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This Week In Innocence

Radley Balko   |   October 25, 2013   12:13 PM ET

Two Washington state men will get $10.5 million after spending 17 years in prison for a rape they didn't commit.

It's easy to dismiss these exoneration stories as the product of an imperfect system that sometimes makes mistakes. But read past the headline, and you'll see that they're often less the result of miscues by well-intentioned public servants, but the predictable results of willfull misconduct, and a criminal justice system that won't hold bad actors accountable.

In this case, the convictions of Larry Davis and Alan Northrop were largely the work of Det. Don Slagle, who not only pursued them on flimsy evidence while ignoring other leads, but failed to disclose the possibility of other suspects to defense attorneys. Det. Slagle also had a history. And Clark County, Washington, had a history of ignoring that history.

Slagle has a long disciplinary record, including 11 sustained findings for a variety of constitutional and policy violations, including excessive use of force, abuse of authority and dereliction of duty.

In 2006, he was found unfit for duty — the second time in his career — and was allowed to retire with his full pension of $3,639.45 a month.

He also spent several years as the entry man on the SWAT team. Naturally. Despite Slagle's history, the fact that he had withheld exculpatory evidence and the DNA tests, the county still fought in court to avoid awarding Davis and Northrop any compensation. Why? A county prosecutor argued in court that "just because the DNA did not match does not mean Northrop and Davis did not commit the crime." Right. Let a criminal suspect try to make the reverse argument. See what happens.

The county will need to borrow money to pay the settlement, which of course will be footed by taxpayers. Slagle won't pay a dime. Instead, taxpayers will continue to pay for his pension and retirement benefits.

When you see a story like this, it's also important to remember that the percentage of cases for which DNA testing is dispositive of guilt is very small. But the problems that led to these wrongful convictions -- in this case, for example, looking the other way as a bad cop is cited for misconduct 11 times -- are systemic. They're corrupting all cases, not just those with DNA.

Put another way, the fact that we now have advanced DNA testing doesn't mean we can assume that we've stopped convicting innocent people.

But For Video: Philly Cop Dismissed For Being 'A Freaking A-Hole'

Radley Balko   |   October 23, 2013    2:31 PM ET

Chalk another one up to the power of social media and personal technology.

Officer Philip Nace . . . is perhaps the first Philly lawman to get benched for what a police spokesman described simply as "idiotic behavior." . . .

"Nace is nasty," said Louis Goode, 55, who has lived on the corner of Park Avenue and Auburn Street for 30 years. "It's like he wakes up on the wrong side of the bed every morning."

Goode lives on the same corner where Nace was recently recorded knocking down a basketball hoop and telling the guys with the ball to "have a good day" as he drives away in a police van. "Jesus loves you," Nace's partner yells out the window.

It apparently wasn't the first time Nace toppled the $450 adjustable hoop, which is now broken.

"He comes out here and harasses people all the time. . . . Nace is a bully," said the 21-year-old who shot the video. He asked that his name not be printed because he's afraid Nace would retaliate. He said Nace had previously banged his head against a truck . . .

Last week, the Daily News reported that Nace was under investigation after he appeared in a YouTube stop-and-frisk video that featured him berating two pedestrians, telling one man he would "split your wig open" and calling the other a "f---ing dirty ass."

"We don't want you here, anyway. All you do is weaken the f---ing country," Nace says in the video. "How do I weaken the country? By working?" the man asked. "No, freeloading," Nace said. When the man said he's a server at a country club, Nace responded, "Serving weed?"

Neither man was charged with a crime, police confirmed yesterday. Both were released following Nace's profanity-laced tirade.

The article ticks off several other incidents, many of them also including Nace's partner, who as far as I can tell has not been dismissed. It's worth noting here that there had already been a number of complaints against Nace. They weren't sustained. It wasn't until video of his bullying went viral that the Philadelphia Police Department took action.

That's a good argument for making sure it always remains legal for citizens to record on-duty cops. But it also raises some other questions. First, why didn't internal affairs take the prior complaints against Nace seriously? How many other Philly cops continue to get away with this sort of conduct? And how many complaints against an individual officer are necessary before internal affairs will stop reflexively taking the officer at his word, and start to suspect that there's a problem?

