Cash Strapped PDs Tap New Source of Revenue: Stealing!

Friday, December 4th, 2009

But under the color of law, of course. All thanks to the wonderful world of asset forfeiture.

The way Krista Vaughn sees it, Wayne County fined her $1,400 even though police and prosecutors admit she broke no laws.

Vaughn, who has no criminal record, was required to pay for the return of her car, which was seized by police after they mistook Vaughn’s co-worker for a prostitute. Even though prosecutors later dropped the case, Vaughn still had to pay.

Her story is not unusual. In Wayne County, law enforcement officials regularly seize vehicles without levying charges — even in cases in which they later concede no law was broken. The agency provides perhaps the most prolific and egregious example of what critics contend is the wrongful use of laws allowing the seizure of private property.

It’s a practice that’s paying off. The Wayne County Sheriff’s Office, which helps run the prosecutor’s forfeiture unit, took in $8.69 million from civil seizures in 2007, more than four times the amount collected in 2001. The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office gets up to 27 percent of that money.

The article is part of a Detroit News series on an explosion in forfeiture cases in and around the crumbling city. From an earlier article in the series:

“We’re trying to fight crime,” said Police Chief Mike Pachla of Roseville, where the money raised from forfeitures jumped more than tenfold, from $33,890 to $393,014.

“We would be just as aggressive even if there wasn’t any money involved.”

Roseville had among the most dramatic increases over the five-year period examined by The News. But several other agencies also more than doubled their takes, including Novi, Trenton, Farmington Hills, Southfield, the Michigan State Police, Shelby Township, Livonia, Warren and Romulus.

The increase in money coming in leads to a higher percentage of the police budget being covered by seizures. In Roseville, the share of the police budget raised from forfeitures went from 0.3 percent to 4.2 percent. In Romulus, it jumped from 4.5 percent to 11.2 percent from 2003-2007, the most recent years for which comparable records were available.

I have a feature on asset forfeiture coming in the February 2010 issue of Reason. Forfeiture critics I interviewed for the article say there’s good reason to think laws that send forfeiture proceeds back to prosecutor offices may be unconstitutional. Whereas police only make the initial seizure, prosecutors actually make the policy decision of determining which cases to take. Dicta in prior U.S. Supreme Court cases indicates the Court may find due process problems with those same offices then materially benefiting from those decisions.

The Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 quelled a lot of the debate on this issue. But that law only applies to federal police agencies. Most of the more egregious forfeiture cases now happen at the state and local level.

In September I wrote a column on Alvarez v. Smith, the forfeiture case that will be decided early next year by the Supreme Court. That case is a challenge to a provision in the Illinois forfeiture laws that allow police to keep seized property a year or more before a claimant can have his day in court to get it back. This is particularly harsh on low-income people who may rely a seized car to get to work, or to shuttle kids around.

It’s worth noting that Obama’s Justice Department filed an amicus brief on behalf of the state in that case. They weren’t obligated to. Though the solicitor general’s office is charged with defending all federal laws, the law at issue in Alvarez is a state law, not a federal one. In fact, federal civil forfeiture laws are much friendlier to property owners. So you could make a decent case that the administration could have argued against the Illinois law. At the very least, it could have kept quiet. Instead, it argued that the state should retain the power to take property from people without ever charging a crime (and not necessarily kingpins—the Illinois law in question applies only to property valued at under $20,000), and keep that property for a year or more before affording the owner a chance to get it back.

Taking property from poor people without due process of law in order to enrich local police departments. Seems like the sort of thing Barack Obama might have fought to change in his days as a community organizer.

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41 Responses to “Cash Strapped PDs Tap New Source of Revenue: Stealing!”

  1. #1 |  Michael Chaney | 

    And, like most government programs, this will mainly hurt the poor who have no access to good attorneys.

  2. #2 |  John Wilburn | 

    “You have it, we want it, we’ll take it…”

    Sounds like larceny to me…

    “Government, by consent of the governed…”

  3. #3 |  Judas Peckerwood | 

    What does Michigan law say about using deadly force against armed robbers? Just curious.

  4. #4 |  jimn | 

    Here in Minnesota, our Metro Gang Strike force has been disbanded because their abuse of forfeiture. The difference is the cops took everything home for themselves instead of it going into the PD’s coffers.

    http://blogs.citypages.com/blotter/2009/08/report_rampant.php

  5. #5 |  MDGuy | 

    It’s stuff like this that leads me to fantasize about forming a clandestine organization dedicated to “engineering” outrageous asset-forfeitures and mid-night SWAT raids on selected politicians, judges, and other loud-mouths calling for MOAR DRUGWAR to get people to wake up to what’s going on. These days, it seems that a few seeds conveniently planted in the trash and an anonymous phone call from a “concerned individual” would be all it would take. We can be sure that, for awhile at least, the police won’t bother checking out who lives in the house they’re about to break into (Mayor Calvo found that out the hard way).

  6. #6 |  djm | 

    Meh. If they weren’t guilty of that crime, they were probably guilty of another one. Otherwise they wouldn’t have been arrested in the first place.

  7. #7 |  Stephen | 

    ““We would be just as aggressive even if there wasn’t any money involved.””

    Then give the money back.

  8. #8 |  Mike T | 

    They might as well just put up a public bid between the Latin Kings, Bloods, Crips and MS-13 if this is the route they’re going…

  9. #9 |  Mike T | 

    public bid to be the town PD*

  10. #10 |  Frank | 

    “Great. How do your people tell the difference between the freelance criminals and the official ones?”

    William Bear, Consulting Detective, NAC
    (The Probability Broach, L. Neil Smith)

  11. #11 |  Frank | 

    #6-8

    This is why the needle on my “give a shit” meter barely moves when I hear about cops getting shot. 95% of the cops give the other 5% a bad name.

  12. #12 |  Thomas Ptacek | 

    I have to ask: did you read the US Amicus you cited? Because you say that Illinois claims it can hold assets for over a year, but the brief says that Illinois can hold it for as little as ~50 days (if people claim their assets as quickly as possible) and for no longer than 187 days (if all time limits, both of the state and the claimants, are stretched to the maximum).

  13. #13 |  supercat | 

    //Seems like the sort of thing Barack Obama might have fought to change in his days as a community organizer.//

    Why? You don’t think community organizers have agreements with the police to make sure the police attacks are limited to people the organizers don’t like?

  14. #14 |  Steve Verdon | 

    It’s worth noting that Obama’s Justice Department….

    Change you can believe in!

  15. #15 |  Dave Krueger | 

    Asset forfeiture is just a fancy name for when the government revokes your privilege to use something you don’t own anyway. You fucking libertarians are buried so deep in your utopian fantasies of property and liberty that you have become completely disconnected from reality. You already know that the government owns all real estate, right? Officially it’s called property taxes, but everyone knows it’s really just rent that people have to pay if they want to keep using “their” land. Asset forfeiture is just a natural extension of the concept of government owning all real estate to government owning all property.

    I can’t believe anyone here is really surprised by this, but just relax. In a couple decades it will be so common that no one will even think of it as government taking someone’s personal property without cause. In fact, even suggesting that to someone will probably earn you the same eye-rolling ridicule you get now when you compare property taxes to rent.

  16. #16 |  supercat | 

    If the victim of one of these government thieves were to assault the thief and I were a juror in his trial, and if the state didn’t prevent me from finding out about the thief’s actions, I wouldn’t hesitate to acquit.

  17. #17 |  JS | 

    Dave that was brilliant! Property taxes are indeed rent for using the government’s property.

  18. #18 |  Toastrider | 

    Asset forfeiture is one of those ideas that looked really great on paper — take the criminal’s toys away from him — but in practice has gone right into the crapper. It’s one of the major issues I have with the war on frying your brain, er, drugs.

