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Fighting Crime or Fighting Budget Cuts?

On July 27, 2011, in Drug War, states, by John Payne

Mendocino County in Northern California is raking in forfeiture dollars hand over fist:

Illegal drug-related property and money valued at almost $646,000 was seized by Mendocino County law authorities in the first six months of the year.

It was more than three times the amount seized in the same time period last year, according to District Attorney David Eyster.

What explains this tremendous jump in forfeiture seizures? The reporter seizes on the most facile explanation at hand:

The jump in asset forfeitures is an indicator that drug money and drugs continue to flow in and through Mendocino County, one of the state’s largest marijuana producing counties.

Sure, the growth in forfeiture seizures could be entirely driven by a growth in drug trafficking, or it could just be a statistical noise. However, another possible explanation is that law enforcement agencies in the area are deliberately seeking money from forfeiture to make up for budget cuts in the cash-strapped state. This area requires more study, but in my own research on asset forfeiture in Missouri there seems to be a clear correlation between the recent recession–and the accompanying budget cuts–and a massive spike in the use of asset forfeiture.

When funds run low, police departments can self-finance to a large degree with asset forfeiture. This takes police away from investigating true threats to public safety, and without the need to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, innocent people often end up losing their property. Police should be making their decisions based upon public safety, not potential profit.

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