Pubdate: Sun, 12 Oct 2014
Source: Denver Post (CO)
Copyright: 2014 The Washington Post
Authors: Robert O'Harrow Jr. and Steven Rich, The Washington Post
Bookmark: (Asset Forfeiture)


An Analysis of Federal Data Shows Outlay for Guns and Armored Cars -
As Well As Coffee Makers and a Clown.

Washington - Police agencies have used hundreds of millions of dollars
taken from Americans under federal civil forfeiture law in recent
years to buy guns, armored cars and electronic surveillance gear. They
have also spent money on luxury vehicles, travel and a clown named

The details are contained in thousands of annual reports dating from
2008 and submitted by local and state agencies to the Justice
Department's Equitable Sharing Program, an initiative that allows
local and state police to keep up to 80 percent of the assets they

The documents offer a sweeping look at how police departments and drug
task forces benefit from laws that allow them to take cash and
property without proving a crime has occurred. The law was meant to
decimate drug organizations, but The Washington Post found that it has
been used as a routine source of funding for law enforcement.

"In tight budget periods, and even in times of budget surpluses, using
asset forfeiture dollars to purchase equipment and training to stay
current with the ever-changing trends in crime fighting helps serve
and protect the citizens," said Prince George's County, Md., police
spokeswoman Julie Parker.

Brad Cates, a former director of asset forfeiture programs at the
Justice Department, said the spending suggests police are using
Equitable Sharing as "a free floating slush fund."

Cates, who oversaw the program while at Justice from 1985 to 1989,
said it enables police to sidestep the traditional budget process.

"All of this is fundamentally at odds with the U.S. Constitution,"
said Cates, who recently co-wrote an opinion piece calling for the
program's abolition in The Washington Post. "All of this is at odds
with the rights that Americans have."

Of the nearly $2.5 billion in spending reported in the forms, 81
percent came from cash and property seizures in which no indictment
was filed, according to an analysis. Owners must prove that their
money or property was acquired legally to get it back.

The police purchases comprise a rich mix of the practical and the
high-tech, including an array of gear that has helped some departments
militarize their operations: Humvees, automatic weapons, gas grenades,
night-vision scopes and sniper gear.

Many departments acquired electronic surveillance equipment, including
automated license-plate readers and systems that track cellphones.

The spending also included a $5 million helicopter for Los Angeles
police; a mobile command bus worth more than $1 million in Prince
George's County, Md.; an armored personnel carrier costing $227,000 in
Douglasville, Ga., population 32,000; $5,300worth of "challenge coin"
medallions in Brunswick County, N.C.; $4,600 for a Sheriff's Award
Banquet by the Dona Ana County (N.M.) Sheriff's Office; and a $637
coffee maker for the Randall County Sheriff's Office in Amarillo, Texas.

Sparkles the Clown was hired for $225 by Chief Jeff Buck in
Reminderville, Ohio, to improve community relations. Buck said the
seizure money has been crucial to sustaining long-term investigations
that have put thousands of drug traffickers in prison.

"The money I spent on Sparkles the Clown is a very, very minute
portion of the forfeited money that I spend in fighting the war on
drugs," he said.

About 5,400 departments and drug task forces have participated in the
Equitable Sharing Program since 2008. Justice spokesman Peter Carr
said the program is an effective weapon to fight crime but should not
be considered "an alternative funding source for state and local law

"It removes the tools of crime from criminal organizations, deprives
wrongdoers of the proceeds of their crimes, recovers property that may
be used to compensate victims, and deters crime," he said in a
statement. "Any funds received through the equitable sharing program
are meant to enhance and supplement, not supplant or replace an
agency's appropriated budget and resources."

A local or state police agency can seize cash or property under
federal law through the Equitable Sharing Program when a federal
agency such as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration or Immigration
and Customs Enforcement agrees to adopt the seizure under federal law.

In September, The Washington Post reported that police across the
country became more aggressive in their use of federal civil asset
forfeiture laws after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Officials
at Justice and the Department of Homeland Security encouraged a
technique known as highway interdiction to help in the fight against
drugs and terrorism.

There have been 61,998 cash seizures on highways and elsewhere since
9/11 without search warrants or indictments and processed through the
Equitable Sharing Program, according to the analysis of Justice data.

Equitable Sharing participants must follow rules contained in a
50-page Equitable Sharing guide that require the proceeds of seizures
to be used "by law enforcement agencies for law enforcement purposes

Permissible uses include overtime pay, training, building construction
and improvements and equipment-everything from file cabinets and
fitness gear to automatic weapons and surveillance systems. They also
can use proceeds to buy food and drink for conferences or disaster

The Justice Department has about 15 employees assigned to overseeing
compliance. Five employees review thousands of annual reports for
discrepancies. Justice employees also use analytical tools to search
for spending patterns. Several attorneys review all sharing requests
for $1 million or more, Carr said, adding that the locals also do
their own audits.

The inspector general's office for the Justice Department has
conducted 25 audits on spending since 2008, an average of four a year,
examining more than $18 million in Equitable Sharing spending, roughly
three-quarters of 1 percent of the money spent during that time. The
Justice Department has challenged millions of dollars in spending as
unsupported or unallowable.

Auditors found the Mesa County Sheriff's Office in Colorado paid
thousands for projectors, scanner equipment and other items that were
not intended for law enforcement. They also paid for 20 lawyers in the
Mesa County prosecutor's office to attend a conference at the Keystone
ski resort. Auditors questioned more than $78,000in spending. The Mesa
Sheriff's Office did not respond to calls for comment.
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MAP posted-by: Richard