Daughter's Heroin Habit Moves Wisconsin Lawmaker To Sponsor Good Samaritan Law

Radley Balko   |   October 22, 2013    5:52 PM ET

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has the story of Wisconsin Republican state Rep. John Nygren, who is sponsoring a series of bills aimed at addressing and minimizing the damage from heroin overdoses. Two of the policies he's pushing are somewhat controversial. The first would offer limited immunity for people who call 911 or bring overdose patients to an emergency room. The sensible theory behind the policy is that people are reluctant to report overdoses if doing so could subject them to criminal charges. The other would expand those with access to Narcan, a medication that reverses the effects of an overdose.

Nygren is sponsoring these laws after confronting his daughter's heroin habit, and her near fatal overdose in 2009. Unfortunately, that sort of brush with the drug war's collateral damage is sometimes what it takes to make politicians see the light. But good on Nygen for coming around.

The Good Samaritan policy is understandably controversial, although it's certainly a sound approach. You're sacrificing a possible low-level drug prosecution in order to save a life. You'd think that even an ardent drug warrior would find that to be a satisfactory trade.

Or perhaps not. Some drug policies over the years have reflected more of a "better dead than high" approach to addiction. Consider the Narcan policy. If there's a medication out there that can prevent heroin overdose deaths, you'd think policymakers would want it distributed far and wide. But that hasn't been the case. There's a history here in which both the federal government and state governments have tried to restrict Narcan's availability. Consider this quote from Dr. Bertha Madras, deputy director of the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy during the George W. Bush administration.

"Sometimes having an overdose, being in an emergency room, having that contact with a health care professional is enough to make a person snap into the reality of the situation and snap into having someone give them services."

In other words, withholding lifesaving medication from overdose patients may be just what addicts need to kick the habit for good. Yes, it could also kill them. But at least at that point, they'll no longer be getting high.

Asset Forfeiture Madness In Atlanta

Radley Balko   |   October 17, 2013   11:56 AM ET

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution looked into how law enforcement offices in Fulton County, Georgia, are spending money from their asset forfeiture funds. The results:

The Fulton District Attorney's Office under-counted how much state forfeiture money it spent on galas, dinners, back rent and other bills by some $19,000, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.

These additional expenditures, made in 2011, included $10,000 for past-due rent on a community prosecution office; $1,500 for a Buckhead charity gala; and $1,000 for a deposit on the annual office gala at Park Tavern in Atlanta's Piedmont Park.

More than $5,100 went to Bennie's Red Barn, a Saint Simon's Island restaurant, for a dinner with staffers and their families. The bill included 33 children's meals at $270 and $1,600 worth of rib eye steaks.

The new disclosure adds to the tens of thousands of dollars worth of questionable state forfeiture fund expenditures uncovered in a June AJC investigation. The story led to an ongoing inquiry by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

A county audit had already found that the office of Fulton County D.A. Paul Howard was spending forfeiture money illegally, including paying for members of his office's "Junior DA" program for kids to attend celebrity basketball tournaments and field trips to visit with Nancy Grace. Howard merely stated that he "disagreed" with the findings, and would continue spending the money as he pleased.

In other asset forfeiture news, my colleague Matt Sledge has an excellent summary of Kaley v. U.S., in which the U.S. Supreme Court will decide if before a criminal case the government can seize all of a defendant's assets, rendering him unable to pay for an adequate defense. The government is of course already at a huge advantage in any criminal case. A felony trial can push even a wealthy defendant into bankruptcy. And though you're supposed to get compensated for your legal expenses if you're acquitted, that doesn't usually happen. Apparently all of those advantages aren't enough. They want to make sure you're broke from the very start.

Drug War Roundup

Radley Balko   |   October 15, 2013    5:11 PM ET

Here are some recent headlines from the war on drugs:

-- The Denver city council is doing its best to reverse the state ballot measure that legalized marijuana.

-- Mexico City moves toward legalizing pot.

-- Texas!

-- Idaho police seem to think having Washington state license plates are probably cause that you're into the marijuana.

-- Riverside, Calif. police trick an autistic teen into purchasing some pot, then arrest him.

-- Number 33.

-- "Reverse stings" bring would-be cocaine purchasers Sunrise, Florida. Police then takes their stuff. The town has made millions.

