The following article was published in the August newsletter of the Boone County Democrats, who graciously allowed me to present this content to their weekly lunch meeting last month.
Civil Asset Forfeitures In Missouri, a Sordid History
Civil forfeiture is a legal process that exists on the state and federal level, allowing the government to take property under the notion that the property itself can be charged with a crime as if it were a person. This anachronistic mechanism has its roots in English common law, where the sovereign needed the ability to provide redress for crimes involving portable property (like cattle theft), or wanted to just take property for his personal use.
In response to the theft of property by the English sovereign, our Founding Fathers established the meritorious protections of the Bill of Rights, and particularly the Fourth Amendment, which provides for the right of the people to be secure in their persons and effects, and to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures. Tragically, these foundational constitutional provisions have been gutted by the emergence of civil forfeiture mechanisms in state and federal law since the 1970.
Missouri’s constitution in Article IX, Section 7, stipulates that the proceeds of all fines and forfeitures vesting from breaches of Missouri’s criminal laws be sent to an education fund. This fund is defined by the Revised Statutes of Missouri (166.131 and 166.300) as the School Building Revolving Fund, a fund established to fund the specific construction of schools in the state.
In 1990, Odessa School District sued Lafayette County’s county commissioners for disbursing over a million dollars in forfeiture money to the local police. In a 5-2 decision handed down by the Missouri Supreme Court, they won their claim, but this judicial victory was short-circuited in short order. In the early 1990’s, the Department of Justice began advising state and local law enforcement of the availability of federal forfeiture mechanism that allowed the DOJ to take possession of forfeitures and disburse proceeds back to the local law enforcement through a program called Equitable Sharing.
In 1999, State Auditor Claire McCaskill audited Missouri’s forfeitures by requesting forfeiture records from state and county prosecutors. While this request was not able to quantify the number of forfeitures made directly through federal processes, it was able to quantify the forfeitures made first by state law enforcement and then turned over to federal agents. McCaskill found that 85% of reported state forfeitures ended up in federal hands, a staggering percentage.
That percentage is still roughly accurate today. In the past two years, our current State Auditor Susan Montee has reported $11 million in state forfeitures, roughly half of which end up in federal hands after judicial approval is granted. But direct federal forfeitures account for $41 million that goes directly into the Department of Justice’s forfeiture funds, 80% of which is sent back to state and local law enforcement. Over the past several years, much of this money has been implicated in the purchase of iris scanners, tasers, military equipment and surveillance technologies by the Boone County Sheriff’s Department, the Columbia Police Department, and the roving multijurisdictional drug task forces that operate in Missouri without civilian oversight.
In this fashion, domestic law enforcement has seen a sea change in attitude and purpose. Money sets policy, especially when it is used to buy guns and militarize our police. Instead of defending the rights and liberties of a free people, our local law enforcement agencies view our citizens not as citizens but as enemy combatants in a drug war that knows no logic or reason and is conducted for the worst of all possible motives: to make money.
This is why our local peace officers serve search warrants on non-violent suspects with brutal paramilitary-style raids, at night and without surveillance to minimize collateral damage. An analysis of the last 3 years worth of Columbia narcotics search warrants reveal slipshod and corrupt practices, including the use of informants paid with forfeiture money and accounting for property seizures that are vague and non-comprehensive.