Drug war asset forfeitures draw scrutiny

  • Article by: LIBOR JANY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 26, 2014 - 2:40 PM

Concerns exist over how the money is spent and the incentives police have to track particular kinds of criminals.

In May, agents from the Dakota County Drug Task Force raid­ed five homes sus­pect­ed of be­ing marijuana grow hous­es, as part of an operation in the southern suburbs.

The raids were a suc­cess from a tactical standpoint. Authorities busted pot-growing operations in Shakopee and Apple Valley, seizing a doz­en bags of the drug and more than $140,000 in cash. But there was an even greater potential payoff for the task force.

In a separate operation earli­er this month, the task force arrested four people with suspected ties to Mexican drug cartels and seized $10,000 in cash and 7 pounds of crystal methamphetamine with a street value of about $75,000, said Sgt. Jim Gabriel, of the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office.

The cases are wending their way through federal court. If the four are convicted, their assets will be sold and the proceeds turned over to authorities, said Gabriel, the task force’s recently appointed commander.

“Forfeiture funding is a big part of our operation here,” Gabriel said. The task force con­sists of 15 full-time agents and one part-tim­er, coming from every department in Dakota County. Scott County’s lone representative in the unit is from the Savage Police Department.

Most of the proceeds from the forfeitures from those op­er­ations wind up in the task force’s bank account. The coun­ty attorney’s office also gets a cut, about 20 percent, while the state receives 10 percent. And police watchdogs are calling for great­er transparency in the proc­ess.

Asset forfeiture is an indispensable tool in the war on drugs, authorities say. Not only does it discourage criminal activity, it also makes it hard­er for criminals to continue their illegal activities by stripping them of the equipment they use and the proceeds of their crimes.

“The forfeitures are a byproduct of a drug trade. And the whole thought proc­ess is ... how can we positively impact the drug trade?” said Dakota County Sheriff Dave Bellows. “How can we stop it? How can we make it painful for the drug deal­er? And forfeitures are part of that.”

Bellows said many law enforcement agencies rely on forfeiture money — from the sale of confiscated cars, jewelry and houses — to supplement their dwindling budgets. Taxpayers benefit, too, he said.

While most police departments in Dakota and Scott counties have received mon­ey from forfeiture, the drug task force has received the lion’s share.

In 2013, seizure mon­ey accounted for about 33 percent of the task force’s budg­et. Most went toward “gang officer reimbursement,” “contracted services” and “other expenses,” records show. This year, that ratio rose to 47 percent.

But more concerning for police reform advocates is how that forfeiture mon­ey is be­ing spent, particularly wheth­er it’s be­ing used to buy the types of military-style weapons increasingly fa­vored across the country in police departments big and small.

In the wake of the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager in a St. Louis suburb earli­er this month, the militarization of police departments has come under fresh scrutiny, said Teresa Nelson, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota.

“What we’re seeing with the militarization is basically the grant program where the military is sending [decommissioned] materials to the local police departments,” Nelson said. “To the extent there’s a connection it is in the acquisition of additional equipment by police departments.

“I think there’s definitely a connection: How much of that is regular equipment vs. militarized e­quipment?” Nelson add­ed.

The task force ranked behind only the State Patrol (1,007), Minneapolis Police Department (311) and the state Department of Nat­u­ral Resources (271) in the number of “forfeiture incidents” with 210, ac­cord­ing to the Minnesota Office of the State Auditor, which releases an annual report on criminal forfeitures.

Lee McGrath, executive director of Minnesota’s chapter of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm, said the proc­ess needs further reform. But he add­ed that a recently passed state law requiring a criminal conviction before a person’s possessions can be seized was a good start. The new law went into effect on Aug. 1.

“Forfeiture does give police a perverse incentive to go after better cars, things that will give them more money … we call it ‘policing for profit,’ ” Nelson said. “Giv­en that forfeiture is a steady mon­ey stream by departments, it certainly can have an impact on the types of equipment that they chose to pur­chase with it.”

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