Utah Won't Disclose Records On Police Militarization

Radley Balko   |   October 11, 2013    3:10 PM ET

One of the main forces behind the mass militarization of America's police officers has been the Pentagon's 1033 and 1122 programs, which makes surplus military equipment -- think guns, tanks, helicopters, grenade launchers, etc. -- available to police agencies across the country for almost nothing. (Usually, they pay only the cost of shipping.) As I reported last spring, the ACLU is currently engaged in a nationwide effort to collect information about how this equipment is being used.

In Utah, Connor Boyack of the libertarian-leaning Libertas Institute recently filed a state open records request with the Utah Department of Administrative Services. (Possibly the most bureaucratically-named agency ever.) Boyack wanted information on how Utah police agencies are using the 1033 program, and what sorts of stuff they're getting from it. His request was rejected, under a section of Utah law that says the state can withhold records if releasing them would . . .

(11) . . . jeopardize the life or safety of an individual;
(12) . . . jeopardize the security of governmental property, governmental programs, or governmental recordkeeping systems from damage, theft, or other appropriation or use contrary to law or public policy;
(13) . . . would jeopardize the security or safety of a correctional facility, or records relating to incarceration, treatment, probation, or parole, that would interfere with the control and supervision of an offender's incarceration, treatment, probation, or parole;

You can read the response here.

So basically, Utah's Department of Administrative Services has decided that merely letting Utahns know what kind of war gear the Pentagon is giving to the state's police agencies could jeopardize the lives of police officers. So they've decided they get to keep that information secret.

Boyack says he plans to appeal. I'll have much more about police reform in Utah in an upcoming series for HuffPost.

HuffPost writer and investigative reporter Radley Balko is author of the new book, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces.

Drug War Roundup

Radley Balko   |   October 7, 2013   11:22 AM ET

Here are a few drug war stories from the last couple weeks that you may have missed:

-- We're still losing. A study in the journal BMJ Open finds that illicit drugs are getting cheaper, while also growing increasingly pure and potent.

-- TSA may soon allow you to take marijuana aboard a plane, so long as your flight begins and ends in states where the drug is legal.

-- Colorado, Washington governors urge federal regulators to give marijuana businesses access to the country's banking system.

-- In Iowa, law enforcement officials plan to prosecute a terminal cancer patient for running a drug operation, despite all evidence pointing to him growing the drug to treat his illness.

-- From my former colleagues at Reason, a compelling new documentary on "America's Longest War."

-- The feds have shut down Silk Road, but new encrypted sites offering the same services are already up and running. The government shuts down one illicit drug market, and others spring up to compete for the new business. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Smoke A Joint, Lose Your Kids

Radley Balko   |   October 4, 2013    9:26 AM ET

You'd think that in the age of medical pot, legal pot in Colorado and Washington, and a majority of Americans in favor of legalizing the drug, we'd at least have ended the 1980s practice of snatching kids from pot-smoking parents. You'd be wrong.

The recent case of Baby Bree underscores that parents can lose custody of their children even if they legally grow and consume marijuana in their home.

A referee recently ruled that Maria and Gordon Steven Green were subjecting their six-month-old baby to possible danger because of grass.

“They were worried about the possibility of break-ins, armed robbery that kind of thing,” mother Green explains. “He (the referee) put that out as a possibility and that warranted immediate danger for the child.”

The Greens and their attorney contend they had a legal right to have the drug since she is a licensed caregiver and father Green has epilepsy, but Child Protective Service workers, charged with protecting children from abuse, saw it differently and petitioned for the right to remove the baby from the home.

In round one, the state won.

Gordon Steven Green uses the drug to treat his epilepsy and multiple sclerosis. This is certainly not the only incident.. In fact, it's not even the only recent incident in Michigan.

A California couple claims in a recent lawsuit that they lost their son for a year because the father took medically-prescribed pot for migraines he suffers after being exposed to chemicals during the Gulf War. California couple Daisy Bram and Jayme Walsh also lost custody of their kids.

An Idaho couple who advocate for marijuana legalization had their kids taken away in April. The New York Times reported in 2011 that hundreds of parents in New York state have faced child neglect charges and risked losing custody just for admitting to smoking pot, or possessing an amount too small to merit criminal charges.

The idea that foster care is preferable to otherwise loving parents who happened to grow or occasionally smoke pot is absurd, especially given the state of foster care in some places. More absurd, in a number of these cases the police found the pot after staging dangerous, highly volatile SWAT raids on the families. So the cops bust in with guns, often at night, screaming, generally scaring the hell out of everyone, and -- every once in a while -- accidentally killing someone. The same government that sent in the SWAT team then takes the kids, or charges the parents with neglect, because "marijuana puts children at risk."

