Asset forfeiture may be the greatest scam perpetuated on the American people by their government — and it’s all legal. For the most part, assets seized translate directly to monetary or physical gains for the agencies doing the seizing, an act often wholly separated from any American ideals of due process.

The New York Times recently obtained recording of asset forfeiture conferences which showed prosecutors advising cops on how to best exploit these programs to obtain additional funds and goods for their respective law enforcement agencies. In short, it appears that many agencies use asset forfeiture to fill departmental shopping lists, rather than as the criminal syndicate-crippling action it was intended to be.

The Washington Post has been digging into the oft-abused programs for the last six weeks. The latest article in this series comes to similar conclusions about how the programs are viewed by law enforcement agencies.

D.C. police have made plans for millions of dollars in anticipated proceeds from future civil seizures of cash and property, even though federal guidelines say “agencies may not commit” to such spending in advance, documents show.

The city’s proposed budget and financial plan for fiscal 2015 includes about $2.7 million for the District police department’s “special purpose fund” through 2018. The fund covers payments for informants and rewards.

There’s a very good reason federal guidelines prohibit the counting of chickens asset forfeiture proceeds before they’re hatched “liberated” at badgepoint by law enforcement. It helps curtail the abuse that results from perverted incentives. No one likes a budget shortfall, but very few government entities have the means to immediately impact the bottom line — at least not in the way a few uniformed officers granted the power to arbitrarily seize the possessions of others can. No proof of criminal intent is needed and, thanks to an agreement with the DOJ, 80% of what it seizes goes directly to the District’s law enforcement agencies, rather than into the District’s general fund. All it takes to divert these funds to law enforcement is the invocation of federal crimes — like drug possession.

The very convenient DOJ agreement works out incredibly well.

District financial records show that D.C. police receive about $670,000 annually from the Equitable Sharing Program. About $30,000 in proceeds from forfeitures under District law go into the general fund.

The Justice Department refused to comment on its agreement with DC law enforcement, one that sees nearly 96% of funds derived from forfeitures go directly into the PD’s pockets. DC police chief Cathy Lanier defends the program — and the pre-budgeting of anticipated seizures — as being essential to “removing the profit gained from facilitating a crime.”

But what Lanier portrays as crippling criminal enterprises appears to be equally targeted towards separating users from their next fix — or simply separating random “suspects” from whatever they happen to have in their wallets.

Since 2009, D.C. officers have made more than 12,000 seizures under city and federal laws, according to records and data obtained from the city by The Washington Post through the District’s open records law. Half of the more than $5.5 million in cash seizures were for $141 or less, with more than a thousand for less than $20.

Because the system is primed for abuse, legislation has been introduced that would overhaul the city’s asset forfeiture program, raising the threshold of proof needed to justify a seizure as well as forcing a majority of funds to be routed into the city’s general fund. Unsurprisingly, cops aren’t fans of the proposed legislation.

[T]he bill has been opposed by law enforcement officials, partly for the same reason other reform efforts across the country have been stymied: money. The officials also said it would create an administrative burden. In addition to tightening oversight and the rules for civil seizures, the District proposal would cut back on revenue.

Also unsurprisingly, officials can pinpoint the presumed revenue loss with stunning accuracy.

In a fiscal impact statement Wednesday, the city’s chief financial officer, Jeffrey S. DeWitt, said that the bill “could reduce federal resources­ received by the District by approximately $670,000” each year if the general fund provision takes effect.

Which is exactly the amount the PD receives from the Share-With-The-DOJ plan. DC’s asset forfeiture program is beyond broken. When something starts out with the goal of crippling drug kingpins and ends up as an easy way to seize a mother’s vehicle because her son was busted for misdemeanor possession while driving it, it’s blatantly obvious that the program is serving no one but its direct beneficiaries.


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