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Navajo County (AZ) Sheriff and County Attorney accuse the Rutherford Institute of “serving as a legitimate-seeming extension of narco-terrorists and criminal cartels” in response to commentary from Rutherford Institute founder John W. Whitehead:

“As the two top law enforcement officials in Navajo County, we cannot allow the Rutherford Institute’s ill-informed propaganda – “Governmental highway robbery: Asset forfeiture and the pillaging of the American people” (March 29) – to pass without a fact-based response. John Whitehead’s cynical column, passing off two cherry-picked anecdotes as an asset-forfeiture crisis, does Navajo County public safety and our taxpayers a grave disservice.

The truth? Far from terrorizing innocents, asset forfeiture allows the Sheriff’s Office, the County Attorney’s Office and local police departments to use money and property legally seized from drug syndicates and human smuggling cartels to fight those very same criminals.

At a time when Navajo County is resource-strapped – the county is down 76 positions compared to 2009, including six prosecutors, while current county revenues stand at 2004 levels – this funding taken from criminals can mean the difference between doing more with less or doing nothing at all.

While Rutherford’s writer insinuates that police agencies target the defenseless poor to grab their life savings, nothing could be further from the truth. Whitehead conveniently ignores the requirement that probable cause exist before a criminal stop can take place, much less an asset forfeiture. Additionally, Rutherford’s hyperbole – that police officers and prosecutors represent “an overlord bent on depriving us of our most inalienable and fundamental rights” – ignores the fact that asset forfeitures are contested in court and require the approval of a judge.

No one in Navajo County law enforcement is bent on putting “brow-beaten subjects in bondage.”

Most of the seizures in Navajo County come from criminals using the I-40 corridor to transport drugs and cash, or using our surface streets to move drugs, money and human cargo while avoiding the freeway. Once seized, these criminals’ resources are plowed back into crime prevention efforts like the Navajo County Major Crimes Apprehension Team (MCAT), a multi-agency effort uniting the county, the Arizona Department of Public Safety and five local police departments.

Navajo County MCAT – which we couldn’t afford without asset forfeiture funding – made more than 500 drug-related arrests in fiscal year 2012. MCAT officers confiscated more than $2 million worth of drugs, including 778 pounds of marijuana, more than 8,000 grams of meth and 5,844 grams of heroin. We seized 34 vehicles, 23 weapons and nearly $200,000 in cash.

According to Rutherford – a group that not surprisingly supports drug legalization – public safety and taxpayers should be deprived of resources essential to fighting crime, while criminal cartels should be allowed to keep the proceeds of their lucrative illegal enterprises. This approach would gut highly effective operations like the Southwest Border High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Arizona Partnership, which brings together federal, state and local assets to secure our border against drug traffickers. Locally, we would be forced to gut valuable efforts like the We Tip crime hot line, the Partnership For a Drug-Free America and the Show Low Drug Court.

Rutherford suggests that offices like ours, tasked with keeping the public safe, function as “militarized extensions of the government.” That accusation falls flat when you consider the source: a think tank playing fast and loose with the facts while serving as a legitimate-seeming extension of narco-terrorists and criminal cartels.” Navajo County Attorney Brad Carlyon and Navajo County Sheriff K.C. Clark, Asset forfeiture a valuable tool for public safety, taxpayers, The White Mountain Independent, 05 Apr. 2013.

A couple of quick thoughts:

1.) Carylon and Clark’s statement about the Rutherford Institute (and by extension anyone supportive of drug legalization) is insulting and wrong. Furthermore, it states the relationship backwards. Drug-prohibition enforcement subsidizes violent narco-terrorism by inflating the profitability of selling illicit drugs and directing control of supply and distribution to violent cartels. These aren’t new concepts. They shouldn’t be difficult to grasp either. To be clear, prohibitionists do have cogent arguments against legalization. I find them wholly unpersuasive but there are reasonable arguments available. What Carylon and Clark advance though is nonsense.

2.)  Our biggest complaint isn’t that law enforcement aren’t using a legal process to self-appropriate private property (although we obviously object to illegal takings as well). Rather, we complain loudest at the legal processes permitting law enforcement to self-appropriate property from innocents. Carylon and Clark’s suggestion that individuals suffering property forfeitures are members of drug syndicates and human smuggling cartels does nothing to establish that they are in fact members of such criminal syndicates–as their wanton defamation of the Rutherford Insititute as “serving as a legitimate-seeming extension of narco-terrorists and criminal cartels” reinforces. Moreover, U.S. Department of Justice findings indicate a majority of asset forfeitures are administrative forfeitures–which require neither conviction nor criminal charge.

3.) Carylon and Clark indicate that taxpayers would somehow be deprived if police were to lack the power to self-appropriate through asset forfeiture. It’s a frequent refrain. It’s also false. Police appropriations properly rest with local elected representatives. Generally taxpayers and their representatives are neither given the power to appropriate those resources elsewhere nor are they under any duty to provide the funds for what police would do with asset forfeiture proceeds. Moreover, it is wholly inappropriate for police to determine whether and to the extent that they are “deprived of resources essential to fighting crime.”  A community’s power to control police appropriations is essential. It is the community’s power to compel the policing that the community wants. The degree that the community is not in charge of its police budget is the degree to which it lacks control over its police. It’s not mere coincidence that police militarization happened along with  these Achaean gifts of coercive federal law enforcement grants, police power to self-appropriate, and federal equitable sharing dollars.

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