The Secret Slush Funds of Asset Forfeiture
Two investigations published this week reveal how police and prosecutors spend asset forfeiture funds outside the public eye.
Asset forfeiture laws don't just allow the police to seize property they claim is connected to criminal activity; they often let the cops keep the proceeds from what they take. This profit incentive is one of the biggest problems with the practice, since it gives police an incentive to pursue petty and indefensible seizures to pad out their own budgets.
Worse yet, there's not nearly enough transparency in how police and prosecutors spend those funds. Due to weak or absent reporting requirements, forfeiture expenditures and budgets are often hidden from public view—unless intrepid reporters pry them loose.
That's exactly what happened this week in two different cities, thanks to the Philadelphia Weekly and the Cincinnati City Beat.
Philadelphia Weekly, in collaboration with City & State PA, reported Wednesday that the local D.A.'s office had spent $7 million in asset forfeiture funds over the last five years, including "at least one contract that appears to have violated city ethics guidelines—construction work awarded to a company linked to one of the DA's own staff detectives." Among the other findings:
With little concern for public scrutiny, the clandestine revenue stream also paid for much more: $30,000 worth of submachine guns (equipped with military-grade laser sights valued at $15,000) for police tactical units; a $16,000 website development contract; custom uniform embroidery; a $76 parking ticket; $1,000 in raccoon-removal services; a push lawn mower; a pair of outboard motors; and tens of thousands in mysterious cash withdrawals—along with thousands of other expenses.
While the DA liquidates many of the assets it seizes, other records obtained by City & State PA and Philly Weekly reveal the DA has long been loaning out forfeited cars to its office personnel. Cars…are routinely doled out to top deputies for work use, as take-home cars and, in one case, even as a plaything for the district attorney himself.
Defenders of asset forfeiture—police unions, prosecutor associations, and other law-enforcement boosters—often waive away misuse of forfeiture funds as unfortunate indiscretions in an otherwise commendable crimefighting program. But the more we learn about how these funds operate, the more clear it becomes that the incentives created by forfeiture are simply too tempting for police to regulate themselves.
Meanwhile, City Beat published a similar investigation into Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters' forfeiture piggy bank. City Beat found that the prosecutor office's $1.7 million forfeiture fund "has been tapped regularly for mundane purchases and, on two occasions, sketchy consulting contracts that Deters won't discuss." In addition,
Since the beginning of 2015, the prosecutor's office has spent about $200,000 on real estate consulting by a local man with a history of financial problems—and has no records of his consulting contributions.
In 2015, the office spent almost $15,000 on "briefcases for attorneys" and nearly the same amount on furniture for a grand jury office.
Since 2014, the office has spent $3,800 toward the personal dues of Deters in three bar associations and a local police group.
And as CityBeat reported in June, the office spent $2.2 million over 12 years on information technology contracts with a former employee—a friend of Deters—without seeking competitive bids.
The investigations back up what other outlets have found when they dug into forfeiture expenditures.
Last year, the Chicago Reader published previously unreleased details of how the Chicago Police Department's narcotics unit uses the department's forfeiture fund as an off-the-books revenue stream, spending millions on surveillance technology and other gear without any oversight from city council.
Elsewhere in Illinois, a county prosecutor was indicted this month on 17 counts of official misconduct, including misappropriating forfeiture funds. The Illinois Supreme Court ruled in June that LaSalle County State's Attorney Brian Towne had created an illegal unit of special investigators within his office to carry out drug interdictions and asset seizures, exceeding his authority as a prosecutor.
"The unit seized vehicles, cash and other assets that amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars," the Chicago Tribune reported. "The indictment alleges that Towne used money from those forfeitures to pay for a GMC Yukon and Internet service for his personal use, as well as for private business expenses."
The Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning law firm that has challenged forfeiture laws in several states, released a report this year that found 26 states have little or no transparency requirements for asset forfeiture. Furthermore, 14 of those states "do not appear to require any form of property tracking, leaving in doubt even such basic questions as what was seized and how much it was worth, who seized it, when it was seized, where it was seized, and why it was seized."
Even in places with spending and transparency guidelines, some officials have found creative ways to avoid scrutiny. In Arizona, for example, a grand jury is investigating former Pinal County sheriff Paul Babeu for allegedly funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars in forfeiture funds to the Arizona Public Safety Foundation, a nonprofit that supports local law enforcement and is closely tied to Babeu.
A lawsuit filed in 2015 by the American Civil Liberties Union and the law firm Perkins Coie said, "At a minimum, it seems that by funneling money to a private group which buys things for him and his department, Defendant Babeu is able to avoid procurement laws and other transparency regulations which usually apply to government purchasing." Babeu also used forfeiture funds to pay for a public safety newsletter sent to Pinal County voters. He was running for Congress at the same time.
Corruption is pervasive in all other arenas of public life—politics, media, education, sports— yet the defenders of asset forfeiture ask us to believe that the criminal justice system is staffed by angels. When investigations manage to overcome the lax reporting requirements that protect these agencies, it only strengthens the case for making police and prosecutors more accountable for how they use money seized from citizens.