Because 1984 was an election year, it would need to have an omnibus crime bill of its own. Polls showed that crime was the most pressing domestic issue with the public, so everyone running for reelection needed something to tout on the campaign trail.
At this point, there wasn’t any real debate about crime policy. It was really only about which party could come up with the most creative ways to empower cops and prosecutors, strip suspects of their rights, and show they were more committed to the battle than their opponents were. The most significant provision in the newest crime bill again dealt with asset forfeiture.
The new proposal was to let law enforcement agencies involved with federal drug investigations share in any asset forfeiture proceeds that the case might produce. Previously, forfeiture revenues went toward general operations. Under the new law, the Justice Department would set up a fund with the cash and auction proceeds from its investigations. After the lead federal agency took its cut, any state or local police agencies that had helped out would also get a share.
The measure was considered uncontroversial at the time, but it is difficult to overstate the effect it would have on drug policing over the next 30 years. With drug investigations now a potential source of revenue for police departments, everything would change.
The law’s impact was immediate. After it passed, for example, the CAMP [Campaign Against Marijuana Production] raids and those like them in other parts of the country were no longer just about putting on a good show and terrorizing the counterculture. Now the raids could generate revenue for all of the police agencies involved.
The DEA’s [Bill] Ruzzamenti was rather frank about it in an interview with Ray Raphael for his 1985 book on the CAMP program, Cash Crop.
“The biggest focus of what we’re doing is going to be on land seizures,” Ruzzamenti said. “Anybody who is growing marijuana on their land, we’re going to take their land. It’s as simple as that. It’s done civilly through the federal system. Basically, people have to prove that they weren’t involved and didn’t know about it. Just the act of having marijuana grown on your land is enough to tie it up; then you have to turn around and prove you’re innocent. It reverses the burden of proof.”
Some people in northern California owned thousands of acres of land, much of it densely forested. Growers were also known to set up operations on someone else’s land, without the owner’s permission. If the feds started a forfeiture process, the owner was then in the difficult position of having to prove his innocence. Even then, federal prosecutors could argue that he should have been more vigilant about policing his property for pot plants.
Some landowners faced the loss of hundreds of acres of property over a few dozen marijuana plants grown in an area the size of a backyard garden. Because it was much easier to win land through civil forfeiture than to win a conviction in criminal court, federal prosecutors often offered to drop the criminal charges if the landowners agreed to hand their property over to the federal government.
Those sorts of offers exposed just how fraudulent the government’s justification for its terror tactics really were. Allegedly, these pot growers were the dregs of humanity, greedily poisoning America’s children with their sinister harvest. They were dangerous enough that the government had to send virtual armies to occupy entire towns, buzz homes and chase children with helicopters, set up roadblocks to search cars at gunpoint, and strip suspects and innocents alike of their Fourth Amendment rights.
These growers were that dangerous. However, if they were willing to hand over their land, the government was more than happy to let them go free.
From “RISE OF THE WARRIOR COP: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces” by Randy Balko. Reprinted with permission from PublicAffairs Books.
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