Tag Archives: asset forfeiture

Why would Columbia Police Department delay the execution of 57% of SWAT search warrants between 2007-2010?

Brennan David at the Columbia Tribune writes:

Columbia’s SWAT team served 106 narcotics search warrants between Jan. 1, 2007, and May 11, 2010. The Tribune, through an open records request, received 99 of those search warrants; the others were considered closed records for various reasons.

Of the 99 SWAT narcotics search warrants granted by the Boone County Circuit Court to Columbia police, officers executed 43 percent of them within hours of being issued. Of those, 65 percent resulted in one felony arrest, and 18 percent resulted in misdemeanor arrests.

But the percentage of warrants producing a felony arrest dropped drastically to 37.5 percent when investigators waited one day before serving the search warrant. In those cases, 50 percent produced misdemeanor arrests.

“This does not surprise me,” Dresner said. “I think the nature of drug sales is that it is a very immediate transaction. For consumers and dealers, once there is a product available, it travels fast, and sales occur very quickly.”

What isn’t being said here is very important. It’s that the police have financial incentives to delay the execution of a warrant, particularly when illicit substances are present. They’d rather serve the warrant when they might find a suspect in possession of large quantities of cash, which they can seize through a civil procedure without the trouble of obtaining a conviction. This is particularly true when cannabis exclusively is involved; it is not a dangerous substance, and complaints relating to its distribution are usually related to the amount of traffic, not the hazard of the plant itself. The proceeds of these seizures can be retained for the Columbia Police Department’s budget through a loophole that allows the federal government to appropriate these seizures and disburse cash and equipment back to the Columbia Police Department. In the last ten years, the Columbia Police Department has received roughly $210,000 from the Department of Justice’s Equitable Sharing Program, though that figure does not capture the full amount of money benefiting law enforcement free of legislative stipulation and civilian oversight. The Missouri Constitution (Article 9, Section 7) mandates the proceeds of these seizures be sent to education, but with the involvement of the federal government and the laxity of legislative oversight this constitutional requirement is circumvented with ease and negligible oversight.

In other words, the Columbia Police Department has for years been pursuing low-level crimes with SWAT raids not for the purpose of making this community safer, but for the purpose of obtaining funding for all the things their budget doesn’t give them. As the United States Appellate Court for the Fifth Circuit said in 1992:

As was obvious at the oral argument of this appeal, each member of the court was deeply disturbed by the actions of the federal and state agents in appropriating Scarabin’s money — candidly acknowledged by counsel for the DEA — actions that would have constituted illicit money laundering if perpetrated by private parties. We were even more distressed by the revelation that those activities were not merely condoned but were actively advocated and supported by officials of the DEA in positions to make and implement policy.

Money laundering indeed. I want to point out that civil forfeiture came into the law enforcement toolbox during the 1980′s, when the government started taking on the Mafia and other large, sophisticated organizations. We forgot, however, that when we went beyond the Constitutional protections against unwarranted search and seizure that our law enforcement stopped acting like law enforcement and began behaving like the criminals they sought to prosecute.

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Virginia sheriff under investigation for embezzlement from asset forfeiture funds

From WAVY in Virginia:

The Middlesex County sheriff is being investigated by police for allegedly using county and state funds for himself.

Search warrants were filed in Chesapeake court this week for a BB&T account and a Wachovia account, one belonging to the Sheriff Guy Abbott’s forfeiture account, the other to what appears to be his personal account.

“I would hate to think that people that are suppose to protect us would go ahead and do something like that,” said Middlesex County resident Dee Bookins.

Investigators searched bank statements, signature cards, deposit slips and checks dating back 10 years. They found evidence to support allegations of embezzlement and misuse of county and state funds.

Those funds were allegedly allocated for personal use by county officials, namely Abbott.

Evidence included receipts from the Middlesex County sheriff’s office asset forfeiture account and reports Abbott sent to the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services.

There were also 21 itemized Mastercard statements between 2000 and 2002.

Virginia’s forfeiture laws are pretty loose. The Institute for Justice’s recently published 50-state report on forfeiture laws awards Virginia a D- and notes that Virginia lets 100% of forfeiture proceeds directly go to law enforcement; over most of the last 15 years this has sent an average of $7.2 million to law enforcement each year. Most of this money, if not all, has negligible civilian oversight, and it is often too easy to hide money in different funds, property, and other tangible assets that directly benefit individual law enforcement officers. It’s nice when you get to use the company car; it’s sweet when your work gives you under-the-table cash bonuses, SUVs, and unregulated expense accounts if you can keep making seizures of property from people who are too poor or politically weak to defend themselves in court.

Cross-posted at Americans for Forfeiture Reform.

