Drug Policy

Cash-Strapped Police Departments Find New Source of Revenue: Stealing!

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But under the color of law, of course. All thanks to the wonderful world of asset forfeiture.

The way Krista Vaughn sees it, Wayne County fined her $1,400 even though police and prosecutors admit she broke no laws.

Vaughn, who has no criminal record, was required to pay for the return of her car, which was seized by police after they mistook Vaughn's co-worker for a prostitute. Even though prosecutors later dropped the case, Vaughn still had to pay.

Her story is not unusual. In Wayne County, law enforcement officials regularly seize vehicles without levying charges— even in cases in which they later concede no law was broken. The agency provides perhaps the most prolific and egregious example of what critics contend is the wrongful use of laws allowing the seizure of private property.

It's a practice that's paying off. The Wayne County Sheriff's Office, which helps run the prosecutor's forfeiture unit, took in $8.69 million from civil seizures in 2007, more than four times the amount collected in 2001. The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office gets up to 27 percent of that money.

The article is part of a Detroit News series on an explosion in forfeiture cases in and around the crumbling city. From an earlier article in the series:

"We're trying to fight crime," said Police Chief Mike Pachla of Roseville, where the money raised from forfeitures jumped more than tenfold, from $33,890 to $393,014.

"We would be just as aggressive even if there wasn't any money involved."

Roseville had among the most dramatic increases over the five-year period examined by The News. But several other agencies also more than doubled their takes, including Novi, Trenton, Farmington Hills, Southfield, the Michigan State Police, Shelby Township, Livonia, Warren and Romulus.

The increase in money coming in leads to a higher percentage of the police budget being covered by seizures. In Roseville, the share of the police budget raised from forfeitures went from 0.3 percent to 4.2 percent. In Romulus, it jumped from 4.5 percent to 11.2 percent from 2003-2007, the most recent years for which comparable records were available.

I have a feature on asset forfeiture coming in the February 2010 issue of Reason. Forfeiture critics I interviewed for the article say there's good reason to think laws that send forfeiture proceeds back to prosecutor offices may be unconstitutional. Whereas police only make the initial seizure, prosecutors actually make the policy decision of determining which cases to take. Dicta in prior U.S. Supreme Court cases indicates the Court may find due process problems with those same offices then materially benefiting from those decisions.

The Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 quelled a lot of the debate on this issue. But that law only applies to federal police agencies. Most of the more egregious forfeiture cases now happen at the state and local level.

In September I wrote a column on Alvarez v. Smith, the forfeiture case that will be decided early next year by the Supreme Court. That case is a challenge to a provision in the Illinois forfeiture laws that allow police to keep seized property a year or more before a claimant can have his day in court to get it back. This is particularly harsh on low-income people who may rely a seized car to get to work, or to shuttle kids around.

It's worth noting that Obama's Justice Department filed an amicus brief on behalf of the state in that case. They weren't obligated to. Though the solicitor general's office is charged with defending all federal laws, the law at issue in Alvarez is a state law, not a federal one. In fact, federal civil forfeiture laws are much friendlier to property owners. So you could make a decent case that the administration could have argued against the Illinois law. At the very least, it could have kept quiet. Instead, it argued that the state should retain the power to take property from people without ever charging a crime (and not necessarily kingpins—the Illinois law in question applies only to property valued at under $20,000), and keep that property for a year or more before affording the owner a chance to get it back.

Taking property from poor people without due process of law in order to enrich local police departments. Seems like the sort of thing Barack Obama might have fought to change in his days as a community organizer.

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48 responses to “Cash-Strapped Police Departments Find New Source of Revenue: Stealing!

  1. There it is, Radley. I’d been waiting for a good Balko Crotch Punch for this week.

    Are there any statistics on the number of cases where assets were seized but charges were dropped or not created at all?

