JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (May 22, 2018) – Missouri police departments do an end-run around strict state asset forfeiture requirements and skim millions of dollars from Missouri schools using a federal loophole to circumvent state law.
Missouri has some of the most strict asset forfeiture laws in the country. Prosecutors must get a conviction or a guilty plea before they can proceed with asset forfeiture, and all forfeiture proceeds must go the state’s public education fund.
But according to the ACLU, of the $19 million in cash and property seized by Missouri law enforcement since 2015, only $340,000 made its way into school funds. In 2016, law enforcement agencies only sent $100,000 to public schools, even though seized $6.3 million worth of property.
So, how are Missouri law enforcement agencies skirting state law and pocketing millions in cash?
A federal program known as “Equitable Sharing” allows prosecutors to bypass more stringent state asset forfeiture laws by simply passing cases off to the federal government. Using a process known as “adoption,” state and local law enforcement agencies circumvent more strict state forfeiture laws by claiming cases are federal in nature. Under these arrangements, state officials simply hand cases over to a federal agency, participate in the case, and then receive up to 80 percent of the proceeds.
According to the ACLU, Missouri state and local law enforcement “have eagerly taken advantage of” equitable sharing.
“This program effectively allows the federal government to collude with state law enforcement to evade the clear intention of Missouri’s civil asset forfeiture law. An option much more enticing than transferring all forfeiture funds to public schools.”
Until recently, California faced this same situation. The state has some of the strongest state-level restrictions on civil asset forfeiture in the country, but state and local police were circumventing the state process by passing cases to the feds. According to a report by the Institute for Justice, Policing for Profit, California ranked as the worst offender of all states in the country between 2000 and 2013. In other words, California law enforcement was passing off a lot of cases to the feds and collecting the loot. The state closed the loophole in 2016.
Earlier this year, Rep. Shamed Dogan (R-St. Louis) filed House Bill 15207 (HB5207) to close this loophole. The legislation would have prohibited Missouri law enforcement agencies or prosecutors from entering into agreements to transfer property seized through asset forfeiture to a federal agency unless it included more than $50,000 in cash. HB5207 overwhelmingly passed two House committees, but Republican leadership never brought the bill to the House floor for a vote.
The ACLU called Missouri law enforcement’s intentional policy of skirting state law “corruption” and called on the state legislature to pass reforms.
“Without this level of reform, police are being given the permission to continue the perverse practice of policing for profit. This is not crime-stopping law enforcement. It’s corruption, plain and simple.”
The federal government encourages this behavior. A policy directive issued last July by Attorney General Jeff Sessions for the Department of Justice (DOJ) reiterates full support for the equitable sharing program, directs federal law enforcement agencies to aggressively utilize it, and sets the stage to expand it in the future.
As the Tenth Amendment Center previously reported the federal government inserted itself into the asset forfeiture debate in California. The feds clearly want the policy to continue.
We can only guess. But perhaps the feds recognize paying state and local police agencies directly in cash for handling their enforcement would reveal their weakness. After all, the federal government would find it nearly impossible to prosecute its unconstitutional “War on Drugs” without state and local assistance. Asset forfeiture “equitable sharing” provides a pipeline the feds use to incentivize state and local police to serve as de facto arms of the federal government by funneling billions of dollars into their budgets.