Drug Policy

More on Indiana's Forfeiture Racket

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In my feature on asset forfeiture for our February issue, I looked specifically at how civil forfeiture was being abused in the state of Indiana. Indiana's constitution requires that any forfeiture proceeds go to the state's public schools fund, though prosecutors can reimburse their own offices and police departments for the cost of conducting investigations. The schools fund requirement helps offset the perverse incentives when police departments and prosecutor offices directly benefit from the property they seize.

But Indiana law enforcement officials have gotten around the requirement by greatly overestimating the cost of investigations, or by settling with property owners out of court (meaning the property wasn't officially "seized"). Worse, many Indiana counties have actually made the incentive problem worse by contracting forfeiture cases to private attorneys, who then get a cut of what they win in court. Delaware County Prosecutor Mark McKinney was actually prosecuting criminal drug cases while also representing the county as a private attorney in civil forfeiture cases, where he'd get a cut of what he won. The Indiana Supreme Court will soon determine McKinney's punishment, though the county judge who oversaw the ensuing the investigation has recommended only a reprimand.

Over the last several months, the Indianapolis Star has been investigating the state's forfeiture abuses. The paper published its second installment over the weekend. A few highlights:

Indianapolis law enforcement officials have a broader—and more lucrative—interpretation of law enforcement costs. They argue that the phrase simply means the cost of enforcing the law in Marion County, and thereby justify holding on to every dollar of the nearly $1.6 million the county received from state forfeiture cases in 2009.

"We don't break it down on a case-by-case basis," said Lawrence Brodeur, chief of Marion County's strategic narcotics prosecution division. "That doesn't make any sense. You could have one case where the officer makes a simple traffic stop, and there could be a quarter-million in cash that we seize. There could be months and months and months on another case, and we catch the guy with a lot of dope but not a lot of cash. Law enforcement, as you know, is more than one case at a time."

Assets forfeited in Marion County flow into a designated law enforcement fund that benefits the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department and the Marion County prosecutor's office.

But even Brodeur's definition of law enforcement costs is not as broad as the one endorsed by Putnam County Prosecutor Tim Bookwalter. In 2008, he made a $28,000 donation to fund spay/neuter services at the local Humane Society with forfeiture money. His argument: Stray dogs are a law enforcement problem.

Bookwalter and Putnam County were part of my story in February. Christopher Gambill, the private attorney who handles forfeiture cases for Putnam County, once made a $113,145.67 commission off a single case. That's more than all 92 Indiana counties have paid into the schools fund over the last two years combined.

More from the Star:

In Knox County, after council members started trying to keep a closer watch on Sheriff Stephen Luce's spending, Luce simply circumvented them.

"The sheriff at that time felt like it was his money and his slush fund," County Council President Tim Ellerman said. "He was wanting to buy sniper rifles. Down here we don't really need sniper rifles with lasers because very seldom do we have hostage situations. Once we started scrutinizing, then all of the sudden the money stopped coming in."

But not really. A 2007 audit revealed that police had not stopped seizing forfeiture funds. Nor had Luce stopped spending them. He had simply begun funneling the money straight from law enforcement coffers into his creditors' pockets, without ever depositing the money with the county or asking the permission of County Council members.

For example, the 2007 audit found that after a public sale of seized assets, the attorney handling forfeitures for the prosecutor's office had written an $8,000 check—not to the county, but to Vincennes Ford, to pay for a vehicle. Kurt Webber, an attorney the council hired to sort out the mess, found that Luce had been buying police vehicles on credit, without council authorization, since 2003 and using forfeiture funds to pay them off.

Luce left the department during the investigation. He's now head of the Indiana Sheriff's Association.

The entire Star report is worth reading. Particularly interesting are the broad definitions of what constitutes a settlement, for purposes of allowing forfeited property to go back to the department instead of the schools fund. Until 2008, for example, police officers in Putnam County could negotiate a "settlement" on the side of the road, giving motorists the option of either facing an arrest and drug charges, or simply forfeiting all of their cash, at which point they'd be sent on their way. Gambill helpfully explains how this policy was effective at separating drug mules from their ill-gotten cash. Of course, it would also be effective at getting cash out of anyone who'd rather fork over some money than face the prospect of arrest, detainment, and felony charges.

Putnam County says it no longer allows such shakedowns settlements, but the Star notes that there's nothing in Indiana law preventing it from being used there or in other counties.

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37 responses to “More on Indiana's Forfeiture Racket

  1. Good ol’ Indiana makes me proud again.

  2. You know, if Indiana’s governor was running for president, this might be something for him to establish some civil liberties bona fides on. You know, look what an actual reformer I am (unlike what’s-his-name who talks a good game but …)

    If only …

    1. Daniels is a total establishment hack. I don’t get the Libertarian love for him at all.

      1. He supports low taxes, which is enough to get the CATO types lubed up.

        1. He could be America’s first Arab president. Take that Democrats!

        2. He says that. But he is also a former head of the CBO. He just reeks of being the kind of bean counter Republican who would jack taxes through the roof and cut spending a bit here and there in the name of bipartisan statesmanship. I don’t fucking trust him. And the fact that he is governor and seems unconcerned by all this makes me trust him even less.

          1. “Bean counter Republican” ? I love it. It must refer to the rare one who knows you don’t close a budget deficit by cutting taxes while raising expenditures.