I guess on some level, they're proven themselves correct.

HuffPost writer and investigative reporter Radley Balko is also the author of the new book, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces.

Another Drug War Forfeiture Outrage

Radley Balko   |   September 24, 2013    1:38 PM ET

Here's a new video from the libertarian public interest law firm, the Institute for Justice.

Combine civil asset forfeiture with the vague federal money laundering laws against "structuring," and you have a recipe for abuse.

Biden Recruited To Hand Out Free Joints

Radley Balko   |   September 23, 2013   10:03 AM ET

The Denver Westword reports that a pro-pot group fighting a new proposal to impose a 30 percent tax on the drug -- which is now legal under Colorado law -- wants Joe Biden's help.

Earlier this month, a group opposed to Proposition AA, the measure to establish tax rates on recreational marijuana sales in Colorado, staged a rally at Civic Center Park during which attendees were given free joints.

Now, that same group, No on Proposition AA, is planning a second free-joint event tomorrow on Boulder's Pearl Street Mall. And one organizer, attorney Rob Corry, has written a letter to Vice President Joe Biden inviting him to take part.

Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, are expected in Colorado Monday to survey damage from the floods that have devastated so many Front Range communities.

More at the link, including the letter Corry sent to Biden.

Glorious as it would be to see Biden outdo his Onion alter-ego, Corry's clearly trolling the veep. During his time in Congress, Biden was one of the fiercest drug warriors in Washington. Here's a not-comprehensive list of policies Biden has supported over the years that I put together in 2008 shortly after Obama chose him as his running mate:

Hate the way federal prosecutors use RICO laws to take aim at drug offenders? Thank Biden. How about the abomination that is federal asset forfeiture laws? Thank Biden. Think federal prosecutors have too much power in drug cases? Thank Biden. Think the title of a "Drug Czar" is sanctimonious and silly? Thank Biden, who helped create the position (and still considers it an accomplishment worth boasting about). Tired of the ridiculous steroids hearings in Congress? Thank Biden, who led the effort to make steroids a Schedule 3 drug, and has been among the blowhardiest of the blowhards when it comes to sports and performance enhancing drugs. Biden voted in favor of using international development aid for drug control (think plan Columbia, plan Afghanistan, and other meddling anti-drug efforts that have only fostered loathing of America, backlash, and unintended consequences). Oh, and he was also the chief sponsor of 2004′s horrendous RAVE Act.

Biden has also been a champion of the Byrne Grant and COPS programs, which as I've pointed out here, have helped proliferate the SWAT teams and other paramilitary police units that are today primarily used to serve drug warrants.

Biden has softened up in a couple areas. In 2008, he said he opposed the federal raids on medical marijuana clinics, though he still opposed legalizing the drug for medicinal purposes. (And he's part of an administration that has actually conducted more such raids than the three before it.) Just before he ran in 2008, he also sponsored a bill to remedy the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity.

But I imagine it will be a while before we see a U.S. vice president handing out joints at a pot rally.

More on the Burley Raid

Radley Balko   |   September 20, 2013   11:22 AM ET

On Wednesday, we published my report on the 2007 drug raid of Geraldine and Caroline Burley, in which a team of DEA agents and deputies from Wayne County, Michigan covered their faces and refused to reveal their identities. The women have since had difficulty with their lawsuit because for the last 6 years, none of the police agencies involved will tell them the names of the men who raided their home.

But as outrageous as the story is, there are several more details that didn't make the final edit. Among them:

-- In the affidavit for the search warrant, the affiant officer claimed that a police informant bought marijuana from someone who was in the Burley home. But the informant's statement is different. The informant only described buying marijuana in the Burleys' back yard, not from anyone who had come from inside the house. By the informant's account, there was nothing to tie the drug sale to the Burleys, other than that the man who sold the informant the drugs happened to be standing in their yard. That probably wouldn't have been enough to establish probable cause for the raid.

-- The affidavit also doesn't accurately describe the Burley home. For example, it describes the informant has having walked into the Burleys' yard, but fails to note that there's a chain link fence around the yard that the informant would have had to climb over. This is also a neighborhood where many homes look alike, and the description of the Burley home does nothing to distinguish it from the houses around it.

