by Ronald Fraser, Sunday, September 14, 2008
On the streets, where illegal drugs are still easy to get at affordable prices, Alabama’s police chiefs are losing the decades-long drug war. Ironically, back in their precinct headquarters, many of these officers depend on drug raids to fatten their operating budgets.
While the drug trade still enriches the bad guys, police chiefs now get a piece of the action.
Many states, wary of overzealous police departments, require that the proceeds from seized assets be used for education or other nonpolice purposes. But the 1984 federal Comprehensive Crime Control Act, a turning point in America’s war on drugs, is a way to get around these state laws.
State and local police departments, working with U.S. agents, “federalize” money and property seized during local drug raids. The federal government gets at least 20 percent of the seized assets, but the feds give back up to 80 percent of the seizure – now exempt from state law – to state and local police agencies.
According to federal statistics, the share going to Alabama law enforcement agencies went from $1.8 million in 2000 to $8.5 million in 2007. Nationally, state and local agencies collected $416 million in 2007, up from $212 million in 2000.
Not all police departments ride this drug raid gravy train. But those that do profit handsomely. While the Huntsville Police Department’s seized asset income dropped from $49,000 to $16,000 from 2000 to 2007, the Birmingham Police Department’s share more than quadrupled from $161,000 in 2000 to $885,000 in 2007. Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department did even better, going from $97,000 to $3.6 million. The Mobile Police Department’s share went from $88,000 to $201,000, and the Montgomery Police Department’s slice went up from $179,000 in 2000 to $458,000 in 2007.
At the state level, top honors go to the Alabama Department of Public Safety’s Bureau of Investigation with a tally of $733,000 in 2007, up from $305,000 in 2000.
Surprisingly, property owners need not be charged with a crime for their property to be taken. The property itself, however remotely associated with the drug trade, has, under civil forfeiture laws, “committed” a crime and can be seized. For example, a motel is seized because drugs were traded on the premises despite the owners’ extensive efforts to prevent such activity; boats and airplanes damaged beyond repair during fruitless searches for drugs, go uncompensated by the government; and cash is seized only to be returned years later after the owner is forced into a long and costly legal battle.
One study reports that 40 percent of the nation’s local police agencies are dependent on seized assets as a necessary budgetary supplement. Why is this bad news?
First, years ago the primary reason police seized assets was to break up the illegal drug supply lines. Today, however, that original goal has been largely replaced by self-serving budgetary considerations. Citizens can now legitimately ask why their local police force conducts drug raids. Is it to rid the town of drugs – or are the raids an easy source of extra income that harms innocent people along the way?
Second, as a department’s use of this independent source of funding grows, its dependence on, and accountability to, the town’s taxpayers goes down.
Third, if a department’s prestige and the reputation of its officers are dependent on how many assets are seized each year, this gives police chiefs an incentive to push their officers to become more aggressive during raids, make unnecessary raids and cut legal corners.
Here is how greed can pervert law enforcement:
Donald Scott owned a valuable, 200-acre ranch in Malibu, Calif. One October morning in 1992, 30 agents, led by the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department, conducted a raid based on faulty rumors that Scott was growing marijuana plants. During the raid, Scott was shot and killed by sheriff deputies.
A Ventura County district attorney’s report on the raid concluded: “The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was motivated, at least in part, by a desire to seize and forfeit the ranch for the government … Based in part upon the possibility of forfeiture, the sheriff’s deputy obtained a search warrant that was not supported by probable cause. The search warrant became Donald Scott’s death warrant.”
It is time for federal and state legislators to shut down the conflict-of-interest loophole that allows police departments to profit from their official duties at the expense of the very citizens they are hired to protect. Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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