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.