Friday, October 30, 2009

Pirates in blue

Alternate title: Cops on commission

Most conservatives have a concern about arbitrary and overreaching government; most liberals worry about unbridled entrepreneurialism. Here’s a story that features both at the same time.

It’s about a thing called civil forfeiture. To people who are unfamiliar with it, it sounds bizarre and like something that couldn’t possibly even exist, at least in the United States. But it does, and it’s a thriving, er, industry, including here in Minnesota.

You’ve probably read about the Metro Gang Strike Force, a blot that will stain the escutcheon of Twin Cities’ law enforcement for a long time. The Strike Force stands accused of improperly seizing property claimed to have been used in gang and drug activity, but it seems that the Strike Force kept dismal or no records of what was seized, what happened to the seized property, and misappropriated some of the seized property for the private use of the Strike Force members. From City Pages:

The looting went well beyond shaking down the occasional 15-year-old pot smoker of his/her pocket change. During searches and seizures, officers routinely confiscated, for their own personal use, highly valuable goodies that had little-to-nothing to do with the accompanying charges. The plunders included flat-screen televisions, lap tops, jewelry, and jet skis-- items "officers and their family members were permitted to purchase, at low prices," according to the findings.

There is an investigator on the case of the missing property now, and he has his job cut out for him:

With no officers on its payroll anymore, the Strike Force board has hired a private detective -- retired South St. Paul officer David Vujovich -- to itemize seized vehicles, which sit in a storage lot. He's also been asked to track down case files as individuals seek to reclaim seized funds or property, said Manila (Bud) Shaver, the board chair. The League of Minnesota Cities, the force's insurance agency, has agreed to reimburse the board for Vujovich's services, said Kori Land, the Strike Force attorney.

It's not known how many unclaimed vehicles are in storage. The Minnesota Legislative Auditor concluded in a report in May that many were improperly forfeited.

The Strike Force is hardly alone in using civil forfeiture, however, and it’s a process that’s ripe for abuse.

A property seizure and forfeiture is what lawyers’ call an in rem proceeding; it’s against the “guilty property.” That’s the really neat thing about it from a law enforcement standpoint: property doesn’t have much in the way of due process rights. It turns out that the owners of the property don’t, either.

Property is subject to seizure and forfeiture for a variety of specified crimes. Under the forfeiture laws, if property was used in the commission of a crime, or represents the proceeds of a crime, it is subject to forfeiture. In some cases, it seems sensible and obvious, like the forfeiture of a gun used to commit a hunting violation or if it’s carried in a public place illegally (although that’s getting harder to do!).

It is the seizures in controlled substance and DWI cases where the most potential for abuse exists. The Strike Force is the obvious example here. Property can be and is seized and forfeited when there is no conviction for the predicate crime for the seizure. That seems entirely bizarre, but it’s true. On top of that, your property can be forfeited if somebody else used your property to commit a crime. We’ll discuss these things in more detail in a subsequent post.

There were a couple of items in the news in Strib recently that give this issue fresh relevance, even here in Spot’s burg, Edina.

But back to the two issues mentioned at the top of the post, and In conclusion, at least for now, consider this: the local gendarmes get to keep over two thirds of the proceeds of forfeited merchandise.

We’ve put the local cops on a fat commission. It’s like we’ve issued the chiefs of police a letter of marque, giving them a considerable financial incentive, without any oversight, to go out and seize property entirely beyond the scope of the police role to enforce criminal law.

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