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Bad Cop Blotter

Legalising Pot Makes Police Departments Poorer

More relaxed drug laws mean fewer raids, fewer seizures and smaller budgets for the cops.

Washington state cops may have to deal with budget cuts thanks to marijuana legalisation. Photo via Flickr user olycopwatchphoto

According to a January 9 Wall Street Journal article, the legalisation of marijuana in Washington and Colorado may mean that cops have less money to play with. When weed was illegal, police departments could cash in via civil asset forfeiture – they’d raid grow operations and dealers and seize cash and other kinds of property. Those seizures provided both a financial incentive to prioritise drug crimes and a financial perk for departments. Now, presumably, there will be fewer marijuana raids, thus less money for the cops. Washington state hasn’t earmarked any of the tax revenue soon to be coming in from the legal weed market to go to law enforcement, and Colorado may send some of their new dollars towards the cops, but not necessarily – in both states, millions of dollars normally spent on law enforcement may disappear as a consequence of the end of prohibition.


The specifics of forfeiture laws vary from state to state, but generally speaking police can take large amounts of cash (often anything over $10,000) from defendants based only on the suspicion that a big chunk of currency found during, say, a traffic stop, might be drug profits. It can also be chillingly easy for cops to take your property through asset forfeiture if a family member you live with is dealing drugs. The Department of Justice is generally very generous about sharing funds – as long as there’s tangential federal involvement in a case, the Feds take 20 percent of the assets forfeited and the rest goes to the local cops – so police departments are strongly encouraged to go after drug dealers; not only do they get photo ops with “dope on the table”, they can keep the majority of the profits from the sale of seized homes, vehicles and property. (Not to mention that cash.) Often the onus is on the owner of the property to prove that it wasn’t involved in a crime, which can be an expensive and time-consuming endeavour.

If this sounds like bullshit, or possibly theft, or at least very bad policy, you’re not alone in thinking that. But it’s the way the law has been since the 1980s, and there hasn’t been enough of a public outcry to reform it – but as it turns out, legalising marijuana helps slow down the asset forfeiture machine as well. The WSJ piece reports that departments in Washington and Colorado may have to make cuts, particularly to multi-jurisdictional narcotics squads like the one in Snohomish County, Washington, that has raised up to $1 million in forfeiture funds in some years. (In Snohomish, they even keep some of their law enforcement vehicles on a patch of former pot-growing land that was taken in a forfeiture operation.)


There’s a long way to go before the warped incentives of asset forfeiture laws are fixed – even in Colorado and Washington, cops can go after unlicensed marijuana growers or step up their investigations into still-illicit narcotics such as heroin or cocaine. (And no doubt some departments will do just that.) Still, marijuana legalisation will have yet another benefit if it forces police departments to slim down and cut a few million dollars of drug-war fat. It could even halt the seemingly unstoppable slide towards full-on police militarisation just a bit.

On to this week’s bad cops:

-A whole pile of legal precedents say that the Fourth Amendment doesn’t mean much when it comes to international borders. So a federal judge’s January 2 ruling upholding the legitimacy of US Border Patrol agents’ search and temporary seizure of a French-American student’s laptop without reasonable suspicion in 2010 is not terribly surprising, even if it is disheartening. US District Judge Edward Korman agreed with the government’s arguments and dismissed Pascal Abidor’s lawsuit, which was filed with the National Press Photographer’s Association and backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Abidor argued that when agents spent three hours searching his laptop – they also handcuffed and detained him at the border – that constituted a chilling effect on his free speech. (Abidor, whose laptop was returned after 11 days, had been working on a project involving Shiite Muslims.) Judge Korman said that the plaintiffs didn’t have standing and hadn’t demonstrated that they had suffered from the search, and added that Abidor’s laptop was also searched when he travelled into Syria and Lebanon – a comparison that Americans might find a little upsetting.


-On the other hand, on January 9 a Massachusetts district court court ruled that immigrants in detention centers have some legal rights, at least when it comes to challenging their imprisonment. The lawsuit was on behalf of Mark Anthony Reid, who has legally lived in the US since he was 14 and was honourably discharged from the Army Reserves, but spent more than a year in immigration lock-up limbo. Basically, now the government can’t hold folks for more than six months without a hearing to determine whether they should be there. That’s what we call a minimum-standards-of-decency victory!

-Remember Elizabeth Daly, the University of Virginia student who was accosted by agents from the state’s Alcohol Beverage Control after she purchased bottled water? Daly, 20, said that six plainclothes agents confronted her and two friends in a parking lot late one evening in April, 2013. One agent allegedly drew a gun, and another tried to break Daly’s car window as she pulled away. While attempting to flee what she thought was some bizarre mugging, Daly grazed two agents with her car, which lead to her being arrested and jailed for 36 hours. The felony assault charges against her were dropped, but Daly has decided to file a claim against the state for unspecified damages based on the incident. The ABC has reportedly instituted some changes in tactics in response to Daly’s alarming treatment.

-Chicago cops got some bad press this week. First, a pair of former CPD officers who are on trial for planning to kill a strip club manager are now accused by the prosecution of planning to torture a wealthy kidnapping target. Even more alarming, more details emerged in the case of Angel Perez, an aspiring filmmaker who claims he was sexually assaulted by current Chicago cops. He hadn’t told his full story publicly before he talked to Rania Khalek for VICE, but he told her that a pair of cops raped him with a gun and forced him to become an drug informant as a result of a documentary he was making about the department.

-A Los Angeles woman who was thrown, or jumped, from an LAPD vehicle on March 17 says an officer in the car was trying to sexually assault her. Kim Nguyen, 27, who was in a medically-induced coma for six days after the incident and suffered bruises and shattered teeth, is suing the department for negligence. According to Nguyen, an LAPD officer confronted her and two friends at 2AM after they’d been drinking. She was handcuffed and taken into custody for public intoxication, but her (male) friends were not. Then, she claims, an officer touched her chest and inner thigh. She tried to move away, and then the door was opened and she fell out and onto the pavement. Surveillance footage shows Nguyen on the ground, with her dress half off. The LAPD so far has no comment.

-The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department now has a SWAT team, meaning game wardens may now look like this.

-The Good Cop of the Week award goes to Andy Blimline of the Lilburn, Georgia, police department. On January 7, a man who had wrecked his car but was due in court on a traffic citation walked 29 miles in six-degree weather. The man, identified only as James, said he was worried there would be a warrant sent out for him if he didn’t show, so he got up at 1AM and walked for eight hours to reach the courthouse, only to find that his court-appointed attorney hadn’t bothered to show up. When James left the court to start the 29-mile walk back, Blimline and some of his fellow cops pooled enough money to give the man a cab ride home instead. It’s a bummer that the man was so fearful of an arrest warrant he risked his life in such epic cold, but good on Officer Blimine and the others for making sure James got home without freezing any vital body parts off.

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