Asset Forfeiture

New York Paper Says Cops Love Asset Forfeiture, So You Should Too

It pays for stuff police need. What's not to like?

|

Lewiston Police Department

Last month the Justice Department announced that budget cuts had forced it to temporarily suspend its Equitable Sharing Program, which gives local law enforcement agencies 80 percent of the proceeds from assets forfeited under federal law. The program has long been controversial because it enables cops to evade state limits on forfeiture—a tendency illustrated by New York State, which has pretty good protections for property owners but benefits from equitable sharing more than all but two other states. Judging from its recent report on the suspension of equitable sharing, New York's Niagara Gazette is oblivious to that concern as well as the broader controversy over civil asset forfeiture, which lets law enforcement agencies take people's property without accusing them of a crime.

The Gazette's take on the temporary halt to the DOJ's program can be summed up in three words: Those poor cops. Here is how the story starts:

The word came just before Christmas, in a conference call from officials with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Like a large lump of coal in the stocking of local law enforcement agencies across the U.S., federal officials announced that the Equitable Sharing program, better known to most people as the asset forfeiture program, was being suspended indefinitely. 

Niagara County Sheriff James Voutour called the announcement a "punch in the gut" to local law enforcement. Falls Police Superintendent Bryan DalPorto said the loss of asset forfeiture funds will have an immediate impact on his department's budget.

"One of the only things we have that hurts drug dealers is taking their toys and their money," DalPorto said. 

As that opening suggests, the article is unrelentingly sympathetic to the perspective of law enforcement agencies keen to keep the their own toys and money, never pausing to ask whether letting them directly profit from taking people's stuff might create perverse incentives. Asset forfeiture money, the Gazette explains, is "spent on everything from the coloring books used in DARE and other community relations programs to operation and maintenance costs for the Niagara County Sheriff's Office helicopter that is used in aerial marijuana crop identification and eradication." The money also has been used to "renovate a new headquarters for the Niagara County Drug Task Force" and to buy "the Lewiston Police Department's drug-sniffing K-9 Tazer."

Ending equitable sharing "would completely decimate a lot of things we have done," DalPorto complains, saying "the money and vehicles we seize are essential to us." Another police chief says the suspension "makes no sense," while a third says "it boggles the mind."

The Gazette never pauses to ask whether it's a good idea for police departments to fund themselves in this manner, as opposed to relying on legislative appropriations. The paper is also remarkably incurious, or maybe just misinformed, about why the feds need to be involved. The Gazette claims "the partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice is necessary because the seizures and forfeitures are authorized by federal, not state, law."

That is not exactly true. New York does authorize civil forfeiture, but the conditions are less favorable to cops and prosecutors. Under state law, the standard of proof is stronger ("clear and convincing evidence" vs. "preponderance of the evidence"), the government has the burden of disproving an innocent owner claim, and law enforcement agencies get to keep 60 percent rather than 80 percent of the loot. It is therefore not surprising that cops use federal law whenever they can.

"New York's civil forfeiture laws are not the nation's worst, earning a C, but law enforcement is able to bypass them through equitable sharing activity so extensive it is surpassed by that of only two states," the Institute for Justice observes. "New York agencies apparently work around the Empire State's lower profit incentive and better-than-average property rights protections through the Department of Justice's equitable sharing program."

NEXT: "The Libertarian Case for School Choice"

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. “all two other states”

  2. “One of the only things we have that hurts drug dealers is taking their toys and their money,” DalPorto said.

    I’ve been to cineplexes with less projection.

    1. But, somehow, he is opposed to taking their toys and money unless he gets a slice.

    2. “One of the only things we have that hurts drug dealers is taking their toys and their money,” DalPorto said.

      Huh. I would have thought that arrest and imprisonment would also be a deterrent. That is, if they’re convicted in a court of law.

      1. But who wants to work that hard when the toys and money are just sitting there waiting to be taken?

  3. Asset forfeiture money, the Gazette explains, is “spent on everything from the coloring books used in DARE and other community relations programs to operation and maintenance costs for the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office helicopter that is used in aerial marijuana crop identification and eradication.” The money also has been used to “renovate a new headquarters for the Niagara County Drug Task Force” and to buy “the Lewiston Police Department’s drug-sniffing K-9 Tazer.”

    And you’re sure this is from a pro-asset forfeiture story? Because those sentences could be dropped without alteration into a scathing indictment of why asset forfeiture needs to go.

