The Washington Post has a story that highlights some of the more disturbing aspects of a police tactic known as civil forfeiture, which lets cops make money from seizing cash and property from alleged criminals.
The Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program allows local police departments to keep 80% of the stuff seized during drug raids and other investigations. While it sounds unbelievable, police can seize your assets even if you’re never convicted of a crime as long as cops believe you obtained the property illegally.
You can go to court to get it back, but that’s a long and expensive process that’s just not realistic for a lot of people.
Meanwhile, police departments can use the money to boost their budgets. The article in the Post suggests that much of this money doesn’t go to practical crime-fighting gear. In some departments civil forfeiture cash has paid for military-grade equipment that might be more suitable for a war zone than a US city or town.
The military gear includes an armoured personnel carrier costing $US227,000 in Douglasville, Ga. as well as a $1 million mobile command bus in Prince George’s County, Maryland and a $5 million helicopter for Los Angeles cops.
Then there the more frivolous things civil forfeiture cash buys, like a $US637 coffee maker for cops in Amarillo, Texas and
$5,300 worth of “challenge coin” medallions in Brunswick County, North Carolina. (The Post article doesn’t elaborate on the practical uses of these medallions, but they don’t sound like standard police gear.)
Perhaps the oddest purchase was $225 spent on a clown in Reminderville, Ohio meant to improve relations between the community and police. Here’s how Chief Jeff Buck defended that purchase to the post: “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.”
This isn’t just a matter of police being fiscally irresponsible. They’re being irresponsible with cash that may very well have been seized from innocent people.
The Washington Post examined 43,000 reports on asset seizures dating back to 2008, which reported $US2.5 billion in spending from these seizures. According to the Post’s analysis, 81% of that spending came from seizures in which the property or cash owners were never indicted.
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