As Maryland law enforcement agencies rake in millions seized in drug cases, is justice being served?
On the streets, where illegal drugs are still easy to get at affordable prices, Maryland police chiefs are losing the decades-long drug war. But many departments have come to depend on drug raids to increase their operating budgets. While the drug trade still enriches the bad guys, police chiefs now also get a piece of the action.
Many states, wary of overzealous police departments, require that the proceeds from seized assets be used for education or other non-police purposes. But the 1984 federal Comprehensive Crime Control Act, a turning point in America's war on drugs, is a way to get around these state laws. It allows state and local police departments, working with U.S. agents, to "federalize" money and property seized during local drug raids. The federal government gets at least 20 percent of the seized assets, giving back up to 80 percent - now exempt from state law - to state and local police agencies.
One might assume that the filing of criminal charges would necessarily precede the seizure of property - but shockingly, this is not the case. For example, a motel may be seized because drugs were traded on the premises despite the owners' extensive efforts to prevent such activity; or cash may be seized, only to be returned years later after the owner is forced into a long and costly legal battle.
According to U.S. Justice Department figures, the amount going to Maryland law enforcement agencies shot up from $3.9 million in 2000 to $8.2 million in 2007. Nationally, state and local agencies collected $416 million in 2007, up from $212 million in 2000. Drug-raid income in 2007 totaled $1.8 million for the Baltimore Police Department, up from $522,000 in 2000. In the wake of recent funding cuts, it will be tempting for the department to look to drug-raid money as a way to plug holes in the budget.
One study reports that 40 percent of the nation's local police agencies are dependent on seized assets as a necessary budgetary supplement. Why is this bad news?
First, years ago, the primary reason police seized assets was to break up illegal drug supply lines. Today, however, that goal has been conflated with budgetary considerations that should not be driving decisions about the deployment of police resources.
Second, as a department's use of this independent source of funding grows, its dependence on, and accountability to, the taxpayers goes down.
Third, if a department's prestige depends in part on how much is seized each year, this gives police chiefs an incentive to push their officers to become more aggressive during raids, make unnecessary raids and cut legal corners.
Here is an extreme example of how a thirst for such funds can pervert law enforcement. Some years ago, Donald Scott owned a valuable 200-acre ranch in Malibu, Calif. One morning, 30 agents, led by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, conducted a raid based on faulty rumors that Mr. Scott was growing marijuana plants. During the raid, Mr. Scott was shot and killed by sheriff's deputies. A Ventura County district attorney's report on the raid concluded, "The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department was motivated, at least in part, by a desire to seize and forfeit the ranch for the government."
It is time for federal and state legislators to shut down the conflict-of-interest loophole that allows police departments to profit from their official duties - at times, at the expense of the citizens they are hired to protect.
Ronald Fraser writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.