How civil asset forfeiture undermines law enforcement
What happens when a small town police force discovers it can make bank through a government program intended to stifle drug crimes? You get a bad case of civil asset forfeiture run amok.
As the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Dan Greenberg writes, the town of Little Compton, RI hit the jackpot several years ago with a civil asset forfeiture case, netting the town $4 million form a huge drug bust.
Their share of the cash was supposed to be spent on law enforcement. It was. And it was spent on a lot more, too:
…the police force bought bulletproof vests, handguns with laser sights, body-heat detection devices, daytime pursuit lights, and customized police cruisers. It also leased a black Camaro for the police chief and a Pontiac Firebird for Ron Coffey. Some citizens felt that such spending might be overkill for a sleepy, almost crime-free tourist town; Little Compton had not seen a murder for the last two decades.
Other items the police department bought had an even more tenuous connection to law enforcement purposes. Eventually, federal auditors inspected Little Compton’s books and discovered that forfeiture funds had paid for a fireworks display, a wood chipper, a TV and VCR for a teen recreational center, a schoolchildren’s trip to Wisconsin, a truck for the maintenance department, and a desk and computer for the town treasurer. As a result, the Department of Justice briefly suspended the town’s forfeiture payments and deducted $88,000 from the next seven-figure check Little Compton received.
But the good times, and federal checks, kept rolling:
After 30 years, the money in the drug forfeiture fund has dwindled to a few thousand dollars. Town officials have spent more than $100,000 from it every year on items like anti-terrorism seminars, professional headshots of officers, D.A.R.E. caps handed out at graduation ceremonies, herbicide treatments at the rifle range, wall calendars handed out to the public, and more than $1,000 of car washes. The department now has a yearly budget that tops $1 million—which indicates extraordinary growth even after factoring for inflation. The police payroll has grown from six full-time employees to nine.
The money will eventually run out, which leaves the town in a pickle: does it keep on spending cash for new A/V equipment, and flashy car leases? Does it cut the budget instead? Or does it decide the best way to avoid hard choices is to seize even more property?
The incentive structure points toward – and strongly encourages – the last option. Which is no way to keep a community safe, let alone defend life and property.