POLITICS

Police In Mississippi Town Buy New Station, Cruisers With Funds From Aggressive Civil Forfeiture Program

05/19/2015 05:41 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2015
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The sign outside a new, $4.1 million law enforcement training facility in Richland, Mississippi, reads, "Richland Police Station tearfully donated by drug dealers." As Watchdog.org reported on Monday, it's a proud declaration of the fact that funding for the building, as well as for a new fleet of Dodge Charger police cruisers, came entirely from a civil asset forfeiture program used by police in this town of about 7,000 people.

But the sign also suggests a certain blitheness in the face of strong public criticism of civil asset forfeiture -- the legal tool that allows police to violate due process and property rights and treat anyone caught in their net like a drug dealer to be relieved of their money, even when there's no evidence of criminal activity.

Civil asset forfeiture is a process by which police can seize property they suspect is related to criminal activity. Police don't charge the owner of that property with a crime, and the mere existence of cash, for example, is often enough for an officer to decide he or she has "probable cause" to make a seizure. The charges are filed against the property itself, which can also include jewelry, cars or houses. The property can then be sold, with part of the proceeds flowing back to the department that made the seizure.

At that point, the burden of proof is typically flipped onto the owner, who often has to wage a costly legal battle to prove that he or she obtained the property legally in the first place. In effect, the property, and by extension the owner, is considered guilty until proven innocent.

As a result, countless numbers of innocent people have ended up "tearfully donating" their money to law enforcement, alongside those who were actually drug dealers, but were never charged with any drug crimes. A 2014 series in The Washington Post showed that since 2001, U.S. law enforcement has seized at least $2.5 billion in cash alone -- all from people who were never charged with a crime, and all without a warrant being issued. Included in this have been numerous instances of police seizing relatively small amounts of cash, as well as taking money from people who had documents proving their money came from legitimate sources. Last month, Drug Enforcement Administration agents used this tool to seize $16,000 from an aspiring music video producer riding a train through Albuquerque, New Mexico, on his way to start a career in Hollywood. The seized money represented his entire life savings. The producer is now contesting that seizure in court.

Richland Mayor Mark Scarborough is a major supporter of the drug interdiction efforts that have promoted civil asset forfeiture in the city since 2006. He and police Chief WR “Russel” James characterized the program to Watchdog as an important tool in fighting the drug trade that flows through Richland on Interstate 20. They claimed civil forfeiture creates a revenue stream that saves taxpayer dollars by filling the city's coffers with seized drug money. The $1 million down payment recently paid for the new police station came from this pool of money.

Watchdog -- a project of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which Media Matters describes as a conservative news organization -- reported Monday that Richland's four-officer interdiction team seized $1.2 million in cash and property in 2013 and $506,400 in 2014, leaving the city's civil forfeiture account at more than $2.3 million. Proceeds are split with a neighboring police department and the local district attorney.

As examples of the program's effectiveness, Scarborough pointed Watchdog to a $485,000 cash seizure made shortly after the program launched in 2006. While it's not hard to understand why that much cash would have raised suspicion, many cases of civil asset forfeiture are far less straightforward.

Mississippi law doesn't require police to collect or report data on forfeiture use or proceeds, so it's hard to know specifically which seizures made in Richland may have been controversial or contested in court. It's possible that the town's officers were remarkably successful at picking out drug dealers instead of innocent civilians. The problem with the state law and civil asset forfeiture more generally, critics say, is that it doesn't actually require officers to differentiate between the two.

Mississippi's civil asset forfeiture laws earned a D-plus grade from the Institute for Justice, a libertarian group that focuses on civil liberties.

"The state only needs to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the property is related to a crime and thus forfeitable, a standard lower than the beyond a reasonable doubt required for a criminal conviction," the group writes in an explanation of the grade.

The Institute for Justice also points to a key problem underscored in the Watchdog report: There's a clear profit motive for police in Richland and across Mississippi to prioritize civil asset forfeiture as a way to directly benefit their departments. If police want new equipment or expensive new resources and can't get the local government to write these costs into the budget, officers can simply seize more property in order to come up with the funds.

This dynamic presents a perverse set of incentives that opens the door for abuse. A recent report on civil asset forfeiture in California published by the Drug Policy Alliance found evidence of police departments supplanting their budgets with forfeiture revenue -- a federally prohibited practice in which cities cut law enforcement budgets with the understanding that police will fill these gaps with revenue from seizures. DPA also found instances of departments in California budgeting future forfeiture revenue, another federally prohibited practice that effectively forces police to pursue seizures in order to pay for the items on their budget.

These practices can lead departments to prioritize civil forfeiture over general public safety concerns, often employing methods that end up targeting people who are vulnerable and less likely to have the means to contest a seizure.

Lee McGrath, legislative counsel for the Institute for Justice, expressed concern that Richland could be headed in this direction.

"Police here have clearly distorted their priorities and are seizing property to fund buildings and other amenities," McGrath told The Huffington Post. "The real question is, are they engaged in policing for profit or the neutral administration of justice?"

There has been some bipartisan movement in favor of civil asset forfeiture reform at the national level, though in recent months the most effective changes have been happening at the state level.

A law passed in Montana earlier this month increased protections for property owners, though it failed to close a loophole that allows police in the state to circumvent state laws in any case conducted in cooperation with federal authorities.

In New Mexico, a new law set to go into effect in July will completely overhaul the system of incentives for civil asset forfeiture by funneling proceeds into a general fund, instead of to the department that makes the seizure. The law also explicitly prohibits local authorities from circumventing state laws by seeking federal forfeiture.

A number of other states have also considered efforts to reform civil asset forfeiture this legislative session. Mississippi is not among them.

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