Pubdate: Mon, 29 Sep 2008
Source: Delaware County Daily Times (PA)
Copyright: 2008 The Daily Times
Author: Ronald Fraser
Bookmark: (Asset Forfeiture)
Bookmark: (Drug Raids)


On the streets, where illegal drugs are still easy to get at
affordable prices, Pennsylvania's police chiefs are losing the
decades-long drug war but, ironically, back in their precinct
headquarters, many of these officers depend on drug raids to fatten
their operating budgets. While the drug trade still enriches the bad
guys, police chiefs now 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. State and local police departments, working with U.S.
agents, "federalize" money and property seized during local drug
raids. The federal government gets at least 20 percent of the seized
assets, but the feds give back up to 80 percent of the seizure - now
exempt from state law - to state and local police agencies.

According to federal statistics, the share going to Pennsylvania law
enforcement agencies went from $4.4 million in 2000 to $10.3 million
in 2007. Nationally, state and local agencies collected $416 million
in 2007, up from $212 million in 2000.

Not all police departments ride this drug raid gravy train, but those
that do profit handsomely. In 2007, the Montgomery County District
Attorney took in $464,000, and the Delaware County District Attorney's
office collected $44,000.

At the state level, in 2000 the Pennsylvania State Police took in
$674,000, but boosted that to $1.7 million seven years later, and the
Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General was also busy, going from
$207,000 to $1 million from 2000 to 2007.

Surprisingly, property owners need not be charged with a crime for
their property to be taken. The property itself, however remotely
associated with the drug trade, has, under civil forfeiture laws,
"committed" a crime and can be seized.

For example, a motel is seized because drugs were traded on the
premises despite the owners' extensive efforts to prevent such
activity. Boats and airplanes damaged beyond repair during fruitless
searches for drugs go uncompensated by the government. Cash is seized
only to be returned years later after the owner is forced into a long
and costly legal battle.

One study reports 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 original goal has
been largely replaced by self-serving budgetary considerations.
Citizens can now legitimately ask why their local police force
conducts drug raids. Is it to rid the town of drugs - or are the raids
an easy source of extra income that harms innocent people along the

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

Third, if a department's prestige, and the reputation of its officers,
is dependent on how many assets are 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 how greed can pervert law enforcement. Donald Scott owned a
valuable 200-acre ranch in Malibu, Calif. One October morning in 1992,
30 agents, led by the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department, conducted
a raid based on faulty rumors that Scott was growing marijuana plants.
During the raid Scott was shot and killed by sheriff 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 government
. Based in part upon the possibility of forfeiture, the sheriff's
deputy obtained a search warrant that was not supported by probable
cause. The search warrant became Donald Scott's death warrant."

What to do? 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 the expense of the very citizens
they are hired to protect.

Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on public policy issues for the DKT
Library Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization.
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