Under civil asset forfeiture, police can seize property suspected of involvement in criminal activity. Unlike criminal asset forfeiture, with civil forfeiture, people don’t have to be convicted—or even charged—with a crime to permanently lose their cars, homes, or cash.
Even worse, in many cases, police get to keep what they seize through asset forfeiture. As long as cops get to keep what they seize, civil asset forfeiture will keep on spawning scandals.
So law enforcement has a strong incentive to pad their budgets and buy ridiculous things like:
14. $10,000 worth of Gatorade
It’s got electrolytes!
Thirsty cops in Pittsburgh spent $9,547 in cash on Gatorade during the 2009 G-20 Summit. (That same summit led to almost 200 arrests and hundreds of thousands in dollars in settlements for police violating protesters’ rights.) Pittsburgh police have also used asset forfeiture to pay for a carwash, and so an officer could become a certified debt reduction instructor.
13. A Zamboni
A district attorney’s office spent almost $1,000 on a zamboni for a “drug diversion program” in Worcester County, Mass.
The Sheriff’s Office in Milwaukee County, Wisc. spent over $14,000 on two Segways to patrol parks. Ron Swanson would not be pleased.
11. “Disney Training”
Those Milwaukee County sheriffs also splurged on “customer service training” from the Disney Institute. Using almost $25,000 in forfeiture funds, police attended ”Disney’s Approach to Business Excellence,” learning both “thinking ‘inside’ the box” as well as “thinking ‘outside’ the box.”
As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel points out, ”None of the spending violated federal rules governing asset forfeiture money, but it did run afoul of county procurement rules.”
10. Flying First-Class and Renting Cadillacs
Police in tiny Bal Harbor, Flo. (population: 2,574) spent more than $23,000 flying out to Chicago, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. Once there, officers drove in style, renting out posh cars like the Cadillac SRX and a Lincoln Town Car.
And that was just in one month.
9. Banquets and Beach Parties
But those weren’t the only ways police in Bal Harbor lived large. The village’s department spent $7,000 holding a banquet for police chiefs and $21,000 on an “anti-drug beach bash.”
Outraged, the Department of Justice froze Bal Harbor’s slush fund last year and demanded police return $4 million. As a result, Bal Harbor’s police chief, who set up their vice squad back in 2003, was fired this past March.
8. Tequila, Kegs, and a Margarita Machine
Michael McDougal, then district attorney for Montgomery County, Texas, spent over $400 on tequila, rum, and kegs and $139 on a margarita machine. The DA’s office even won first place at a county fair for best margarita. But McDougal finished second in a 2008 primary, evicting him from office.
7. Tanning Salon
The police chief for Romulus, Mich. bought a tanning salon for his wife, thanks to $75,000 in forfeiture proceeds. Michael and Sandra St. Andre now face felony racketeering charges, which means this criminal couple could spend up to 20 years in prison.
6. Trips to Casinos
Another district attorney in Texas spent $267,449 on travel expenses, including many trips to casinos. In his defense, Joe Frank Garza claimed the casinos were actually the sites of law seminars. He also paid out more than $1 million to three secretaries—doubling or tripling their pay.
Because of these scandals, he was voted out of office in 2008.. Three years later, Garza was sentenced to 10 years probation, ordered to surrender his law license, and repay $2.16 million to the county.
5. Hawaiian Vacation
District Attorney Ron Sutton flew his entire office, their spouses, and a Texas judge to Hawaii for a six-day law conference. Sutton used over $27,000 in asset forfeiture proceeds to pay for the getaway. In 2010, he pleaded guilty to two felony charges for misusing forfeiture funds.
Man, what is with Texas DAs and abusing asset forfeiture?
4. Bribing Cops
A sheriff in Virginia was convicted for bribing two police officers with $420 in asset forfeiture proceeds. After he was charged and indicted, Middlesex County Sheriff Guy Abbott was voted out of office in 2011. But last October, a judge reversed Abbott’s guilty verdicts, so now he’s a free man.
3. A Dodge Viper
Sheriff Bill Smith in Camden County, Georgia, spent $90,000 on a Dodge Viper for the county’s Drug Awareness and Resistance Education (DARE) program. According to a sheriff’s spokesman, “the whole point of this car is to grab the kids’ attention” and “impress kids.”
Incredibly, the Viper was just a drop in the bucket for Smith: In his two decades as sheriff, Bill Smith brought in over $20 million in asset forfeiture proceeds.
2. Paying Convicts to Build a “Party House”
Party rockin in the house tonight…
As if buying a high-end sports car weren’t bad enough, Sheriff Bill Smith spent over $35,000 in forfeiture funds to pay prison inmates, including building a “very nice party house” for the sheriff. Prisoners were also used to renovate the kitchen and bathrooms at Smith’s ex-wife’s house. Luckily, Smith was booted out of office in 2008.
1. Marijuana and Prostitutes
I’m sure they were both medicinal.
Hey, remember the police chief from #7? He’s back! The (former) police chief of Romulus, Mich. and five detectives were part of the town’s vice squad, investigating “liquor license violations, prostitution and narcotics trafficking.” Thanks to those investigations, they allegedly spent more than $40,000 in asset forfeiture funds on marijuana, booze, and prostitutes. Now these cops face 22 felony counts…and just gave Nic Cage a new movie idea.