During a July 9 traffic stop in Meridian, Mississippi, police found $360,000 stashed in a secret compartment in the car. Though that’s perhaps an eyebrow-raising amount of money, readers of that linked article might notice something odd—the driver was let go, but the money was kept by the cops. The unnamed individual may or may not get that cash back, but whether they’re charged with a crime is not necessarily the point. If you have a suspicious amount of cash—sometimes much less than 360 grand—the cops can seize it, and it’s on you to prove that the money isn’t connected to a crime. This is the intersection of civil law’s low burden of proof for prosecutors and criminal law’s aggressive reach. And it’s done a lot to fund bad police policies.
One example of cops using asset forfeiture aggressively comes from a report by a Fitchburg, Massachusetts, newspaper on local motel owner Russell Caswell, who battled the government for three years over his right to keep his own motel. Authorities made 15 drug busts there between 1994 and 2008, but Caswell was never charged with any crimes. Having successfully managed to keep his property, Caswell now intends to lobby for changes in the civil asset forfeiture laws that brought him dangerously close to losing his livelihood.
Although state laws regarding asset forfeiture vary, thanks to the practice known as “equitable sharing” local and state police keep up to 80 percent of the profits from selling off the property they seize from criminals, as long as federal law enforcement is involved in the case, however tangentially. And in civil forfeiture cases, like that of Caswell, the owner of the property’s guilt is not the issue debated—if the property was used for crimes, it can be seized. The Justice Department’s asset forfeiture fund was at $1.8 billion in 2011, and it gave away nearly half a billion dollars to local police departments. If the law changed, a lot of that money would disappear, and we all know how much government agencies cling to money.
With rewards like that, who wouldn’t prioritize drug crime, when that’s the only kind of investigation that will bring in new patrol cars and help maintain expensive SWAT teams? You could use that money to buy football tickets and home furnishings, as a district attorney in Georgia did. Cops in Pittsburgh bought $10,000 worth of Gatorade, officers in Bal Harbor, Florida, took trips to LA and Vegas and rented luxury cars, and other DAs and police chiefs have bought everything from tanning salons to booze for parties.
Such headline-ready corruption sticks out, but those examples aren’t the biggest issue with asset forfeiture laws in the US. The system is an endless feedback loop of drug busts that result in seized property leading to more more funding for fancy cop gear that is used most often for drug busts. These absurd policies that incentivize police to prioritize drug arrests because that’s where the money is have got to end.