Missouri Representative Shamed Dogan filed a bill to make police stop stealing your stuff. The title is boring: “Prohibits law enforcement agencies from transferring seized property to a federal agency in forfeiture litigation.” The effects would be huge.
The bill aims to take some of the profit out of policing. Letting police keep the revenue they bring in breeds corruption. That principle extends far beyond speed traps.
Did you know there are fish cops? More formally, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Law Enforcement. It had two missions: prevent overfishing and party hard. Revenue brought in by the Gloucester office went into a special fund under NOAA’s control. Agents learned if they wanted a party boat or a European vacation, and they did, they only had to make up enough violations to buy themselves one.
The scandal broke in 2010. Agents found out they had gone too far when they went out on a raid and found a bunch of politicians standing in solidarity with the targets of the raid. The responsible parties were mostly reassigned to different offices at comparable salaries. And, problem solved, Congress mostly lost interest in law enforcement corruption.
Whatever the original motive of the War on Drugs, on and along the highways it took a wrong turn. If you own something that police say is drug-related, they can take it for themselves without any good evidence that you did anything wrong.
A widely publicized case in my area involved a motel where police arrested about one person per year on drug offenses. What distinguished that property from all the others in Tewksbury with similar patterns of drug activity was the equity the owners had in the property. It wasn’t mortgaged. It wasn’t owned by a big corporation with a big legal staff. It was owned by a family. That’s what made it a target.
Tewksbury police knew the owner was not involved in drug crimes. But they went to the U.S. Attorney and asked her to seize the motel as a drug den. Carmen Ortiz’ staff, after making sure the case looked like a money maker, charged into the fight.
If the owner hadn’t had the help of the Institute for Justice he would have spent most of his net worth on legal fees — except his net worth was zero because the federal government had a lien on his motel. That’s how forfeiture often works. They take everything you have so you can’t afford the legal bills to get it back. With legal assistance it was obvious that the case was purely motivated by greed. When the press lost interest in the story the magistrate was considering ordering the government to pay over $500,000 for bringing such a bad case.
Why was the U.S. Attorney involved? Her job was money laundering.
If town police take your stuff, it is disposed of as state law allows. In many states forfeitures go to the school system, or some similar fund, and the police department gets nothing but a “thank you for cleaning up the streets.”
If the U.S. Government takes your stuff, it gives the local police department a piece of the action under the innocuous label “equitable sharing.” It does not go to the schools or the general fund, no matter what sate law says.
When a local government takes federal money, it gets to ignore state restrictions on use of that money. In another case from my area transit employees complained that state officials were violating their constitutional rights by requiring suspicionless drug tests. They would have been right, but the rules on federal transit aid say state officials do not have to obey the state constitution. If the federal government gives you a grant to stomp on puppies, you can tell the SPCA to leave you alone.
If the federal government gives you a reward for robbery, with protection from prosecution, why would you take honest work?
Local police turn over their forfeiture cases to the federal government because that’s the only way they can turn a profit.
A lot of police on the highways aren’t there to enforce traffic laws. You have probably heard about pretext stops searching for drugs. But more than drugs, they are looking for money. Finding drugs earns them a commendation and a press release. Finding money earns them new gadgets or extra pay.
Technically they have to suspect the money is is drug-related. But they have your money, and it’s going to take you $50,000 in legal fees to maybe get your $20,000 back.
Representative Dogan’s bill would prohibit police from cooperating with federal authorities in forfeiture cases. They could seize your drug-related property under state law. They could not hand it over to the federal government to collect a finder’s fee.
What this means for you is, police would have a lot less reason to pull you over and see how much cash you have. (If you have cash, they can assume it’s drug-related.)
Unfortunately, it looks like money talks and the bill walks. With a fiscal impact statement pointing out the loss to local law enforcement, without mentioning the gain to ordinary citizens, the bill is not scheduled for another hearing.
Meanwhile, watch out for the phrase “equitable sharing.” It’s code for “theft.”
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