by Ray Downs
When Missouri drug task forces seize assets they believed were used in a crime, state law says they have to give it to the state school fund. However, cops don't trust state lawmakers to use it for that purpose, so they bypass the rule and use a federal program to keep the money for themselves.
The remarks describe a process that has been well-known to property-rights activists for years (Daily RFTreported on it back in 2010), but they've nonetheless provided new fuel for those who aim to reform forfeiture laws, especially since the topic has received more attention in the national media lately. But first, check this out:
Back in December, Kevin Glaser, a retired sergeant and current vice president of the Missouri Narcotics Officers Association, attended a Show-Me Cannabis town hall meeting in Poplar Bluff to talk about marijuana legalization. In a video of the event, Glaser was asked about asset forfeiture and the ex-drug cop answered bluntly, saying that when assets are seized, state legislators can't be trusted to put the money into the state school fund.
"If we seize funds, drug proceeds from a criminal, the state of Missouri says, that gets forfeited to the school fund," Glaser says. "In theory, that's a very good law to have. In practice, that's not what happens."
Instead, state legislators just subtract the amount added to the school fund from seized assets and put it in other things. So rather than giving the money to the state, drug task forces give it to the federal government through the Department of Justice's asset forfeiture program.
This is favorable, Glaser says, because most of the money gets returned to law-enforcement departments to boost their own budgets:
"If we seize $50,000 from a drug seizure and it is drug proceeds, it's forfeited through the state of Missouri to the school fund to fund our schools. That sounds good. They have $50,000 to play with now. In actuality, though, what happens is our state legislators, when they're divvying out the money to the schools, and they see that $50,000 go into the school fund from asset forfeiture, they take out $50,000 they were gonna contribute to the school fund. The school fund does not make an additional $50,000 off of that. That's the way asset forfeiture has been since it came into effect.
What law enforcement has done is, seeing that there's really no good coming to Missouri from asset forfeiture because other than funding general revenue - that's all it really does - we utilize federal forfeiture, which allows us to take that $50,000 seized from the drug proceeds and then we can, applied through a court system that has several checks and balances to make sure it was a very factual and legitimate seizure, then that $50,000 -- and actually it's only 80 percent of that because the federal government gets 20 percent right off the bat -- but 80 percent of that $50,000 can come back and be used by local law enforcement for very specific -- buying equipment, buying cars, -- there are very specific requirement, you just can't go out and spend it randomly on whatever you want. It can be utilized by the police department to further enhance the department and drug investigations and criminal investigations.
Click on the next page for more about asset forfeiture in Missouri...
There's nothing illegal about police taking property of people suspected of a crime -- even when those people have not been convicted of anything. In criminal forfeiture cases, a crime must be proven before property can be seized. But in civil forfeiture cases, in which drug cops are often involved, one has to merely be suspected of wrongdoing for assets to be taken away.
However, with perception of drug laws changing, the question of whether cops should be allowed to confiscate property has gained some steam.
A Massachusetts hotel owner who challenged police after they tried to confiscate his $1.5 million property has recently gained national attention. Last week Minnesota lawmakers were praised by property rights groups after that state passed a law that would require a person to be convicted of a crime or to have plead guilty for their property to be seized.
And last year Georgia lawmakers were criticized for failing to raise the burden of proof for a legitimate property seizure, despite corruption in how the money was spent, which included a district attorney there dipping into the fund to spend "$2,700 on wrought-iron security doors for his house" and "$4,450 worth of tickets to the Bank of America Atlanta Football Classic," reported the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Here in Missouri, forfeiture reform activists are questioning whether state drug task forces could even exist without seized assets.
In a recent blog post by Eapen Thampy, the executive director of Americans for Forfeiture Reform, that question is asked in light of a 2012 audit of the Southeast Missouri Drug Task Force.
According to the audit, which was originally obtained through a Sunshine request from Aaron Malin, the executive director of Equality MO (both Malin and Thampy also work with Show-Me Cannabis), the total amount for SEMO's seized assets were valued at $198,000, with only $10,000 of that amount coming from "state assets." The rest came from the federal program used to bypass state restrictions.
In total, seized assets represented about 20 percent of SEMO Drug Task Force's budget.
And in the audit, it is pointed out that changes in asset forfeiture laws, among other things, could have a negative budgetary impact on the SEMO Drug Task Force:
"It's time for Missouri to really evaluate how we're conducting asset forfeiture in the state," Thampy tells Daily RFT, adding that the state should abolish the federal asset sharing practice and improve oversight of drug task forces.
We reached out to the SEMO Drug Task Force for comment, but they have not returned any calls.
However, one Missouri drug task force has been in the news recently, claiming that federal and state budget cuts have had a negative impact on their funding. The KRCG 13 report can be seen below.
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