Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Policing For Profit

I spoke recently with a man in Tennessee who'd been stopped by a trooper in Virginia for "failure to maintain lane". His left tires had drifted over the lane divider. At least that's what the trooper said when the puzzled driver asked why he'd been pulled over.
This charge is a favorite with troopers, giving them legal cover to make a traffic stop. The driver may not be guilty, but good luck proving that in court.
This is when things got weird. "I know you got a wad a money on you," the trooper said. "I got electronics that hit on your car, so I know it's there. The only thing we got to find out is how much you're carrying."
Virginia state troopers use radar detector-detectors to spot illicit detectors—Virginia is the only state that bans radar detectors in cars—but the trooper was lying about the cash-detector.  There's no electronic gizmo that can sniff out currency in a passing car.
Regardless, the driver was carrying a lot of cash, $33,000. He was heading to Richmond to buy a motor home. Unfortunately for him, he made the mistake of telling the truth and showed the cash to the trooper.
The trooper gave him a choice: either sign a waiver promising not to sue and surrender the cash or get charged with drug dealing and go to jail. Not surprisingly, he signed. Only then was he permitted to leave.
Called civil asset forfeiture, this scenario is played out so often on Interstates that in recent years, citizens have lost far more money to cops than to robbers.
In most cases no criminal charges are filed.  The officer merely claims that the cash was likely the proceeds of illegal activity and pressures the driver into surrendering it, often using the threat of criminal charges and jail.
To get it back, the motorist must prove the cash was acquired legitimately. In essence, the money is guilty until proven innocent.
There are three types of asset forfeiture, criminal, administrative and civil. Criminal asset forfeiture is most frequently used to take property from individuals and cartels convicted of drug dealing. And to prevail, the government must link the property or cash to the crime and prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it was gained as a result of a criminal act.
The legal bar for civil asset forfeiture is much lower, requiring only a preponderance of evidence. It's a he-says/she-says contest unless the motorist lawyers-up and fights back.  The process routinely takes a year or more—and most lawyers don't work for free.
Asset forfeiture was rarely seen until 1984 when Congress passed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act. It created a special federal fund that turned over most of the proceeds from asset forfeitures to the law enforcement agencies responsible for them.
Called Equitable Sharing, it served as a road map for states that quickly passed their own forfeiture laws.
The practice saw a huge spike after Sept. 11, 2001 when the government asked police to heighten their awareness. Called "Look Beyond the [License] Plate", local departments and state troopers began using traffic stops as a pretext to look for suspicious people, drugs—and cash.
A cottage industry has grown up around civil asset forfeiture. States including Virginia hire training firms to teach troopers how to use it. Many subscribe to private, law enforcement-only databases like Black Asphalt Electronic Networking & Notification System that provide detailed reports about motorists: addresses, SSNs, identifying tattoos and other tidbits.
Law enforcement departments in many states routinely involve federal agencies in asset forfeitures, letting the Feds absorb the administrative expenses while knowing they'll be getting a big percentage of the funds back via Equitable Sharing.
Only North Carolina bans civil asset forfeiture, requiring a criminal conviction before someone's assets can be seized. A few states, like Missouri and Maine, funnel seized funds into public education. Most direct the cash into the general fund.
States with few restrictions on civil asset forfeiture—Virginia, Texas and Michigan, for example—also seem to experience the most scandals. Those states place few restrictions on where the money is spent and departments use the cash to buy equipment, pay salaries and overtime, conduct investigations and even pay themselves bonuses.
A 2014 Washington Post investigation found that "a thriving subculture of road officers on the network now competes to see who can seize the most cash and contraband, describing their exploits in the network’s chat rooms and sharing 'trophy shots' of money and drugs. Some police advocate highway interdiction as a way of raising revenue for cash-strapped municipalities."
“All of our home towns are sitting on a tax-liberating gold mine,” Deputy Ron Hain of Kane County, Ill., wrote in a self-published book under a pseudonym. Hain is a marketing specialist for Desert Snow, a leading interdiction training firm based in Guthrie, Okla., whose founders also created Black Asphalt.
Hain’s book calls for 'turning our police forces into present-day Robin Hoods.'”