          2. Instead of going off your gut feeling, you could read things like Cato’s Fiscal Report Cards on the governors. He gets a consistent B, which is pretty good. There are other governors who get better ratings some years and worse others, it’s every two years. The only consistent A governors are Mark Sanford, Joe Manchin (D-WV), and Bobby Jindal so far (has less years to judge). Charlie Crist received an A when he was a Republican, then switched to big spending mode in 2009.

            Daniels has had a pretty good record of restraining spending including when times are good, but he has indeed been fairly concerned with balancing the budget. Signed a tobacco tax increase. Proposed and enacted a trade of a higher state sales tax for lower local property taxes. Has made some pushes for privatization.

            Libertarians also like him because of him calling for a “truce” on social issues.

      2. Him not being Mitt Romney or Sarah Palin?

  3. Highway robbery.

  4. police officers in Putnam County could negotiate a “settlement” on the side of the road, giving motorists the option of either facing an arrest and drug charges, or simply forfeiting all of their cash, at which point they’d be sent on their way.

    In common parlance this is known as soliciting a bribe. Asset forfeiture should not exist in my book, but so long as it does, it should be backed up with an arrest and conviction to prevent crossing the line into bribery territory.

    1. Sounds like Mexico.

      1. In Panama we used to call this “un oportunidad”

      2. “The bite”

    2. Also noted in the article ? the same prosecutor might handle the criminal prosecution and the asset forfeiture. In one case this (allegedly) led to the prosecutor threatening the guy’s wife with arrest if she didn’t pay off the $12k loan on her Kia and sign it (and another $100k in cash and assets) over to the state.

      The prosecutor then personally drove the Kia for the next two years. He claims no such quid pro quo existed. He also claims nice guy status because he didn’t take the Jaguar.

      1. My father has a friend whose husband recently died. He had gotten a DUI a couple of years before. As part of that there was a fine he was supposed to pay upon pain of losing his driver’s license. The man came up with cancer before it was due. And these people don’t have a pot to piss in. So the wife, knowing her husband was terminally ill and wouldn’t be driving again, didn’t pay the fine. Now he is dead. And the state is telling her that they will arrest her if she doesn’t pay her husband’s fine. Nice fucking people in state government isn’t there?

        1. This isn’t in NY by any chance?

        2. Nice fucking people in state government isn’t there?

          Those pensions don’t pay for themselves.

        3. I assume he lost his drivers license when he died.

          Also I don’t see how they can arrest the wife for not paying her husband’s fine. The Constitution forbids the doctrine of corruption of blood. Now, I could see them demanding the fine be paid out of his estate, though that’s still pretty douchey.

          1. “I assume he lost his drivers license when he died.”

            nah, he may need it at the polls for the next election.

  5. Luce left the department during the investigation. He’s now head of the Indiana Sheriff’s Association.

    Words fail.

    1. The ISA is technically not a government body, so this is just a case of other sheriffs selecting him. But it does still stick in the craw.

    2. Eh, it’s typical. Something similar happened in the case in Missouri where everybody got promoted except for the honest cop who refused to lie about the savage beating of a driver.

  6. For example, the 2007 audit found that after a public sale of seized assets, the attorney handling forfeitures for the prosecutor’s office had written an $8,000 check — not to the county, but to Vincennes Ford, to pay for a vehicle. Kurt Webber, an attorney the council hired to sort out the mess, found that Luce had been buying police vehicles on credit, without council authorization, since 2003 and using forfeiture funds to pay them off.

    A crack team of FBI forensic accountants is poring over the county’s (and Luce’s personal) accounts, as we speak.

    Right?

    1. Reason number one million why I will never be appointed a US attorney. If I were the US attorney in that district, I would give that motherfucker a financial enema.

      1. Reason number one million why I will never be appointed a US attorney.

        You never know, we might get an honest president one of these years.

        -jcr

  7. When speaking of Indiana, keep in mind that was the last state to repeal eugenics laws.

    1. Although eugenics laws were considered Progressive and Science back then. The biggest opposition came from those backwards Catholics, following the Pope’s orders.

      1. That makes sense, since the real purpose of the Eugenics laws was to wipe out anyone who wasn’t a WASP.

        -jcr

  8. We don’t have problems like they’ve got in the big cities. This is a small town, everyone knows everyone else. If there was corruption here, we’d know about it.

  9. “Putnam County says it no longer allows such shakedowns settlements, but the Star notes that there’s nothing in Indiana law preventing it from being used there or in other counties.”

    So sheriffs can do anything that there is no law against? WTF

    This is kind of a twist on the thinking that the congress cannot do anything that is not authorized in the constitution.
    I agree that individuals can do anything that is not against the law but the government surely can only do what is allowed by law. these officials should do time.

  10. Where is AG Holder and where were his predecessors? …..Oh, I see.

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  12. WTF?

    Stray dogs are a law enforcement problem

    Am I really the first person to quote this gem? I doubt that the $28K was really to spay/neuter the strays. I think it was really to give them canine fertility drugs. What are the LEO’s going to use those sniper rifles on if they don’t have enough dogs running around?

  13. Alabama loves charging parents with “chemical endangerment of children” when they bust people for drugs and the folks have kids in the house. My question is about property they seize and then put it back into the hands of the public. If said property is from a drug dealer, aren’t the cops guilty of the same chemical endangerment?

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