If you browse the website of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), you will notice a conspicuous theme: The war on drugs is corrupting America's cops.
LEAP, a group of current and former cops, prosecutors, and judges who oppose the drug war, lists "police corruption and misconduct" as one of the four main topics covered by its speakers. The profile of former Portland, Oregon, Det. Donald Dupay, for example, says he "witnessed the unintended consequences of the war on drugs that caused some of the officers in his department to become corrupt." The profile of former Oakland, California, prosecutor James Anthony says his opposition to drug prohibition stems in part from observing "the negative impact of the 'War on Drugs' on the integrity of the police force." The profile of Fred Martens, a former undercover narcotics cop with the New Jersey State Police, says he saw the drug war "corrupt innumerable law enforcement officials."
The list of law enforcement officials corrupted by the drug war is a long one. Here are some stories from just the last few weeks:
• Two Philadelphia cops pleaded guilty to federal charges stemming from their plan to steal heroin from a suspected drug dealer.
• A former deputy with the Harris County, Texas, Sheriff's Department pleaded guilty to extortion charges after stealing two kilograms of fake cocaine during a federal sting operation.
• A New York City detective was convicted in state court of conspiring to pay off police informants with illegal drugs.
• Six San Francisco narcotics cops were accused of performing illegal searches, then covering them up with perjured testimony.
• The head of the Mesquite, Texas, anti-narcotics unit was arrested and charged with theft of government money after reports that he was stealing cash seized during drug raids.
• The head of the Contra Costa County, California, Narcotics Enforcement Team was charged with leading a conspiracy in which he and other law enforcement officials stole illicit drugs from evidence lockers and sold them on the street.
• A second police officer agreed to testify for the prosecution in the state trial of a retired judge and former prosecutor in Wayne County, Michigan, who is charged with suborning and knowingly allowing perjury by cops in drug cases.
• A former Texas district attorney, Joe Frank Garza, pleaded guilty in state court to misappropriating $200,000 in drug forfeiture funds.
Some of these stories involve public officials on the take; others are stories of cops, prosecutors, and judges who crossed a line in their zeal to fight the drug war. But I'm not sure there's much difference. In fact, one reason drug cops may be so susceptible to corruption is that the legal tactics they use to enforce the drug laws are so ethically dubious.
Morally, it is not much of a leap from legal asset forfeiture—in which cops take property from people who have never been charged with a crime, sell it, and use the proceeds for their department's budget—to simply pocketing money from suspected drug dealers. Consider what was happening in Tenaha, Texas, until recently. Cops would pull over motorists, accuse them of drug activity with little or no evidence, and give them a choice: They could sign the cash, jewelry, and other property in their possession over to the police department and be on their way. Or they could fight the charges, risk a felony conviction, spend one or more nights in a jail cell, and possibly pay more in legal fees than their property was worth.
Legal niceties are often the only distinction between civil asset forfeiture and a shakedown. It is not hard to see how cops who routinely engage in the former might grow morally complacent enough to contemplate the latter. Audio from a 2008 raid on the home of Monroe County, Michigan, resident Rudy Simpson, which hit the Internet last month, catches two state police officers deciding whether to take his recording equipment, flat-screen TV, and computers. Simpson says they also took DVDs, a camera, a gold ring, and $400 in cash. The raid, justified by an "anonymous tip" that Simpson was selling pot, netted a small bag of marijuana and half a pain pill.
Not only was the seizure of Simpson's property perfectly legal under Michigan's asset forfeiture laws; this sort of confiscation is encouraged. In 2009 The Detroit News reported that forfeitures in some Michigan jurisdictions had jumped 100 percent or more in recent years, as police departments used the procedure to supplement budgets strained by the bad economy and government debt. Police need not charge someone with a crime to take his property, and it can cost thousands of dollars to get it back. One former prosecutor told The Detroit News: "Forfeiture laws are being abused by police and prosecutors who see only dollar signs. It's a money grab, pure and simple—a sneaky way of getting a penalty on something prosecutors can't prove. It's like shooting fish in a barrel." It is not terribly surprising, then, to read that the same Lt. Luke Davis who oversaw the raid on Rudy Simpson's home was later arrested because, as the local news station WXYZ reported, "he and...others sold off drugs and confiscated goods for their own profit."