Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Pirates in blue IV

In this, probably the penultimate post in the series (part one, part two, part three), we’ll address splitting the forfeiture pot.

The basic rule is 70% of the proceeds go to the local cops or other agency responsible for the bust, 20% to the prosecuting agency, and 10% to the state. That’s what supposed to happen. In practice, however, and as was pointed out in the first post in the series, it doesn’t always work out that way; here again is the City Pages description of the Metro Gang Strike Force in operation:

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.

So, there’s a problem right there: property seized that never finds its way on to a seized property inventory or even becomes the subject of administrative forfeiture proceedings. We have another term of art for this property: “stolen.” Related to it, though, is permitting officers and family members to purchase forfeited items at low prices.

This also frustrates one of the ostensible purposes of the forfeiture program to provide additional funds for police departments. It also creates an incentive for an officer to go shopping on duty for family and friends, or even other people in the department:

Chief, I saw this monster flat screen in an apartment today that I just had to have. Put it on 60-day lay away for me will ya’? I’ll make you an offer for it then.

It probably doesn’t happen quite that directly, even at the Metro Gang Strike Force, but it illustrates the problem. And there really isn’t anything to keep it from happening. There is nothing — nothing — in Minn. Stat. sec. 609.5315 that imposes any obligation on law enforcement as to how it may sell forfeited property, or to maximize the amount received, or even to limit the persons who may buy (well, there are for weapons, but you can read them by clicking the link).

Here’s another amazing fact: the cops can keep the property for use by the department. That’s true in the case of motor vehicles forfeited for impaired driving violations, too.

If you have seen police officers driving around in unmarked or undercover cars that seemed odd to you, the chances are excellent that they are the fruits of civil forfeiture. If they hadn’t decided to sell it on eBay, the police in Proctor could have been riding around on an undercover motorized recliner.

It ought to make you at least a little queasy to know that there is no judicial oversight of most administrative forfeitures, nor any oversight of any kind of the disposition of forfeited property, with financial incentives all along the way. The Metro Gang Strike Force is a bloated, malignant example of what the civil forfeiture statutes invite, but it would be naïve to think that some of the Strike Force’s antics haven’t ever happened elsewhere. But because the statutes are so badly written — from the perspective of the public, maybe not law enforcement’s — we’ll probably never know.

In the final installment in this series, probably Friday or over the weekend, we’ll discuss the case of suburban mom Kristin Brown and her Jeep Grand Cherokee that the Edina police wanted.

No comments: