Sunday, May 22, 2005

Forfeiture forming the foundation for a police state

Let's look at forfeiture for a moment this afternoon. Of all the indignities perpetrated under the guise of the war on some drugs, this one is the worst. For the life of me, I'll never understand how making property guilty until it is proven innocent of being obtained by illegal profits, was judged to constitutional. Going back to Dan Forbes excellent piece, published almost three years ago to the day, this is DynCorp's role in this legalized highway robbery.
The Asset Forfeiture Black Hole

As to DynCorp's domestic drug-war boodle -- its five-year, $316 million contract helping the Department of Justice (DOJ) seize assets -- there's been little public notice of it outside National Defense magazine. DynCorp told the magazine that most of the 1,000 staffers involved in the program, funded through 2003, hold " 'secret' clearances and have been involved in more than 60,000 seizures in the United States. Among other things, they provide 'criminal-intelligence collection and analysis, forensic support and asset identification and tracking.' "

So this band of retired military honchos has 1,000 operatives with some sort of "secret" mojo, spying on the American public at the feds' behest and helping to hoover up vast sums of money in over 60,000 seizures. Assume, let's say, a modest $3 return for every dollar that the DOJ -- which, with 385 different sites, blankets the country with these folks -- invests. That's nearly $1 billion right there for everything from radios to shiny new patrol cars.

With their eyes on the prize, cops declare fancy cars "guilty" because someone's son smokes a joint in one. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, "In 80 percent of forfeitures, in fact, charges never are filed." The paper put the total value of assets seized since 1985 by all levels of government at more than $7 billion. It's easy, when safeguards we take for granted in criminal proceedings are reversed: current law presumes that the property is guilty, and owners have to spend time and money proving that "it" wasn't involved in a crime.

The fact of the matter is, many innocent people lose their property because they aren't drug dealers with scads of money and the cost of fighting the forfeiture - thousands of dollars in legal fees - is greater than the value of the seized item.
Yet all those small items can be sold by law enforcement and as you see, along with seized cash, it adds up giving the police every incentive to seize under the flimsiest of excuses.

Now let's forward to last week. The Seattle Times reports on how every podunk police department in America is making millions on this scheme.

With the DEA's (and DynCorp consultant's) help, "small towns suffering from dwindling populations and shrinking tax bases have confiscated millions of dollars by forming highway-interdiction units." The DEA tells them how to link the forfeiture to drug money and they get to keep 80% of the haul. If they figure it out without the DEA's help, they get to keep it all.
Once barely able to buy police cars, towns along major thoroughfares used to transport drugs and cash are building new police stations and equipping officers with bulletproof vests as they patrol streets in sport-utility vehicles.
It works like this.
A police officer, aided by a drug-sniffing German shepherd named Bella, parks his cruiser on the side of the expressway three or four days a week, looking for any vehicle that seems suspicious — a broken taillight, an expired license plate or simply a car that changes lanes excessively.

That is all it takes to pull over someone who might be a drug courier. If the officer is lucky, he confiscates not only drugs but bundles of money.
In other words, for anything. I've blogged on one case where the officer pulled the guy over because he was driving too well. Another case cited here is a truck that pulls into a gas station at 1:30am. Need gas when you're traveling the highway? Real suspicious huh? It's a classic case of profiling for profit and they don't even bother to deny it.
Police acknowledge that, more often than not, people who are stopped are so eager to get out of town that it is unlikely they will return to go to court, not even to try to have their cars and money returned.

"When I'm out there, I'm looking for traffic violations and other things," said Officer Michael Red, who replaced Starnes in Hogansville. "If you are properly trained, you are looking for key indicators, and when the drivers get close to you, you can see it. It sticks out like a sore thumb."
And so does the inherent conflict of interest stick out like a sore thumb. A citizen should be able to the drive the highways and stop at a gas station in the middle of the night without being searched. If we can't abolish these unjust laws, then at least they should be amended to make the beneficiaries of the funds someone other than those who are doing the seizing. For instance, they could earmark the money for schools and treatment programs instead of brand new SUVs for the cops. One might suppose that they might be less zealous on these interdictions if there wasn't a fancy new ride in it for them.


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