-- The affidavit is also nearly identical to the affidavit for the nearby home that the police searched either at the same time, or shortly after. (The house all of the officers deposed by the Burley attorneys claimed to have been searching at the time the Burleys were raided.) The only differences in the two documents are the description of the homes and the physical description of the alleged drug dealers. Other than that, the two drug transactions apparently went down in identical fashion. That's certainly possible, but it's odd that the two transactions would be described in precisely the same way, word for word.

-- Toward the end of the trial, attorneys for the Burleys asked Friedman if they could put the women on the stand to say that they had recognized the voices of the DEA agents who had testified earlier in the trial as the men who were in their home. Friedman allowed it, but he also indicated his suspicions about the questioning. He sternly warned the attorneys that he took perjury very seriously. For emphasis he added, "I'm serious, dead serious." He apparently didn't believe the women. It was on the basis of that testimony that he entered his judgment as a matter of law, dismissing the case before it could get to the jury. This is also where Friedman was overruled by the appellate court. They ruled that the credibility of the Burleys testimony on this matter should have been left to the jury to decide.

-- Friedman also referred to the voice testimony as "trial by ambush." This is the same judge who had no problem with the way the DEA agents waited until well after the statute of limitations had run to claim that they weren't the agents in the Burley home.

-- Friedman also allowed into evidence the fact that the women received Social Security disability benefits, and that Caroline Burley had once sued a hotel after falling. At the same time, he refused to allow into evidence the disciplinary records of the agents named on the DEA report, or whether any of them had been named in previous lawsuits. In other words, the jury could hear information about the two women's past that could possibly discredit them, but not any information about the pasts of the DEA agents.

-- During the trial attorney Stanley Okoli was able to get the defendants to establish that eight officers are required to properly execute a drug raid: three on the parameter, and two inside. But "Group 6" only had twelve officers. This means that when the DEA agents claimed that the group was split in two and conducted the raids on the Burley house and the nearby house simultaneously, they were admitting that they had conducted those raids in an unsafe manner. That, or they were lying about splitting up. This is the portion of the trial where Okoli says he was able to take the defense by surprise, in front of the jury. The defense will likely have an explanation in the second trial.

I'll post an update when we know the final resolution to all of this.

New Orleans Cop Gets Four Years For Fatal Drug Raid Shooting Caught On Video

Radley Balko   |   September 12, 2013   10:05 AM ET

A rare instance of accountability after a botched drug raid:

As Natasha Allen walked away from the Orleans Parish criminal courthouse Friday, 18 months after her oldest son was gunned down by a New Orleans police officer, she said that she might, finally, find some rest.

Former cop Joshua Colclough admitted Friday that he shot her unarmed son dead, during a botched drug raid that ignited racially charged tensions across the city.

He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and accepted a four-year prison sentence . . .

On March 7 of last year, Colclough was among a group of officers who raided her home on Prentiss Street in Gentilly, looking for evidence of drug dealing.

As they marched up the stairs, 20-year-old Wendell Allen appeared at the top of the staircase. He was shirtless, wearing only pants and a pair of sneakers.

He had nothing in his hands, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said Friday. He was unarmed.

But Colclough fired his weapon once. The bullet tore through Allen’s chest, into his heart and his lungs. He fell on the landing and died within seconds.

The video of the raid was just released last week. It's chilling. Note that the cops took down the door with a battering ram and stormed the place even though there were children inside. Here's a report from Fox 8 that includes the video:

I can think of only a few other cases where a police officer was held criminally liable for killing someone during a drug raid, and in those cases the police had engaged in other egregious misconduct. In the killing of Kathryn Johnston in 2006, for example, the cops had also lied on the search warrant affidavit and attempted to cover up their mistakes.

As District Attorney Leon Cannizarro explains in the clip, the pin-camera video from one of the raiding officers was critical to his decision to bring charges. Which is why, if these raids are going to continue, every one of them should be recorded in a format that cannot be altered or tampered with, and those videos should be archived and subject to open records laws.

I've been critical of Cannizarro in other contexts, so I should add that it's good to see a prosecutor impose some accountability. But let's be clear here. Throwing cops in jail for making split-second mistakes under unimaginably perilous circumstances isn't going to prevent future Wendell Allens. The problem is that bad policy keeps creating those unimaginably perilous circumstances in the first place. Over 100 times per day in America, police officers break into private homes to serve search warrants for consensual, nonviolent crimes. They aren't preventing violence, they're creating it. They aren't saving lives, they're putting lives at risk.

