Drug war asset forfeitures draw scrutiny
- Article by: Libor Jany
- Star Tribune
- August 26, 2014 - 2:40 PM
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.”
She said there also needs to be more transparency in how the forfeiture money is allocated. She is particularly concerned that the money will be spent to buy military-style weapons and vehicles such as those used by police officers in Ferguson, Mo., in a series of attempts to quell the rioting that arose after the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer on Aug. 9.
Authorities argue that most of the military gear is being acquired with federal grant money, rather than proceeds of forfeitures. Without the military-transfer program, many departments couldn’t otherwise afford the crime-fighting equipment required of policing in the 21st century, they say.
“I wish the public wouldn’t be scared or intimidated by this equipment but understand that they’re necessary tools we need to do our jobs safely and to help protect both the police and the community,” Gabriel said.
Libor Jany • 651-925-5033
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