Profits Of Policing:
$200 Million In Five Years
Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws, Commonly Referred To As RICO, Drive Massive Amounts Of Cash And Property To Law Enforcement With Little Oversight On Spending
By Emily L. Mahoney and Agnel Philip
Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting Special For Modern Times Magazine
Jan. 19, 2017 — State laws allowed Arizona law enforcement agencies to seize nearly $200 million in personal property during the past five years – almost all of it cash – from people who may never be charged or convicted of a crime, but systemic gaps in oversight make it difficult to see how they spent much of that money.
Regulation of the program is inconsistent, and the reports designed to inform government officials about how and when the money is used are often missing data.
After analyzing more than 1,300 quarterly financial reports filed by agencies detailing seizures and expenditures from fiscal years 2011 through 2015, AZCIR (ed. note: Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting) found that the state commission tasked with compiling statewide civil asset forfeiture figures omitted roughly $20 million, or 16 percent of overall spending, from its reports.
Vague expenditure descriptions also keep the public in the dark about the program. Of what is reported, roughly half of the money spent went to pay police salaries and cover “other operating” expenses. While advocates argue this helps police departments deal with budget cuts, critics of the system say this creates a perverse set of incentives for both law enforcement agencies and the elected officials who set their budgets.
And when it comes to tracking what law enforcement agencies are seizing and from whom, virtually no data is available other than aggregate totals of the amounts seized.
AZCIR spent more than a year gathering and analyzing those quarterly reports.
Civil rights advocates say Arizona’s forfeiture laws are among the most lenient in the country, giving agencies broad authority to seize property with few rules on how to spend the proceeds. And those who challenge forfeitures must dispute their claims against the county attorneys who stand to benefit from the seizures.
In all, agencies spent more than $129 million on items from guns to surveillance equipment to the salaries of those seizing property between 2011 and 2015. In Pima County, the sheriff’s office used the funds to buy a plane and helicopter; in Cottonwood, the police department paid for food on the Fourth of July for on-call police and fire staff.
The seized funds augment the budgets of nearly 80 law enforcement agencies through a state program called civil asset forfeiture, which is designed to undercut the profits of drug kingpins and inhibit their ability to move products across the U.S. Commonly referred to as RICO in reference to the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, Arizona's program is managed by the state's 15 county attorneys and the Attorney General's Office.
Seizures often begin during traffic stops, when law enforcement officers find large amounts of cash or drugs. Other times, law enforcement will seize money or property as part of a long-term criminal investigation.
Anything suspected of being used as part of the crime, including cash, is then fair game for seizure. Because property is forfeited through a civil case instead of a criminal case, prosecutors are only required to prove that it’s more likely than not that the property was related to the suspected crime. That is a much lower standard than it takes to convict the person of a crime.
The court costs alone can sometimes exceed the value of the property, and to get the property back, owners must prove their innocence. If they don't win every aspect of their case, people can then be billed for the costs associated with the state investigating and prosecuting the case – a provision unique to Arizona.
“We have no problem with forfeiture against convicted criminals,” said Jenna Moll, deputy director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, a group of conservative and liberal criminal justice advocates that has pushed for nationwide forfeiture reform. “Our issue is when you’re applying that same standard to a completely innocent citizen who has never been brought into court, charges have never been filed and certainly the government hasn’t ever proven — beyond a reasonable doubt — criminal activity.”
Nearly 90 percent of Arizona’s seizure income from fiscal 2011 to 2015 was cash, sometimes in small amounts.
The one exception is Santa Cruz County, where agencies seized more than $5 million during the past five years. All but $90 came from auctioning forfeited property, such as cars and houses. Considering the total, along with the small population, the county also had the highest seizure rate – more than three times the state average.
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