  2. My fucked up little mind has a problem with some of this asset theft. Down here it is the norm now to charge a parent with child endangerment or chemical endangerment of a child if there are drugs in the home with kids. If they seize assets including cash in such cases, aren’t the authorities guilty of the same endangerment by selling the assets to the public at auction and by spending the cash?

  3. WWJGD:

    In about 80 percent of forfeiture cases, the property owner is never charged with a crime.

    1. Thank you. I skimmed the article to no avail. I think I’ve got my The Cops are Not Your Friends story of the week for all my Republican buddies.

  4. “WWJGD”

    What’s this acronym stand for?

    1. My initials. I needed a name when I commented on Wonkette and I went for the John Galt reference/slightly blasphemous handle with a little throwback to my own name. Just kinda carried over here.

    2. What Would John Galt Do

  5. Asset forfeiture absent a conviction is an affront to what the founding fathers fought the War of Independence over.

    It is right behind the War on Drugs Liberty as an egregioyus use of state power.

    It rewards the police and prosecutors for stealing.

    Get mouthy with me boy and I’ll take your fucking car.

  6. To be fair, it does cost a lot of money to buy the equipment and pay the SWAT teams that are used to sieze all this property.

  7. “We’re trying to fight crime,” said Police Chief Mike Pachla of Roseville

    Kill yourself.

  8. P, you’re obviously unfamiliar with the notion of “fighting fire with fire.” I mean, fighting crime with crime is the same thing, right? Right? Right? Right? Right?

    Right?

    1. You know, there is actually a twisted sense to your logic here. Hopefully no policeman will figure this out.

      It’s merely an extension of “we fake being drug dealers–and actually buy and sell drugs–to catch them.”

      1. “Destroy the village, etc etc”

  9. It’s worth noting that Obama’s Justice Department filed an amicus brief on behalf of the state in that case. They weren’t obligated to. Though the solicitor general’s office is charged with defending all federal laws, the law at issue in Alvarez is a state law, not a federal one.

    Tired of Pete Townsend lyrics, today I’ll go with Talking Heads.

    Same as it ever was
    Same as it ever was
    Same as it ever was
    Same as it ever was

    1. but…but… joe told us a year ago that things were going to be different!

    2. Another apropos line from the Talking Heads

      This is not my beautiful house

      1. One thing worth reminding these fuckers: everyone lives in a house and they all burn.

  10. fighting crime with crime is the same thing, right? Right? Right? Right? Right?

    Absolutely, Mister Clemmons.

  11. Remember: it’s not really stealing, because the State owns everything, everywhere, and they’re just letting you use some of their stuff for a while.
    As long as you behave yourself.

  12. “We’re trying to fight crime,” said Police Chief Mike Pachla of Roseville,

    Well then, maybe you shouldn’t waste your time seizing shit when the owner hasn’t committed a crime.

  13. Yet another coerced redistribution of wealth.

    Forfeiture and theft is one of the things that lead to New Rome, a shithole I had run ins with as a minor, being dissolved. The final decision for dissolution was based on less legally damaging things like election and budget crap. They were thieves with badges and lights on their car. That lil town ran roughshod over the law for decades.

    Here’s to hoping every one them has their crotch infested with the sand fleas of 1000 camels. fuckem.

    1. “”Here’s to hoping every one them has their crotch infested with the sand fleas of 1000 camels.””

      Karnac, is that you???

  14. Seems like the sort of thing Barack Obama might have fought to change in his days as a community organizer.

    No, it doesn’t. He did machine-authorized public housing shakedowns and vote drives. Nothing else.

    However, this is precisely the kind of thing he likes people to form, entirely on their own, the utterly false impression that he would oppose it, if only he knew.

    Then when he comes out for it, they’ll go on thinking he’s the good guy they made up in their heads, except in this one case that he must not really know about, or surely he’d make his people do right.

    The one thing he knows how to do is how to play fools: Let them play themselves.

    1. “””He did machine-authorized public housing shakedowns and vote drives.”””

      Community organizers are often the driving force in getting the police to fix bad neighborhoods. By fix I mean move in by force and start cracking heads.