    And frankly, it would not surprise me if some enterprising folks started altering their vehicles in such a way so that if they were seized by an overzealous cop, one trigger press later and a thermite charge burns it into slag. Whoops…

    Overkill, maybe, but if I wound up with a nice Porsche I’d consider it.

  19. #19 |  RoseyGlow | 

    If true, this sounds like the way many police departments/paramilitary organizations/military departments do things in third world countries.

  20. #20 |  JThompson | 

    @Toastrider: Actually it doesn’t even look good on paper. The stated goal of asset forfeiture laws is to strip someone accused of a drug crime of all money and property to prevent them from mounting an effective defense. All that “Fair trial” stuff was getting to be way too much of a bother.

  21. #21 |  anonymous homeowner | 

    > #14 | Dave Krueger
    > You f****ing libertarians are buried so deep in your utopian fantasies
    > of property and liberty that you have become completely disconnected
    > from reality.

    Slightly off-topic, but tangentially related:

    It sounds like they may have some competition from H.O.A.s, who can foreclose on a “member’s” home “through a form of foreclosure unmediated by the courts or any local government” (aka non-judicial foreclosure), sometimes for ridiculously small amounts of money.

    Unfortunately, I’ve recently discovered that a lot of my fellow f******* libertarians approve of (link to small PDF) — or at least rationalize — this, simply because H.O.A.s are private governments (ie, they have the power of small governments, but are shielded as corporations).

    And today, I read that one H.O.A. attorney believes that homeowners “must be willing to surrender their ownership interests and be renters.

    Between the corporate-power loving capitalists and the government-power loving socialists, the future is f***ed.

  22. #22 |  Radley Balko | 

    Thomas Ptacek:

    That’s how long they can hold it before they have to give you a preliminary hearing. Much more time can pass before the actual civil trial. Three of the claimaints in the Alvarez case waited more than a year.

  23. #23 |  anonymous homeowner | 

    > Seems like the sort of thing Barack Obama might have fought
    > to change in his days as a community organizer.

    What type of things did Obama actually fight to change back in his days as a community organizer?

    Did he ever work on asset forfeiture reform?

  24. #24 |  perlhaqr | 

    anonymous homeowner: I hate HOAs as much as the next anarchist (which is why I bought a house somewhere that doesn’t have one) but I think you may have misread the intent of the last link you posted. The guy seems to be talking about people who own condos who refuse to act like owners. If you’re going to act like a renter, in a massively conjoined building, then for survival’s sake, the other people in that building have to treat you like a renter.

    If you don’t like that, don’t put yourself in a big urban box like that, or at least act like a real property owner. Or preferably, both.

  25. #25 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    It will only get worse, not better. More and more people will have their property taken from them when the state struggles with money issues.

  26. #26 |  anonymous | 

    Lots of money taken in by asset forfeiture. Just today in my neck of the woods:

    http://www.azcentral.com/community/mesa/articles/2009/12/04/20091204mr-motorcycles1205.html

  27. #27 |  Cornellian | 

    “We would be just as aggressive even if there wasn’t any money involved.”

    Great to hear it. Let’s put that proposition to the test.

  28. #28 |  Rune | 

    Sounds to me that asset forfeitures are part of the budgeting, meaning that the thugs have quotas to reach as not to go in the red. This is so fucked up.

  29. #29 |  c. well | 

    every one of you should read “serpico”. the movie is entertaining but the book is insightful. straight forward. how it is.

    police = mafia.

    things haven’t changed a bit.

    it’s just now… everyone else has been edged out the game.

  30. #30 |  c. well | 

    oh yeah…. and they can do it cause it’s on our dime. stealing straight up like this makes for a nice bonus…. but really…. we fund it.

    you must pay the gang that runs your hood or you don’t even get a second to breathe.

    own land? pay up asshole.

    would say get out of the country but where are you gonna go?

    when the world is an authoritarian state where is your exit?

    seriously.

    the government is actively consolidating power.

    DC get’s rich while you stay put.

    ever study history?

    know what feudalism means?

    if you do that sucks. cause you now we’re screwed.

    sucked then. still sucks now.