Until that stops, there will be more bodies.

HuffPost writer and investigative reporter Radley Balko is also the author of the new book, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces.

Philadelphia Family Loses Home Over A Single Drug Charge

Radley Balko   |   September 10, 2013    9:48 AM ET

Sam Leino was ultimately convicted on a single charge of possessing prescription drugs with intent to distribute. For that, his wife and their three children are homeless. Welcome to the wonderful world of asset forfeiture.

From the Philadelphia City Paper

The Philadelphia DA brings 300 to 600 real-estate forfeiture cases per year, and thousands of cases against small amounts of cash seized in police stops that sometimes, but not always, result in arrests — together bringing nearly $6 million into its coffers annually.

In a series of reports for City Paper [“The Cash Machine,” Nov. 29, 2012] and ProPublica, this reporter has documented how the Philadelphia DA has made civil forfeiture into a vast, unaudited revenue stream, profiting from an upside-down legal process through which the DA has the power to bleed property owners dry of financial resources and imperil homeowners with minimal or no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

Sandra Leino’s is just one of these stories — but one that casts in sharp relief the difference between the way the District Attorney’s Office describes the goals of its forfeiture programs to the public and the way those targeted by forfeiture experience it.

The Philadelphia DA characterizes its forfeiture program not as a revenue generator but as a public service: depriving criminals of the spoils of their crimes, abating “nuisance properties” that terrorize neighborhoods and, according to a recent statement, working to “establish responsible property ownership.” But Sandra Leino’s story paints a very different picture of how the DA uses forfeiture — less like a scalpel than a battering ram.

Because the owner of a piece of property -- be it land, cash, a car, or a home -- needn't even be charged to lose the property under forfeiture laws, the Leinos had already lost their home by the time Sam Leino was convicted on that single charge. (Despite the conviction, the family maintains that he possessed the drugs for personal use after an automobile accident.) In fact, the government can actually freeze your assets before any proceedings begin, making it difficult to hire legal representation for either your criminal trial, or to go to court to reclaim your property. In this case, the Philadelphia DA's office actually evicted Sandra Leino and her children from their home, rendering them homeless until a relative took them in.

The office of Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams eventually withdrew the claim on the Leino home, but only after the family had fallen behind on their mortgage payments and the bank foreclosed, meaning that the home was no longer theirs for the government to take from them.

According to the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm that has been challenging asset forfeiture laws across the country, Pennsylvania's law is among the worst in America.

Law enforcement agencies can forfeit property based on a mere “preponderance of the evidence,” which is a much less stringent standard than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard used in criminal convictions.

Plus, property owners have to prove their innocence, reversing both the burden of proof and centuries of jurisprudence. In other words, in civil forfeiture proceedings, property owners actually have fewer protections than accused criminals.

Not only that, under Pennsylvania state law, police can keep 100 percent of all proceeds seized from civil forfeiture. In fact, the Philadelphia DA has raked in more than $6 million a year in civil forfeiture proceeds.

Most of this policing for profit is from cash seizures. But “the average amount of cash seized by Philadelphia police was $550 — hardly the proceeds of a Pablo Escobar or a Walter White.” No wonder a Pennsylvania judge has lambasted civil forfeiture as “little more than state-sanctioned theft.”

That kind of perverse incentive seems like an invitation for corruption.

And wouldn't you know it . . .

Four of the police officers who surveilled and arrested Sam Leino are among a group of six narcotics officers whose credibility has been effectively dismissed by the DA’s Office itself after allegations were made in open court that they were part of a drug-dealing ring within the Philadelphia Police Department.

The DA has been systematically dropping cases brought by these officers, including about 285 prosecutions mostly related to felony drug arrests. But Sam Leino’s conviction still stands. How many times the DA’s forfeiture unit has seized property based on the testimony of these officers is not presently clear.

According to the City Paper, Leino's conviction was based on police officers who testified they "observed Sam handing over small objects in exchange for money outside the house." It isn't clear if the specific officers dismissed for corruption were the same officers who testified against Leino. But it also isn't difficult to see how a policy that basically amounts to legalized theft could quickly undermine respect for the rule of law among the public servants we ask to enforce it.

