Pubdate: Wed, 10 Dec 2008
Source: Baltimore Sun (MD)
Copyright: 2008 The Baltimore Sun Company
Author: Ronald Fraser
Bookmark: (Drug Raids)
Bookmark: (Asset Forfeiture)
Note: Ronald Fraser writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty
Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization.


As Maryland law enforcement agencies rake in millions seized in drug
cases, is justice being served?

On the streets, where illegal drugs are still easy to get at
affordable prices, Maryland police chiefs are losing the decades-long
drug war. But many departments have come to depend on drug raids to
increase their operating budgets. While the drug trade still enriches
the bad guys, police chiefs now also get a piece of the action.

Many states, wary of overzealous police departments, require that the
proceeds from seized assets be used for education or other non-police
purposes. But the 1984 federal Comprehensive Crime Control Act, a
turning point in America's war on drugs, is a way to get around these
state laws. It allows state and local police departments, working with
U.S. agents, to "federalize" money and property seized during local
drug raids. The federal government gets at least 20 percent of the
seized assets, giving back up to 80 percent - now exempt from state
law - to state and local police agencies.

One might assume that the filing of criminal charges would necessarily
precede the seizure of property - but shockingly, this is not the
case. For example, a motel may be seized because drugs were traded on
the premises despite the owners' extensive efforts to prevent such
activity; or cash may be seized, only to be returned years later after
the owner is forced into a long and costly legal battle.

According to U.S. Justice Department figures, the amount going to
Maryland law enforcement agencies shot up from $3.9 million in 2000 to
$8.2 million in 2007. Nationally, state and local agencies collected
$416 million in 2007, up from $212 million in 2000. Drug-raid income
in 2007 totaled $1.8 million for the Baltimore Police Department, up
from $522,000 in 2000. In the wake of recent funding cuts, it will be
tempting for the department to look to drug-raid money as a way to
plug holes in the budget.

Elsewhere in the region, the Baltimore County Police Department's haul
went from $740,000 in 2000 to $1.6 million in 2007. Also in 2007, the
Baltimore state's attorney took in $80,000 and the Baltimore County
state's attorney $141,000. The Carroll County Drug Task Force in 2007
collected $81,000; the Howard County Police Department, $177,000; and
the Anne Arundel County Police Department, $160,000. At the state
level, asset income for the Maryland State Police increased from
$492,000 to $1.2 million from 2000 to 2007.

One study reports that 40 percent of the nation's local police
agencies are dependent on seized assets as a necessary budgetary
supplement. Why is this bad news?

First, years ago, the primary reason police seized assets was to break
up illegal drug supply lines. Today, however, that goal has been
conflated with budgetary considerations that should not be driving
decisions about the deployment of police resources.

Second, as a department's use of this independent source of funding
grows, its dependence on, and accountability to, the taxpayers goes

Third, if a department's prestige depends in part on how much is
seized each year, this gives police chiefs an incentive to push their
officers to become more aggressive during raids, make unnecessary
raids and cut legal corners.

Here is an extreme example of how a thirst for such funds can pervert
law enforcement. Some years ago, Donald Scott owned a valuable
200-acre ranch in Malibu, Calif. One morning, 30 agents, led by the
Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, conducted a raid based on
faulty rumors that Mr. Scott was growing marijuana plants. During the
raid, Mr. Scott was shot and killed by sheriff's deputies. A Ventura
County district attorney's report on the raid concluded, "The Los
Angeles County Sheriff's Department was motivated, at least in part,
by a desire to seize and forfeit the ranch for the

It is time for federal and state legislators to shut down the
conflict-of-interest loophole that allows police departments to profit
from their official duties - at times, at the expense of the citizens
they are hired to protect.

Ronald Fraser writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty
Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization. His e-mail
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