    … but what are you gonna do?

    … start a revolution?

    i know a few guys who tried that once.

    oh but wait…. i forgot they changed the rules on us. if you don’t like the US government you’re not patriotic…. and this land has a long history of burning witches.

  31. #31 |  Frank | 

    Virginia still requires all forfeitures to go to the state literacy fund. Supposedly this removes the greed, but the feds have found ways around that to let the locals get a slice of the pie.

  32. #32 |  Cynical in CA | 

    Asset forfeiture sounds like an end game to me.

    When the thin veneer erodes, society will cannibalize itself.

    Detroit and other areas disappearing from the map are a harbinger as the current trend continues.

    America is rotting from within.

  33. #33 |  Jennifer | 

    I’m not playing “blame the victim” here, but asking a sincere question: why the hell does ANY actual working productive person live in Detroit anymore? I occasionally play real-estate fantasy games: check online sites in search of properties my apartment-dwelling self could afford to buy outright with cash on hand, and if you focus exclusively on property costs I could buy a few square blocks of the city. However, Bill Gates himself could barely afford the 30 or 40 years’ back-tax bill such property would have, and anyone who lives in Detroit has to pay a special city income tax for that dubious privilege, and the city charter apparently makes it illegal for anyone with a three-digit IQ to run for office there. Didn’t the cops recently announce they would no longer investigate property crimes because they were undermanned? The only property crimes they pay attention to anymore are the ones they personally commit.

  34. #34 |  zeeba | 

    It just seems like common sense that forfeitures and fines should not be allowed to fund police, prosecutors and courts – otherwise, there’s just too much incentive to use them as a means of revenue, instead of simply maintaining public order.

  35. #35 |  JG | 

    @Jennifer: get out of your privileged and unreal middle-class existence for just a minute and trying thinking about it.

    Do you drive a $1700 car? Do you have any conception of what a piece of crap a $1700 car is? And if it was your only car and you actually needed it badly enough to try to get it back, do you really think you’d be “wealthy” enough to actually leave Detroit and possibly even less well off relatives likely depending on you? Probably not.

    Get over your own class-blinded ignorance and naivete, please. Gaining some broader experiences and thinking outside you little box of existence can be helpful for understanding the real world. It’s not all nice and pretty like yours.

  36. #36 |  ShortWoman» Blog Archive » The Shorties Saga: New Moon | 

    […] Further Regulated: “We think your passenger is a hooker so we’re taking your car… Oops we’re mistaken, you owe us $1400 to get your car […]

  37. #37 |  Toastrider | 

    Horsepuckey, JG. People have fled far worse places than Detroit, with far less than a ‘crappy car’. Would it be painful and arduous? Certainly. But if you’re not willing to pack up your marbles and leave, you might as well resign yourself to the day to day hell.

    The computer said it best: The only way to win is to /not play/.

  38. #38 |  gordy three horses | 

    make the pigs show the lomar in cort and then beat themn over the head with it.

  39. #39 |  Richard Stallman | 

    With police like this, who needs criminals? Civil forfeiture is fundamentally unjust if it can be done when the victim has not been convicted of a related crime.

  40. #40 |  Links 10/12/2009: CIsco and IBM GNU/Linux Servers | Boycott Novell | 

    […] Cash Strapped PDs Tap New Source of Revenue: Stealing! I have a feature on asset forfeiture coming in the February 2010 issue of Reason. Forfeiture critics I interviewed for the article say there’s good reason to think laws that send forfeiture proceeds back to prosecutor offices may be unconstitutional. Whereas police only make the initial seizure, prosecutors actually make the policy decision of determining which cases to take. Dicta in prior U.S. Supreme Court cases indicates the Court may find due process problems with those same offices then materially benefiting from those decisions. […]

  41. #41 |  Poetariat » Blog Archive » the year we make contact | 

    […] universe costs too much police like to record you, don’t like when you record them; they also steal from innocent people, with Obama’s support more illegal spying MPAA wants a censored internet (and spying begins in the UK), and […]

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