The author of the City Paper piece, Isaiah Thompson, then points to more stories from Philadelphia in an article for the Pacific Standard.

In October 2009, police raided the house and charged her son, Andrew, then 24, with selling eight packets of crack cocaine to an undercover informant. (Upon entering the house, police reported finding unused packets, though not drugs, in a rear bedroom.) Rochelle Bing was not present and was not accused of a crime. Yet she soon received a frightening letter from the Philadelphia district attorney’s office. Because Andrew had sold the drugs from inside his mother’s house, a task force of law enforcement officials moved to seize Bing’s house. They filed a court claim, quickly approved, that gave Bing just 30 days to dissuade a judge from granting “a decree of forfeiture” that would give the DA’s office title to the property. Bing was devastated.

“For me to lose my home,” she recalled recently, “for them to take that from me, knowing I had grandchildren—that would have hurt me more than anything.” And so Bing resolved to do what whatever was necessary to keep the house.

She had no idea how long and how difficult that fight would be . . .

Other similar cases reviewed by ProPublica include an elderly widow, two sisters who shared a house, a waitress and hospital worker caring for two children, and a mother of three whose family wound up homeless. All stemmed from drug charges brought against a family member.

The cost of hiring an attorney to win the money back is well over that average seizure of $550. According to Thomas, one family was forced to go to court 17 times in an effort to win their house back. Fortunately, that particular family had an attorney who had agreed to take their case for free. But that attorney also told Thomas that had he charged them his regular rate, the bill would have exceeded the value of the house. And because these are civil proceedings, in many states indigent property owners have no right to a court-appointed attorney.

All of which means there's really no recourse for most people facing forfeiture of their property. Which may be why, according to author Isaiah Thompson, of the 2,000 claims filed in the city between 2008 and 2012, only 30 saw the property returned to its owner. To be fair, in a high percentage of those cases, that may well be because the owner was indeed guilty. But most people who lose property from civil asset forfeiture are never criminally charged.

Civil asset forfeiture also provides a strong incentive to profile, pull over, and harass motorists, then violate their Fourth Amendment rights with car searches based on alerts from unreliable drug-sniffing dogs. (I've written here at HuffPost about police agencies who have used drug dog alerts to actually seize bail money brought in by the family of the accused.) It's one of the driving forces behind the mass militarization of America's police forces. It's really one of the most awful, destructive, unfair policies to be spit out by the modern drug war. And that's saying something. There's been a hell of a lot of competition.

How We Respond To Protest

Radley Balko   |   September 9, 2013    9:06 AM ET

In a post at the "Occupy Police" blog, former Madison, Wisconsin Police Chief David Couper writes . . .

Since the days of the the labor and civil rights movements and through the era of the protests against the war in Vietnam, we seem to have learned very little about the best way for government officials to respond to those who disagree with them.

This is a sad situation in a country such as ours which professes the values of freedom and justice that it does . . .

In my BOOK I talk about how police should approach and respond to these protests:

“In a democracy, police have a very complex role compared to what is expected of the police in other systems. The power of the state must be balanced with the rights of an individual; other systems have no balance requirement—only to use the power given them by the state. Uniquely, police in a democracy don’t exist solely to maintain order on behalf of the state, but also to assure that the fundamental rights guaranteed to every citizen are protected in the process. “This is never more evident as when a totalitarian state responds to public protest. In this instance, the goal of the police is to prevent or repress, not facilitate, protest. We see that in today in Syria, China, and other less-than-democratic governments. In these instances, the very act of disagreeing with the government is illegal and subject to police action . . . "

Early in my police career, I began to re-think the role of police and protest after I had witnessed and participated in too many that had gone wrong:

“I was beginning to see that proximity mattered, being close was safe—just like on the beat. Get close, talk, stay in contact. The further the police positioned themselves from people in the crowd, the greater the chance the crowd would depersonalize them; to see them as objects and not people. Therefore, getting closer to the people, whether in managing crowds or patrolling neighborhoods on foot, seemed to be a good basic strategy that needed to be experimented with”

So, that’s what I did when I came to Madison. For over 20 years, we in Madison responded to anti-war rallies, civil rights demonstrations, student block parties, and other mass gatherings without substantial incident. How did that happen? We developed what today is being called the “soft approach” (see the recent work of Dr. Clifford Stott at the University of Liverpool. What Stott and others found is that dialogue and liaison are effective police strategies in crowd situations because they allowed for an on-going risk assessment that improved command-level decision-making. Using this strategy, there was a better outcome because it also encouraged ‘self-regulation’ in the crowd and thus forestalled the use of unnecessary force by police during moments of tension.