  15. Vaughn, who has no criminal record, was required to pay for the return of her car, which was seized by police after they mistook Vaughn’s co-worker for a prostitute.

    Color me confrused. Isn’t prostiution and the solicitation thereof a “private” matter? It is according Eliot Spitzer, Harvard Ethics Center lecturer, and patron of the art?

    1. Oh, and apropos of nothing, I wanna work where Vaughn works…

      1. Paul, “police after they mistook Vaughn’s co-worker for a prostitute.”
        Could have looked like a male prostitute.

        1. Maybe he knows.

          1. You won. Ok, I like to read funny people and to know who they are too.

            1. Guilty, as charged.

  16. I’m surprised they bothered calling it a fine. They should have called it a “storage fee”.

    A while ago I was involved in an accident. The police impounded my car to check for working systems (they were fine). They didn’t call for 3 weeks, then had the gall to hit me up for $40/day in storage charges (in the early 90s!). When I complained they said that (a) I could have saved money if I’d picked it up when they were done with it (1 week), and (b) they had no duty to call me when they were done with it, it was my responsibility to keep track of my car. Since I was certain that if I complained these assholes would lose the car in the system to teach me a lesson, I bit my tongue and paid the $900 in fees.

  17. Cash-Strapped Police Departments Find New Source of Revenue: Stealing!

    I thought they were already doing this. Oh, you mean besides taxes?

    By the way,. Chad seems to believe it is society that taxes people, not government.

  18. Why is the US Justice Dept. even allowed to do this on comapny time?

  19. It was even better here in STL. The chiefs and just about anyone who was friends with the right people was driving impounded cars.

    http://www.stltoday.com/stltod…..enDocument

  20. Wayne County Sheriff’s Morality Unit

    WTF is this Iran?

  21. Were you hoping for change?

  22. If I was Krista Vaughn, I would tell these pigs that they have a choice: either give me my money or something happens.

    I would tell them I don’t know what that something might be. It might be:

    1. I stamp my feet and call them jerks.

    2. I pray to God to rape their souls for eternity.

    3. Something else.

    Do they really want to take that gamble? Are they sure?

  23. This is one of the reasons that I am glad to have retired overseas. I see this as a problem that will only get worse and start to effect a lot more middle class families.

  24. I am a retired Illinois State Police officer. In my District back in the early 90’s I was one of three individuals who would initiate forfeiture proceedings against defendants charged with felony drug crimes for the officers in my district. There were procedures that had to be followed from start to finish. After having the vehicle towed following the arrest, our local tow companies had to agree to not charge for the tow or storage if the defendants were found not guilty. The vehicle would then be released to the owner. This didn’t happen too often but once in a great while a good defense attorney would get his client off on a technicality. We didn’t do this to “steal” from innocent people. We were trying to take the profits of the drug trade away from the sellers. I’m not talking about drug possession for individual use. We limited it to “possession with intent to deliver” amounts.

    1. You are a thief.

      The fact that you can look at yourself in the mirror and pretend otherwise also makes you a liar. You may have some fooled, but to come here and try your bullshit on a Balko thread means your not very smart as well.

      1. Making a blanket statement is childish and ridiculous. It is tantamount to saying all Libertarians are mermaid sex obsessed nerds who all constantly whining about being slapped around by women. Shit, the cop is dirty.

        1. He used force to take what wasn’t his, pretty much the definition of stealing.
          Being sanctioned by the state doesn’t make it not thievery.

          1. “take the profits of the drug trade away from the sellers. I’m not talking about drug possession for individual use. We limited it to “possession with intent to deliver amounts.”
            This conduct started with good intentions but the road to hell is paved….He is talking about the 90’s when this procedure was new and not corrupted.

    2. You discust me copper. Eat lead.

  25. I’m a simple minded man but but isn’t there something somewhere in the Constuion that prevents a citizen from being deprived of proerty through fraud or force?

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