    1. Those helicopter trips are a personal favorite. In the western part of Virginia they deliberately wait until the ditchweed goes to seed before they go out on their spotting trips. They’ll pull some weeds up, claim victory, and spend the rest of the week celebrating.

      1. Don’t expect the readers of the Niagra to know there hasn’t been a market for ditch since, oh, twenty years ago…the market for mis-information is much larger.

    2. spent on everything from the coloring books used in DARE

      So awesome that this gets first billing; like 30% of the budget is coloring books and they just happened to spend a little money on a helicopter too.

      Seriously, Hugh, why do you hate kids *and* puppies?

    3. We need the fluid-making machine to make fluid for the fluid-making machine, or civiliz’n will grind to a halt!

  4. If someone is nabbed by the cops then they are guilty. Cops don’t arrest innocent people. However a guilty person can use their ill-gotten money to hire a hotshot lawyer to get them off of the charges. This is why the police need to be able to seize a person’s assets after arrest. Otherwise the broken system allows guilty people to buy their freedom with illegally obtained money. Better that money go to the police so they can find more guilty people to throw in jail.

    1. Precisely the argument my dad made 40 years ago when I was a teenager. He was a circuit court judge.

      1. No offense, but your dad sounds like a real jerk.

        1. Like a lot of people of his generation, he could not be rational when it came to drugs.
          I blame Harry Anslinger.

      2. So did my dad, except that, thank Baphomet, he was not in a position to do anything about it beyond voting. Now he increasingly agrees with me.

      3. I remember last year when Delaware decriminalized, police spokesmen actually went on record saying it was a mistake, because if they didn’t criminalize possession of small amounts of weed, it would make it searches harder to justify, thus concealing people doing ‘even worse’.

        Let that settle in for a second: The police would prefer making criminals of people, because that would make it easier to find the criminals. Police officials and unions look at crime like a farmer looks at his field.

        The same circular reasoning is on display here. The confiscation of cash from people, without due process, is justified by all the criminals that might some day be found if the police are allowed to spend it. Treat more people like criminals, so they can find more criminals…

  5. “…the Equitable Sharing program, better known to most people as the asset forfeiture program…”

    I can think of a lot of other names for it, and they would be far more honest than this white-washing.

  6. “”One of the only things we have that hurts drug dealers is taking their toys and their money,””

    I mean, sure we can throw them in jail, but that’s hardly even a punishment, man.

    1. Well, they can’t throw them in jail. Criminals are sometimes insulated from punishment because there’s not enough evidence to indict or convict them. But cops know they’re guilty, because cops have a superlegal Justice Sense that makes them privy to knowledge no court or jury would accept. Call it intuition. And so the cop takes those criminals’ assets by civil fiat, because they’re guilty of something, and they must be punished.

    2. Great minds. See above.

  7. Not for nothing, but the intelligence, or lack thereof, of this paper may be found in this completely non-fallacious link on the sidebar:

    Check out the latest lottery results for the state! Includes the most recent results as well as a countdown to the next number draw. In addition, you can increase your chances of winning by looking at the recent number archive!

  8. Ahh, yes, the “Equitable Sharing Program.” The real-world illustration of the “two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for dinner” metaphor.

  9. Hey Dalporto you know what else hurts drug dealers, legalization.

  10. “One of the only things we have that hurts drug dealers is taking their toys and their money,” DalPorto said.

    They can still confiscate can’t they? I assume the end of equitable sharing just means that they no longer get a cut.

    Strange how el copo fails to distinguish between the two.

    1. Nope I didn’t read with enough attention.

      The end of equitable sharing is the end to access to a government program that allows them to confiscate more than they could have under state law.

      Yay!

  11. As to “what’s not to like”, try the following:

    1. Theft Under Color of Law, which is a proper definition of Civil Asset Forfeiture, is definitely something not to like..
    2. Arbitrary antics of or by people supposed to “serve and protect”, though the courts have long since raised serious question re this.
    3. Essentially, “bureaucratic bullshit/bureaucratic abuse”, another reasonable definition for/of Civil Asset Forfeiture.
    4. The money suposedly “saved” the local taxpayers, in theory, the taxpayers do not have to support equipment purchases funded with monies stolen by the “fuzz”, via Civil Asset Forfeiture.The problem with this is that those “savings” likely get very expensive.
    5. Last, but not least, the general idea of people being punished, forget the crap about property being “punished”, not the people from whom property is taken,absent accusation, indictment, trial and conviction for wrongdoing just rubs me the wrong way.

    Enough said, I think.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.