cash per year. It takes a while to add up when cops -- utilizing their training and expertise -- are able to turn almost anyone into a "drug trafficker" for the purposes of relieving them of their cash. According to WFPL's investigation, almost 40% of the seizures involved less than $1,000. And yet, officers taking property from arrestees tend to describe any amount of cash as "large" to better fit the drug trafficking narrative being pushed to create charges significant enough to be used as leverage against defendants and their natural desire to be reunited with their seized funds.

Police stopped a man in January 2017 for failing to use a turn signal while leaving “a high narcotics area,” according to an arrest citation. The officer reported smelling marijuana but didn’t find any; instead, a search netted a needle loaded with suspected meth, two pills and a “large amount of money”: $231.

An LMPD officer arrested a man suspected of selling synthetic marijuana at a west Louisville gas station in March 2017. In the arrest citation, the officer noted the man possessed a “large amount of lower denomination bills” in his wallet. The “large” amount of cash officers seized: $33.

These are the people prosecutors ring up on drug trafficking charges. And these are the ones whose cash they take to secure plea deals for lesser charges. Even then, the deliberately-broken system still doesn't work. The $33 kingpin listed above lost his cash and was convicted of drug trafficking.

One more data point: the LMPD's drug dogs are only "right" half the time.

In an analysis of 139 searches since Jan. 1, 2017, in which a dog indicated that drugs were present, 45% turned up no narcotics.

Cops don't know the drug dog is wrong until after the search is completed. The drug dog is really there to give officers permission to perform a warrantless search. On the dog green lights the search, anything discovered can be seized by officers, including whatever cash happens to be in the car or on the driver. A drug dog is a mobile warrant exception.

Programs where random citizens are relieved of cash just because they happen to be in possession of small amounts of drugs isn't going to stop the flow of drugs. They'll continue to flow as freely as citizens' cash into the accounts of the PD and prosecutors. No one's in any hurry to give up this revenue stream, even if law enforcement resources would be better used elsewhere.

Filed Under: asset forfeiture, asset seizure, cash, civil asset forfeiture, dropped cases, legalized theft, louisville, money, prosecutors


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  1. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 8 Oct 2019 @ 1:53pm

    Someone forgot the first rule of lying...

    'If you're going to lie, at least make it somewhat believable.'

    To somehow suggest that money is going to make a difference for any of us, at least here on the prosecution side, is ridiculous,” Wine said. “It’s not worth it for the prosecutors that I work with.”

    And yet, it's enough to avoid charges on a regular basis, so what does that say about your prosecutors? Honestly, at that point just admit that the system is 'pay to avoid charges'; it would still be just as blatantly corrupt, but you'd at least be honest about it.

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

  2. icon
    aerinai (profile), 8 Oct 2019 @ 2:08pm

    All seized assets should go to public defenders

    Just as an experiment, it would be interesting to see if these cops would feel the same way if 100% of the proceeds of this program were instead sent to the office that employs public defenders. I would bet that the program would stop immediately because not only are they not getting to 'keep' the cash. It would be a good way of funding the already underfunded staff at any public defender's office.

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

  3. identicon
    Anonymoose, 8 Oct 2019 @ 3:32pm

    To quote the late, great Jack Benny, "I'm thinking it over."

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

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Oct 2019 @ 3:40pm

    It's a feature, not a bug

    I think we just need to look at this another way...
    If you are trafficking, just make sure that you have enough money on you or close to you in order to trigger the plea deal.
    That way, the cops get the cash and you get to walk...
    just make sure that it's enough money, otherwise, you'll lose the cash AND be charged.

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

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Oct 2019 @ 3:40pm

    Who said there was corruption in the police force?

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

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Oct 2019 @ 3:57pm

    Re:

    What corruption? I don't see any corruption. I see only good, honest cops doing their duty to protect and serve the communities they BAHAHAHAHAHA! Damn it, couldn't keep a straight face.

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

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Oct 2019 @ 3:57pm

    Re: It's a feature, not a bug

    This is the real response.

    They're essentially giving well-heeled drug dealers a legal way to bribe themselves out of worse charges.

    That's called corruption, not justice.

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

  8. identicon
    Pixelation, 8 Oct 2019 @ 5:05pm

    So...

    Carry extra cash to bribe your way out.

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

  9. icon
    R2_v2.0 (profile), 8 Oct 2019 @ 5:12pm

    New advertising slogan...

    Asset Forfeiture - Bitcoin doesn't seem like a bad idea any more

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

  10. icon
    JdL (profile), 8 Oct 2019 @ 5:44pm

    Policing in America

    ... is absolutely rotten to the core.

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

  11. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Oct 2019 @ 5:55pm

    at least they aren't pretending anymore.

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

  12. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Oct 2019 @ 6:15pm

    Re: Someone forgot the first rule of lying...

    Well at least they appear to be extending the "pay to avoid charges" beyond the wealthy people it used to only be extended to.
    See the law does treat everyone (who can pay) equal

    And somehow they don;t see this as corrupt

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

  13. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Oct 2019 @ 6:17pm

    Extortion

    Give us the money and we won't keep you locked up, simple extortion and racketeering, call the FBI

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

  14. icon
    ECA (profile), 8 Oct 2019 @ 6:28pm

    Loved it..

    Every once in awhile the gov. brings out this LARGE batch of drugs and declares a win..40 tons of MJ..

    what they dont tell you, is that is 1 days worth coming over all the borders..
    AND if the gov. really gets pissy, I can see them declare all medicines from canada illegal.. WHICH I think they almost did..

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

  15. identicon
    A Guy, 8 Oct 2019 @ 7:18pm

    Re: Loved it..

    That's only close to true if you're talking about the Canadian government

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

  16. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Oct 2019 @ 6:41am

    Seems we now have to crowd fund our law enforcement agencies. What happened to the collected tax money allocated toward law enforcement? Was it diverted and spend elsewhere or did the LEOs misspend it?

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

  17. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Oct 2019 @ 8:36am

    Re:

    They used it all to buy MRAPs and M16s at 5 cents on the dollar. Now they need funds to pay their salaries and buy yachts.

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

  18. identicon
    Annonymouse, 9 Oct 2019 @ 9:02am

    Re: Extortion

    Call the FBI and end up in prison or dead as a know terrorist.

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

  19. icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 9 Oct 2019 @ 9:17am

    We pay the salaries of the gang members who rob us, violate our rights, and kill out of "fear".

    Perhaps giving them leeway rather than holding them accountable had a bad effect.

    Fsck you for not funding your system & deciding that robbing citizens, in the sacred cause of its all drug money, will make up the shortfall.

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

  20. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Oct 2019 @ 11:24am

    When this story makes national headlines, there will be an excuse for attempting to bribe a LEO.

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


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