For my own book on the rise of police militarization in America, I talked with former Washington, D.C. Police Chief Jerry Wilson, who headed the department in the early 1970s, a time that saw quite a bit of civil unrest.

Wilson believed that an intimidating police presence didn’t prevent confrontation, it invited it. That didn’t mean he didn’t prepare, but he put his riot control teams in buses, then parked the buses close by, but out of sight of protesters. Appearances were important. In general, instead of the usual brute force and reactionary policing that tended to pit cops against citizens—both criminal and otherwise—Wilson believed that cops were more effective when they were welcomed and respected in the neighborhoods they patrolled. “The use of violence,” he told Time in 1970, “is not the job of police officers.”

Go into a protest expecting confrontation, and that's what you're likely to get. As Couper indicates, the default response to protest today is overwhelming force. Consider this ostentatious police presence at one of the recent strikes by Walmart workers, in a photo posted by Twitter user @RahwaOA:


In fact, the more important the event, the more influential the people at the event, and the more far-reaching and consequential the decisions they'll be making at the event, the more likely it is that the city where the event is being held will use more force to keep protesters as far away from the decision makers as possible, where they're unlikely to be heard.

Consider the massive police presence and unconstitutional police actions at the at the 2009 G20 summit in Pittsburgh, for example. Or the crackdowns on the Occupy protests. Or at the last several major political conventions, like the 2008 RNC in Minneapolis, the 2008 DNC in Denver, or the 2012 DNC in Charlotte. A few weeks ago, a TV producer for a cable news show asked me from what movie the image on the front of my book was taken. In fact, it was taken from the 2012 RNC in Tampa, Florida.

If your politics happen to lie to the right of the typical Occupy or political convention protester, don't think it can't happen to you. In 2008, Maryland State Police paid out $385,000 for the illegal arrest of anti-abortion activists at a rally in Harford County. Or look at the the massive, violent police raid on the home of gun rights activists and anarchist rabble rouser Adam Kokesh earlier this year.

And all of this of course is precisely the opposite of how the First Amendment is supposed to operate. Of course, even the American founders wasted little time in striking at the heart of free speech, beginning with the Alien in Sedition Acts in 1798. And violent response to protest is nothing new in America, whether it's the long history of violent strikebreaking at labor protests, the televised assaults on protests at the 1968 DNC in Chicago, or the infamous National Guard massacre in 1970 at Kent State University.

But the current template for protest -- to show up in full riot gear on day one -- goes back to the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle. Initial reports suggested the protesters were violent and out of control from the start, and that the city was woefully unprepared. In truth, while the protesters did engage in civil disobedience, they were overwhelmingly nonviolent. There was some property damage, but even the vandals, looters, and anarchists never turned violent. There were no fatalities, and fewer than 100 injuries. The most serious injury was broken arm.

If anything, the city may have been over-prepared. The cops had been given hundreds of hours of training, and may have gone into the event with the mindset that violence was inevitable. A Seattle City Council investigation later found that the police who handled the event were panic-stricken from the start, and had been put on edge by exaggerated crowd estimates and unfounded rumors, such as that protesters were throwing Molotov cocktails. (This wasn't true.) In 2004 the city of Seattle paid out a financial settlement with 157 protesters who had been illegally arrested. In 2007 a federal jury found that the city had violated the Fourth Amendment rights of 170 more.

For my book, I also interviewed Norm Stamper, Seattle's police chief during the WTO protests. Stamper now calls the crackdown one of the worst mistakes of his career. “We gassed fellow Americans engaging in civil disobedience,” Stamper says. “We set a number of precedents, most of them bad. And police departments across the country learned all the wrong lessons from us. That’s disheartening. So disheartening. I mean, you look at what happened to those Occupy protesters at UC Davis, where the cop just pepper sprays them down like he’s watering a bed of flowers, and I think that we played a part in making that sort of thing so common—so easy to do now. It’s beyond cringe- worthy. I wish to hell my career had ended on a happier note.”