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False Choice: Policing for Profit or Higher Taxes

Local law enforcement agencies in different parts of the country are singing a different tune after the limiting of the federal equitable sharing program. Whereas many previous arguments in defense of seizing assets for revenue focused on the goal of weakening criminals, many police departments and prosecutors are now painting it as another lack-of-funding issue where Washington gridlock is leaving state agencies penniless.

Under the equitable sharing program, police departments can seize property from suspects without charging them with a crime, then forfeit the property federally without so much as a conviction, and in doing so receive up to 80% of the forfeiture revenues.

In addition to a letter of concern addressed to President Obama from six different law enforcement groups immediately following the slowdown of the program, some police departments and local news outlets are now expressing concern over the potential loss of revenue.

A local news station in Indiana referenced the Institute for Justice’s research on equitable sharing, but as a result of misinformation from law enforcement, missed the point by focusing on budgetary concerns rather than how civil forfeiture violates property rights, hurts the victims, and how the revenues seized are often spent egregiously by police departments. Instead, Sheriffs Doug Cox and John Layton framed the issue as lost money that will have to be made up by the taxpayers.

Similarly, Sheriff Zach Scott in Franklin County, Ohio, defended the program on the grounds that most of the cash and property seized was taken from people he deemed to be probable narcotics traffickers, as if this alone justifies taking property without a criminal conviction. It’s not surprising that a sheriff from Ohio would say this, however, given that the state brought in nearly $139  million in Department of Justice equitable sharing proceeds between the years 2000 and 2013.  In fact, Ohio is one of the nation’s worst equitable sharing abusers, ranking 43rd out of all 50 states and the District of Columbia for its participation in the program. This means Ohio takes in more equitable sharing revenue per drug arrest than all but eight other states.

IJ’s second edition of Policing for Profit, released in November 2015, highlights the perverse profit incentive created by civil forfeiture and the equitable sharing program. The flow of equitable sharing payments to state and local law enforcement agencies was indefinitely slowed with the passage of the new federal budget, thus limiting a substantial stream of revenue to many state PDs.

As IJ Legislative Counsel Lee McGrath pointed out:

“Law enforcement revealed that its true interest in forfeiture is policing for profit—not public safety.

“Many police, sheriffs and prosecutors want to circumvent state laws because outsourcing forfeiture litigation to the federal government is lucrative. State lawmakers should enact an anti-circumvention provision that respects federalism and refocuses law enforcement’s attention on stopping crime by allowing only seizures greater than $50,000 to be forfeited under federal law.”

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