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Feds file civil forfeiture actions against Madoff employees

Forbes reports:

The feds have launched civil forfeiture actions seeking $5 million allegedly held by two former back-office workers at Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC. U.S. prosecutors in Manhattan say Annette Bongiorno and Joann “Jodi” Crupi both spent more than 25 years working for Bernard Madoff’s now tarnished investment firm.

Bongiorno handled BLMIS clients’ questions about their investments, and allegedly oversaw fabrication of documents like account statements and trade confirmations. The government wants her to fork over $1.1 million in accounts at mainstream banks like HSBC; the nearly $300,000 she spent on a 2005 Bentley and a 2007 Mercedes Benz; and $1.3 million that went to a swanky condo. According to court papers filed by prosecutors, Bongiorno began spending much of her time in Florida and working a heavily reduced schedule starting as early as 1995, but was still making six-figure annual salaries over the course of the firm’s last decade of existence.

Crupi was responsible for client redemptions and allegedly was involved in funneling investors’ money through a chain of bank accounts controlled by BLMIS as part of its elaborate Ponzi scheme. The feds say she’s on the hook for the $2.25 million in cash she used to purchase a home in Mantoloking, N.J., and $26,500 in rental income she’s earned after buying that property.

Here’s the problem. It clearly appears that these employees are guilty of real crimes; if Forbes is right that Bongiorno for instance oversaw the fabrication of documents, then there should be plenty of ground for criminal charges. Civil forfeiture actions are inappropriate; any restitution for the crimes should come through fines tied to a criminal sentencing for Bongiorno and Crupi.  Keep in mind that we get the same result (forfeiture of property tied to illicit income) either way.

Civil forfeiture actions are inappropriate because they presume guilt, and because they’re an easy way for prosecutors to avoid the work of actually obtaining convictions in a court of law. Civil forfeiture does not require a trial, just a civil hearing, at which the defendants have to prove the innocence of their property instead of the government proving the guilt of the defendants beyond a reasonable doubt.

Civil forfeitures sound innocuous (after all, why not just take the property implicated in illicit transactions?) but in practice is a mechanism that allows the government, on both the federal and the state levels, to just take property from people without the due process protections that a criminal trial entails. As you might guess, civil forfeiture ends up being used even when there is no actual crime alleged against a citizen and this happens a lot more than one might guess (millions of dollars of forfeitures are vested against people who are never convicted of a crime every year).

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No budget? No Problem!

Found this brochure for an asset forfeiture conference aimed at state and local law enforcement. The location of the conference is Hollywood, Florida during April 15-16 2009. The brochure advertises a variety of seminars designed to educate local law enforcement about the forfeiture process and how to turn seizeable property into money that goes to law enforcement budgets.

Most tellingly, the brochure starkly proclaims that law enforcement can become self-funding free of legislative constraints:

In last twenty years economists from Oliver Williamson to Ronald Coase famously declared “Incentives matter”. And we are learning that they do matter very much, particularly in terms of how institutions and structures function. If structures like representative democracy need clear and distinction separation of powers to function well (if at all), then they need to happen through incentive-compatible channels. Democracy itself breaks down when executive branch agencies conduct their affairs in obscure and impermeable fashions, obtain funding without regard for legislative stipulation and judicial mandate, and lose the incentives to listen to the communities that they serve.

Because when the federal government helps law enforcement pay their bills free of our consent, we lose the ability to shape the policies that guide our law enforcement. Now federal dollars incentivize law enforcement to prioritize cases and methods that result in property they can seize, rather than prosecute crimes of violence that are less lucrative. We serve search warrants on people who have never been implicated in the least hint of violence with paramilitary squads in the land where Patrick Henry once declared “Give me freedom or give me death”. In Missouri, our legislators and judges told us that crimes where fines or forfeiture happened would be prosecuted fairly and the money given to schools, to help the young do greater things that we can. This is no longer the case, and we are incalculably poorer for it.

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More forfeiture advocacy–Columbia City Council, June 7th, 2010

I spoke to the Columbia City Council last night, delving into specifics on how forfeiture money is retained by local and federal law enforcement in circumvention of of the Missouri constitution (Article IX, Section 7) and Missouri statutory law (RsMO 166-131, RsMO 166-300). Here is a link to the video; I speak at 2:27:30.

Here is the white paper I sent to the Columbia City Council last month in Microsoft Word format (*.doc). The topic is forfeiture money and how allowing law enforcement to retain the proceeds of forfeiture skews their incentive structures and disconnects law enforcement policy from voter and legislative preferences.

Addendum: here is the link to the 1990 Missouri Supreme Court opinion I cite (Reorganized School Dist. No 7 v. Douthit).

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