Policing for Profit: Property Seizures Reconsidered

sentencing guidelinesDuring the Hey Day of the War on Drugs, the federal government began seizing the assets of suspected drug kingpins as a way to hit them where it hurt: Their wallets.

Assets purchased with the profits of drug sales (boats, cars, homes, etc.) were seized by the government when they made an arrest. Some assets, like vehicles for transporting drugs, or computers, for example, often played a direct role in the criminal activity. Records were found on hard drives tracking activities, financial activity via the computer supporting the case, all basically seized in the name of gathering evidence.

Other assets like bank accounts, were frozen and seized, as was any cash found at the time of the arrest. The IRS would get involved (just because your income is illegal doesn’t mean Uncle Sam doesn’t want his cut) and basically, the purpose was to A: weaken a drug kingpins financial ability to fight the charges and B: offer a form of compensation to the authorities as a reimbursement of sorts for their investigative costs.

This started at the federal level, but quickly ‘trickled down’ to local law enforcement agencies, and that’s where it all started to go wrong.

Suddenly, every police department in the country was able to seize assets that in many cases, amounted to far higher dollar values than their investigations cost. This led to a profit, which was then used not just to reimburse, but to expand their own assets.

And it got worse. Because the laws allow for seizure without a conviction, police and local politicians soon realized they could actually fund themselves at the expense of people who had never faced a trial, never been convicted of a crime.

And to top it off, the laws were so loosely written, they didn’t even have to bring charges to trial, and they were still able to keep what they seized. In other words, they could completely drop the charges and refuse to return the items.

Another tactic is to charge exorbitant fees for “storage”, so by the time the process played out, it would require a ludicrous amount of money to get back one’s own property, even though there was no conviction, or the charges were dropped altogether.

A recent article I read talked about a small town in Mississippi which has funded their police department 100% through seizures, purchasing advanced police gear that a small town would never actually need, but man, that tank is soooo cool! And what cop doesn’t enjoy playing with an AK-47 or cruising around in a $50,000 Dodge Charger?

Here in Pennsylvania, over $100 million has been seized by police over the past ten years, and used by local governments with absolutely no oversight from anyone. They simply decided to charge someone and take their stuff, whether or not they were guilty didn’t matter at all. Being suspected of a crime was enough.

If they were wrong, oh well. Sorry about that. We’re dropping the charges and keeping your stuff.

And they can use the money from sale of the seized items to buy anything they want. New cruisers, boats, funding for social activities labeled as police functions. Every day became Christmas.

Of course, people had the right to attempt to sue to get their property back, but the costs are more often than not quite prohibitive. In the end the exasperated citizen feels lucky to walk away without going to jail.

That is hardly justice.

State Sen. Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon) hopes to change this situation by introducing a Civil Asset Forfeiture Bill– an attempt to reform the process and eliminate some of the abuses.

Under the proposed legislation, law enforcement officials would still have the authority to seize property stemming from crime-related activity, but they would have to successfully convict owners to have the property permanently stripped.

It provides a layer of review by an elected official, the district attorney or the attorney general, and will go a long way to preventing some of this abuse that has caused the legislation to be filed.

The bill  also prohibits police departments from keeping the money from seized assets, and would first be used for restitution to any victims of the crime, or added to the state’s general fund if restitution doesn’t apply.

Although Dane Merryman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, agrees with the conviction aspect of the bill, he said his organization strongly opposes the money leaving the districts from which it was seized.

But that is at the heart of the matter.

Local departments should not be left to indiscriminately administer and spend these funds with no oversight from the state at all. It is a recipe for abuse.

By depositing these monies in a state general fund, it could be distributed evenly, where it is needed most. It could be used for programs that help the communities where, say, drug crime is highest. It could be applied to educational efforts and community programs, not just getting cops cool new cars and high tech weaponry.

Under SB 869, any ambiguities within the law will favor the owner. This is not the case with the current law, and leads to some departments taking advantage of the system, leaving innocent people with little or no recourse to get their property back. It almost encourages abuse.

We now have a situation where law enforcement departments are incentivized to act without due process. They have a reason to go out and find these assets, because they get to keep them.

Let’s hope the State Judiciary Committee, where the Bill is now under consideration, will see fit to endorse this much needed reform.



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