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."