Previously published at Casey Research.
Christmas came early to a Midwest sheriff’s department. While back in Abilene, Kansas to see family, I read a story reported by an old high school friend, titled “Dickinson County Sheriff Office could benefit from forfeiture.”
Interstate Highway 70 starts in Baltimore, Maryland and ends near Cove Fort, Utah. It transects the upper half of Kansas. Plenty of tourists and trucks travel the route, including Andris Cukurs of Glendale, California, who was pulled over for “a routine traffic stop” in November. It turned out the 68-year-old Cukurs had a little bit of pot and a lot of cash.
I don’t know which direction Cukurs was going, but keep in mind that marijuana is legal in Colorado, less than 300 miles from where he was stopped. However, it was the currency, in today’s “policing for profit” age, that was breaking the law. Cukurs had $314,800 in cash with him, and now the Dickinson County Sheriff’s Department is licking its chops, figuring Cukurs and his cash were naughty, and they, being the law and all, are nice.
“Typically in a forfeiture, it is used for drug enforcement purposes,” County Administrator Brad Homman told Salina Journal reporter Tim Horan. “Money used to buy drugs undercover. Or it could be vehicles for the task force, computers, anything.”
Readers who carry lots of cash should take note. Civil forfeiture laws give law enforcement agencies the incentive to take millions. Civil forfeiture turns the bedrock principle that Americans are innocent until proven guilty on its head. As the Institute for Justice (IJ) points out in its report, Policing for Profit, “Unlike criminal asset forfeiture, with civil forfeiture, a property owner need not be found guilty of a crime—or even charged—to permanently lose her cash, car, home, or other property. ”
In law enforcement’s eyes, cash is always up to no good and has no purpose other than drug trafficking. Like pirates on the high seas, in some states, those who are supposed to be protecting and serving are trolling for cash to fund their budgets instead.
The US Department of Justice created its Asset Forfeiture Fund in 1985. A year later, the fund—which holds the proceeds from seized property and is available to be divvied out to law enforcement agencies—brought in $93.7 million. In 2008, the amount had ballooned to $1.6 billion. In 2013, it reached $6.3 billion.
The percentage of civil forfeiture proceeds that are disbursed to law enforcement varies from zero to 100%, with more than half the states giving everything to the police. Kansas falls in the 100% category, as does Texas, where the average law enforcement agency obtained 14% percent of its budget in 2007 from forfeitures.
The IJ report, Forfeiting Justice: How Texas Police and Prosecutors Cash In on Seized Property, finds:
[F]rom 2001 to 2007, Texas agencies took in at least $280 million in forfeiture funds, and annual proceeds tripled over those seven years. In 2007, the top 10 forfeiture money-earning agencies in Texas took in proceeds equal to more than one-third of their budgets. From 2001 to 2007, about 74 percent of forfeiture funds were spent on equipment, while nearly a quarter went to salaries and overtime pay.
The authors of Policing for Profit write:
Criminologists, economists, and legal scholars who have studied forfeiture behavior have found evidence indicating that police departments are taking advantage of lenient forfeiture statutes to “pad their budgets.”
Nick Sibilla wrote in Forbes this year about forfeiture and pointed out that in the city of Tenaha, Texas, where police seized about $3 million from hundreds of drivers.
The New Yorker ran a story about Jennifer Boatright, a waitress in Houston, who drove through Tenaha with her boyfriend, two young sons, and all of their savings in cash with the intention of buying a used car in her home town of Linden.
The couple was stopped by the Tenaha police, who claimed the waitress and her boyfriend fit the profile as drug couriers. They were coming from Houston, “a known point for distribution of illegal narcotics,” and the two kids were likely decoys. The couple met with the county DA, who told the couple they would go to jail and their children handed over to foster care or they could sign over their cash to the city of Tenaha and get back on the road.
New Jersey insurance adjuster George Reby drove through Tennessee with $22,000 in cash bagged up in his back seat. He’d been negotiating for a car on eBay and wanted to be ready if he could make a deal.
Officer Larry Bates of the Monterey, Tennessee, police department stopped Reby for speeding and seized the $22,000. “The safest place to put your money, if it’s legitimate, is in a bank account,” the officer explained. “I would put it in a bank account. It draws interest and it’s safer.”
Reby was stunned that the cop could legally take his property for no apparent reason. “I never had any clue that they thought they could take my money legally,” Reby said. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Indeed, Officer Bates didn’t arrest him. It was Reby’s cash that was suspicious, and the department wanted it for its coffers. “No, it’s not illegal to carry cash,” Bates said when interviewed by a reporter from a local news channel. “Again, it’s what the cash is being used for to facilitate or what it is being utilized for.”
The reporter pointed out to Officer Bates that he had no proof the cash was illicit. Bates countered, “And he couldn’t prove it was legitimate.” In Tennessee, if the out-of-staters don’t hire attorneys and return for a hearing about their matter, they forfeit their property. However, many aren’t given notice of the hearings.
Only because the local TV station reported the story did Mr. Reby get his money back. The Monterey Police Department issued him a check and no apology after four months. To get his $22,000 back, he had to show up in person, waive his Constitutional rights, and sign an agreement not to sue the department.
It’s not always cash that law enforcement goes after. The FBI wanted Russell Caswell’s Tewksbury, Massachusetts motel and the land it is built on. Barnini Chakraborty wrote on Fox News:[T]hey suspected it was a hotbed for drug-dealing and prostitution. The agents, who were working with state and local authorities, told a disbelieving Caswell they had the right to take the property, valued at as much as $1.5 million, through a legal process known as civil forfeiture.
Caswell had the guts and means to take on the government, and he won. The judge called the government’s evidence a “gross exaggeration.” Most people don’t have the means to fight, and the cash and property fills law enforcement coffers.
For another example, in Ball Harbour, Florida, a town of only 2,500 residents, the police raked in more than $5 million in 2011 through its participation with the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture sharing program.
These stories and statistics must provide a jolt to people who instinctively believe the actions of government and its criminal justice system are sacrosanct. However, economist Robert Murphy explains this looting through civil forfeitures is “a perfect vindication of the [Murray] Rothbardian point that, in a very real sense, government is a gang of thieves writ large.”
So just what was Andris Cukurs doing to warrant the routine stop-turned-government-robbery in Kansas? He failed to maintain a lane, and, worse yet, he was driving a Chevy, while his tag was registered to a Ford.
The 68-year-old was arrested for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia and distributing a controlled substance. More important, he’s been indicted for attempted money laundering.
To call this “policing for profit” implies a service is being exchanged for money. Civil forfeiture is just plain theft under the guise of law enforcement. It’s “police piracy.”
Looking for Liberty in All the Right Places