Monday, April 12, 2010

Policing For Profit - A Practice In Need of Many Changes

In the first-of-a-kind report, law enforcement agencies across the country are raking in hundreds of millions of dollars by seizing property - even though quite often an individual is not even charged with a crime. The report from the Institute For Justice is here. And on a grading scale from A to D, Tennessee gets a D.

From their report:

And considering law enforcement officials in most states don’t report the value of what they collect or how that bounty is spent, the issue raises serious questions about both government transparency and accountability.

Under state and federal civil asset forfeiture laws, law enforcement agencies can seize and keep property suspected of involvement in criminal activity. Unlike criminal asset forfeiture, however, with civil forfeiture, a property owner need not be found guilty of a crime—or even charged—to permanently lose her cash, car, home or other property."
Federal forfeiture law makes the problem worse with so-called “equitable sharing.” Under these arrangements, state and local officials can hand over forfeiture prosecutions to the federal government and then receive up to 80 percent of the proceeds—even when state law bans or limits the profit incentive. Equitable sharing payments to states have nearly doubled from 2000 to 2008, from a little more than $200 million to $400 million."

"For example, in 2008, for the first time in its history, the Department of Justice’s forfeiture fund topped $1 billion in assets taken from property owners and now available to law enforcement. State data reveal that state and local law enforcement also use forfeiture extensively: From 2001 to 2002, currency forfeitures alone in just nine states totaled more than $70 million. Considering this measure excludes cars and other forfeited property as well as forfeiture estimates from many states for which data were unreliable or that did not make data available for those years, this already-large figure represents just the tip of the forfeiture iceberg.

The report from the Institute offers some common sense guidelines for change:

The Institute for Justice recommends that, first, law enforcement should be required to convict people before taking their property. Law enforcement agencies could still prosecute criminals and forfeit their ill-gotten possessions—but the rights of innocent property owners would be protected. Second, police and prosecutors shouldn’t be paid on commission. To end the perverse profit incentive, forfeiture revenue must be placed in a neutral fund, like a state’s general fund. It should also be tracked and reported so law enforcement is held publicly accountable. Finally, equitable sharing must be abolished to ensure that when states act to limit forfeiture abuse, law enforcement cannot evade the new rules and continue pocketing forfeiture money."

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