Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Policing for profit

Something I missed: last month, the government announced that it was allocating $6 million seized under the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act to anti-P initiatives. Almost two-thirds of the money - $3.87 million - went to police to fund further drug enforcement and seizures. As I warned when this law was introduced, this sets a very clear and dangerous incentive for asset seizures. And there's a stark warning from Texas of what it leads to: policing for profit:

Last month, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that the District Attorney’s Office in Tarrant County, Texas seized $3.5 million, plus almost 250 cars and 440 computers in fiscal year 2013, roughly equal to about 10 percent of its budget. Of the property seized, almost $845,000 was spent on salaries for 16 employees at the office. By comparison, only $53,000 went to “six nonprofits that benefit victims or prosecution efforts.” The county’s narcotics unit spent an even greater proportion of forfeiture funds on salaries. Last year, the unit seized $666,427 in cash and used $426,058 to pay salaries.


In Texas, law enforcement can keep up to 90 percent of the proceeds from forfeited property. That clearly affects police priorities and provides an incentive to pursue cases rich in assets. In another article, the
Star-Telegram delved into the forfeiture battle that ensued after law enforcement busted a low-level drug ring at Texas Christian University (TCU). Police arrested twenty-three people for selling marijuana, pills and other controlled substances. Most of those arrested were TCU students, including four members of the football team. No one went to prison; they got probation, deferred adjudication or the charges were dismissed. Others received punishments as low as $300 in court costs.

Yet by using civil forfeiture, police seized over $300,000 worth of property from the students, including 15 cars, trucks and SUVs valued at more than $250,000; over $46,000 in cash; and over $17,000 from laptops, iPads, iPhones and the like. As the paper noted, “The items were seized before formal charges were filed and months before any convictions.” But according to an after-action report issued by the Fort Worth Police Department, the drugs seized in the investigation only had an estimated street value of $29,000. So the property seized was worth far more than the drugs that were actually taken off the streets.

NZ police only get two-thirds, rather than 90%, but still the incentive is there. And with the police budget frozen this year, they'll be looking for money everywhere they can. Which means its probably only a matter of time before we see this sort of distortion of policing here.