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Bad Cop Blotter

Asset Forfeiture, the Cash Cow of the Drug War

Cops routinely seize assets—like cars, money, and even hotels—that are linked to criminal activity, even if the property owner hasn't been convicted of a crime. This leads to a dangerous system of incentives whereby cops seize property in drug busts so...

US Marshals make arrest during a 2011 operation targeting gangs in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Officers made 129 arrests and seized nearly $20,000. Photo via Flickr account for the US Marshals

During a July 9 traffic stop in Meridian, Mississippi, police found $360,000 stashed in a secret compartment in the car. Though that’s perhaps an eyebrow-raising amount of money, readers of that linked article might notice something odd—the driver was let go, but the money was kept by the cops. The unnamed individual may or may not get that cash back, but whether they’re charged with a crime is not necessarily the point. If you have a suspicious amount of cash—sometimes much less than 360 grand—the cops can seize it, and it’s on you to prove that the money isn’t connected to a crime. This is the intersection of civil law’s low burden of proof for prosecutors and criminal law’s aggressive reach. And it’s done a lot to fund bad police policies.


One example of cops using asset forfeiture aggressively comes from a report by a Fitchburg, Massachusetts, newspaper on local motel owner Russell Caswell, who battled the government for three years over his right to keep his own motel. Authorities made 15 drug busts there between 1994 and 2008, but Caswell was never charged with any crimes. Having successfully managed to keep his property, Caswell now intends to lobby for changes in the civil asset forfeiture laws that brought him dangerously close to losing his livelihood.

Although state laws regarding asset forfeiture vary, thanks to the practice known as “equitable sharing” local and state police keep up to 80 percent of the profits from selling off the property they seize from criminals, as long as federal law enforcement is involved in the case, however tangentially. And in civil forfeiture cases, like that of Caswell, the owner of the property’s guilt is not the issue debated—if the property was used for crimes, it can be seized. The Justice Department’s asset forfeiture fund was at $1.8 billion in 2011, and it gave away nearly half a billion dollars to local police departments. If the law changed, a lot of that money would disappear, and we all know how much government agencies cling to money.

With rewards like that, who wouldn’t prioritize drug crime, when that’s the only kind of investigation that will bring in new patrol cars and help maintain expensive SWAT teams? You could use that money to buy football tickets and home furnishings, as a district attorney in Georgia did. Cops in Pittsburgh bought $10,000 worth of Gatorade, officers in Bal Harbor, Florida, took trips to LA and Vegas and rented luxury cars, and other DAs and police chiefs have bought everything from tanning salons to booze for parties.


Such headline-ready corruption sticks out, but those examples aren’t the biggest issue with asset forfeiture laws in the US. The system is an endless feedback loop of drug busts that result in seized property leading to more more funding for fancy cop gear that is used most often for drug busts. These absurd policies that incentivize police to prioritize drug arrests because that's where the money is have got to end.

Now on to this week’s bad cop stories:

- Authorities haven’t released a lot of detail related to July 10 raids on several homes in Dayton, Ohio, because they say the warrant is sealed. What is known is that the Ohio Organized Crime task force —which included FBI and SWAT officers—raided the wrong house on that day. Three residents who had moved in the week before were cuffed, and an unnamed man reported that he woke up that morning with a gun to his head. They’re waiting for an apology that has yet to arrive.

- On Tuesday, a US Park Police SWAT team raided the Fairfax County, Virginia, home of libertarian activist Adam Kokesh, looking for an unspecified weapon. The charges against Kokesh currently relate only to his possession of ‘shrooms while in possession of a gun, but the catalyst for the raid was clearly a video Kokesh made which appears to show him loading a shotgun near the Capitol on July 4. (Kokesh had previously been planning an armed protest march on DC for that day.) Kokesh’s roommates say the cops used too much force and disorienting flashbang grenades—you’d think that if Kokesh was that crazy and dangerous, the cops would have arrested him on the street, as they have before, rather than engaging in a risky SWAT raid.


- In February 2012, 28-year-old Dustin Theoharis was shot 16 times by cops in Washington state because they thought, wrongly, that he was the parole violator they were looking for. Now, having just finished his 12th surgery, and facing injuries that will affect him for the rest of his life, Theoharis is suing the Washington Department of Corrections for $20 million (King County has offered to settle with him for $3 million). The DOC, for its part, still claims that its officer “used appropriate force and followed the proper procedures in a dangerous situation” while shooting the wrong guy more than a dozen times.

- Former Minneapolis SWAT team leader and police sergeant David Clifford was sentenced to three and a half years in prison Thursday over an April assault on a bar patron that left the other man needing three brain surgeries.

- Michigan police raided a medical marijuana “service center” called Hydro World twice in seven days earlier this month. No charges have been filed against owner Danny Trevino, who said he would fight them if they appear.

- A Crestview, Florida, SWAT team thought it prudent and not at all risky to serve a drug warrant at 3:30 AM on Tuesday, in a house that contained a child. Three people were arrested on meth charges, and the child was removed.

- The NYPD had the self-awareness to blanch over reports from the past few months that one of its cruisers was spotted blaring Darth Vader’s theme from Star Wars.

- Our good Cops of the Week story: In 1970, Angela Basore, then four years old, was rescued from a house fire in Orange County, California, along with her two siblings by police officers Harlan Lambert and Jack Jakobsen. This week Basore finally met and thanked those men in person after contacting them through Facebook. Lambert, who was the first black police officer in Orange County, said he “cried like a baby” when he saw Basore’s first message. It’s pretty much impossible to snark about that.

Lucy Steigerwald is a freelance writer and photographer. Read her blog here and follow her on Twitter: @lucystag

Previously: The Police Can Legally Kick You out of Your Home