Vallery Brown in the December 19th Oklahoman:
Drug crimes this year resulted in millions of dollars in cash, homes, guns and other property being forfeited to federal, state and local authorities.
Cash used to buy or from the sale of drugs, homes where drug dealers sold or cooked illegal substances, cars and other items used in the commission of drug crimes are all subject to forfeiture to the government. The Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control this year profited from nearly $2 million in seized and forfeited property, agency officials said.
“I am a firm believer of taking from the bad guys and giving to the good guys,” said Darrell Weaver, director of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control.
About 30 percent of the agency’s operational budget comes from state-appropriated dollars. The rest comes from fees and other revenues like seizures and forfeitures, he said.
“So sometimes we have to eat our own kill,” Weaver said.
If you didn’t catch that, this is a law enforcement agency that gets literally 70% of its revenue from sources it controls. The implications for democratic processes are clear, at least to me; when agencies control large amounts of their own funding, they can be literally uncontrollable. Some prosecutors have been able to unilaterally commission and fund their own SWAT teams despite objections from elected officials and sheriffs around the nation have been able to purchase hundreds of millions of dollars of military equipment without approval from their city councils or county commissions, let alone voters.
Worse is the fact that most forfeitures are subject to very poor auditing and reporting requirements; where transparency is required, records are often shoddily kept and incomplete. This means that a lot of the basic descriptive information that we need is incomplete, and has to be compiled through numerous public information requests and hundreds of hours of data entry.
Voters, of course, are fundamentally disempowered through this system. America’s representative democracy has serious imperfections, but on average it does a pretty decent job of turning voter choices into public policy. When public agencies can fund themselves, they have little to no incentive to listen to voters or even to legislators; they become a law unto themselves.