Police agencies have used hundreds of millions of dollars taken from Americans under federal civil forfeiture law in recent years to buy guns, armored cars and electronic surveillance gear. They have also spent money on luxury vehicles, travel and a clown named Sparkles.
The details are contained in thousands of annual reports submitted by local and state agencies to the Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program, an initiative that allows local and state police to keep up to 80 percent of the assets they seize. The Washington Post obtained 43,000 of the reports dating from 2008 through a Freedom of Information Act request.Which is a little difficult if they've taken all your assets and you have nothing to hire a lawyer with to start the process. Advantage, law enforcement.
Of the nearly $2.5 billion in spending reported in the forms, 81 percent came from cash and property seizures in which no indictment was filed, according to an analysis by The Post. Owners must prove that their money or property was acquired legally in order to get it back.
But the amount being seized is staggering. Over $2 billion seized from people who never had a charge brought against them; another $500 million had charges brought, most of which were subsequently dismissed. Basically, this is legal looting.
The police purchases comprise a rich mix of the practical and the high-tech, including an array of gear that has helped some departments militarize their operations: Humvees, automatic weapons, gas grenades, night-vision scopes and sniper gear. Many departments acquired electronic surveillance equipment, including automated license-plate readers and systems that track cellphones.That must be one boss coffee maker for $637. But my favorite is Sparkles the Clown.
The spending also included a $5 million helicopter for Los Angeles police; a mobile command bus worth more than $1 million in Prince George’s County; an armored personnel carrier costing $227,000 in Douglasville, Ga., population 32,000; $5,300 worth of “challenge coin” medallions in Brunswick County, N.C.; $4,600 for a Sheriff’s Award Banquet by the Doña Ana County (N.M.) Sheriff’s Department;
Sparkles the Clown was hired for $225 by Chief Jeff Buck in Reminderville, Ohio, to improve community relations. But Buck said the seizure money has been crucial to sustaining long-term investigations that have put thousands of drug traffickers in prison.
Several departments bought custom-made trading cards, complete with photos and data about their officers. Some, including police in Chelsea, Mass., share them with children in their communities.
Ten agencies have used the asset forfeiture funds to pay their fees for the Defense Department’s excess property initiative, better known as the 1033 program, which enables local and state police to buy surplus military-grade equipment at cut rates. The equipment includes automatic weapons, night-vision gear and clothing.
Police in Sahuarita, Ariz., paid $4,300 to outfit a Humvee obtained through the 1033 program. The New Bedford, Mass., Police Department in 2012 paid $2,119 for shipping costs for M-16s from the military.
In Brunswick County, N.C., $5,300 from asset forfeiture funds was spent on challenge coin medallions. The coins were to be shared with local residents or other law enforcement. (Brunswick County Sheriff's Office )
“Our financial stewardship of our Seized Account Funds is in compliance with all Federal rules and laws, State rules and laws, County rules and laws, and we undergo audits of these accounts by local and federal agencies,” Col. Edwin C. Roessler Jr., the Fairfax police chief, said in a statement. “Additionally, we are subjected to internal audit processes to review all requests for expenditures to ensure purchases are pre-approved for compliance.”God how I miss/love police-speak. All of that jargon and gobbledygook is bureaucrat for "ain't nothing wrong with it 'cause we said so."
Actually, to understand the history of asset forfeiture, you have to go back to the mania of the Drug War of the 1980's, specifically the Reagan-era Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 (signed into law 30 years ago today).
This monster of a bill allowed for, among other things, the creation of the Federal Asset Forfeiture Fund and changed the burden of proof in asset forfeiture cases from beyond a reasonable doubt (which we use in criminal court against a defendant) to preponderance of the evidence (which we use in civil court against property).
The distinction is key: we aren't seizing a suspect's property, we're seizing property we think might be involved in the drug trade (suddenly, assets are no longer inanimate objects). Your rights to said property are irrelevant. It also allowed for "administrative seizure" of property/money less than $100,000 in value, so we don't even need a civil court's approval if your assets total less than a hundred g's. And if you don't sue the government within 30 days of your assets seizure to get it back, it's game, set, match the police.
As Christian Parenti noted in "Lockdown America" it allowed for a "drug loot bonanza" of theft by law enforcement, creating an "insidious police dependency on drug money" and a wild west mentality that anything goes in the name of stopping drugs, terrorism or illegal immigration.
Even in places like Braselton, Georgia, whose primary claim to fame prior to this story was the actress Kim Basinger's attempt to buy the city back in the 90's. Braselton has nothing of note in it, with the exception of a few miles of I-85 running through it (and a noted drug corridor).
The local department that makes the most consistent use of Equitable Sharing funds per capita is in Braselton, Ga., a town of about 8,000 people along Interstate 85 northeast of Atlanta. It has reported receiving the equivalent of 20 percent or more of its budget from the Justice program in five of the past six years, documents show.Everyone's in bed with everyone, in this story. From the bi-partisan support of the CCA in 1984 to the cross-jurisdictional feeding frenzy of seized assets, asset forfeiture has become normalized in law enforcement today and even more so following the Great Recession and budgetary cut backs.
In some instances, town police help out on “whisper stops” after receiving informal tips about smugglers from the DEA, he said. Some of the seizures are made by the state patrol on nearby I-85, with help from Braselton officers, he said.
Braselton police also used seizure proceeds to build an enclosed shooting range used by local, state and federal authorities, including the Department of Homeland Security, which also contributed funding, Solis said.
“It’s legit. We’re not buying stuff just to buy stuff,” he said, adding, “We spend the money if we have it. . . . It’s pretty cool. We’re not only able to help us, we’re able to help others.”
Local, state and federal government will get their operating budgets out of you, one way or another.