Feds help local police fatten up on drug money

By Robyn Blumner - St. Petersburg Times
Appeared in the Rocky Mountain News August 18, 2003 Page 35A

Civil asset forfeiture is the most infamous game in law enforcement. While in its pure form, seizing the luxury cars, boats, homes and cash of drug dealers can be a useful tool in taking profit out of crime, ion the real world far too many police and sheriff's offices use it to finance and enrich their operations, leading to startling abuses.

Now this is an old story. Go through newspaper archives across the country and you'll find investigative pieces going back more than a decade documenting problems with police departments' taking people's stuff for their own use, often without even bothering to charge the owner with a crime.

No one is immune. Pro basketball player Corie Blount was a victim in 1998, when he was pulled over in Ohio on Christmas Eve for having tinted windows and no front license plate. His car was searched after a drug-sniffing dog indicated probable cause.

No drugs were found, but the Ohio State Highway Patrol discovered $19,000. Though there was no evidence of criminality, the money was taken and turned over to the Drug Enforcement Administration for seizure. It took months of negotiations with the federal government to finally get the money returned.

In the aftermath of this and other such scandals, state legislatures and eve Congress have made some attempts at reform, but law enforcement has vehemently resisted the only real reform: taking the profit motive out of seizures by not letting police keep the dough.

Slapping their fingers from the cookie jar is the only way to protect abuse. But police are addicted to this narcotic of easy money and they are not giving up their drug of choice easily.

In Utah, a highly popular voter-passed initiative in 2000 sent all proceeds from asset seizures to an education fund. But since then, local police agencies and prosecutors have done everything possible to stymie the measure, from going to court to challenge the initiative's constitutionality (they lost) to simply ignoring it and illegally keeping hundreds of thousands of dollars. Finally, in June, a court ordered the money into the school fund.

And this is where the federal government steps in. Numerous states have enacted laws diverting some or all of asset-seizure profits into a state general fund or other specialized fund. This is what legislatures do - they develop funding priorities for state revenues.

But for nearly 20 years, the federal government has colluded with local law enforcement to skirt state law and put the money back into the pockets of the seizing agency.

Under the process known as adoption, the Justice Department actively encourages local policing agencies to turn over their seized assets. The department will then do the forfeiture and return 80 percent of seizure proceeds to the local agency. So for a mere 20 percent off the top, any pesky state laws can be circumvented. Thanks to a wonderful series by reporter Karen Dillon at the Kansas City Star (www.kc.star.com/projects/drugforfeit), we know something of the extent of the avarice.

This unscrupulous pact has been going on for years, but few politicians, state or federal, have been willing to challenge it.

Police and prosecutors have a grip so tight on this money that nothing - not even the law - can seem to pry it love. - St. Petersburg Times