The Missouri State Auditor's Office just released their comprehensive annual report on the federal asset forfeiture activity of Missouri law enforcement agencies. This report demonstrates the extent to which dozens of Missouri police departments rely on asset forfeiture proceeds to fund their budgets. Even more concerning, the report indicates that multiple agencies had federal asset forfeiture proceeds but did not fill out the necessary paperwork or keep the records required to do so.
As a result, money and property are being seized from Missourians without accountability or transparency. That is even more troubling given the self-serving nature of federal asset forfeiture laws, which allow local law enforcement agencies to keep 80 percent of the money seized through forfeiture.
State law requires forfeiture reports to be submitted by "law enforcement agencies involved in using the federal forfeiture system under federal law." Seven law enforcement agencies reported holding a balance of funds in their federal forfeiture accounts on December 31 2012, but failed to disclose activity in 2013. Holding federal forfeiture dollars in your agency's bank account certainly constitutes being "involved in the federal forfeiture system" under any objective reading of the statute [as it would be impossible to know how federal forfeiture proceeds were spent by law enforcement if this disclosure isn't submitted].
Last year, seven law enforcement agencies in Missouri didn't supply the required documents to the Auditor's office for their annual report. State Law makes this lack of compliance a class A misdemeanor, and also prevents the Department of Public Safety from issuing funds to agencies who have not complied. The seven agencies with federally funded accounts but no records in 2013 include:
Cameron Police Department
Eureka Police Department
Hickory County Sheriff's Department
Jefferson County Municipal Enforcement Group (JCMEG)
Normandy Police Department
Park Hills Police Department
Webster Groves Police Department
State Law makes "knowing failure" to comply with the reporting requirement a class A misdemeanor -- although there's no evidence to suggest this law has been recently enforced. The 2013 audit report referenced above notes that:
"The DPS compiled a list of law enforcement agencies using information from the Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) program and the Justice Assistance Grants (JAG) distribution lists, and notified the law enforcement agencies of the requirement to submit reports if the agencies participated in the federal forfeiture system."
The agencies have been notified by DPS of their requirement to comply, which means that they are guilty of a "knowing failure to comply with the reporting requirement" and thus should be charged with a class A misdemeanor and shall be denied funds from the Department of Public Safety (DPS) -- as prescribed by section 513.651.1 of the Revised Statutes of Missouri. After all, if police aren't held accountable when they knowingly defy the law, how can they claim the moral authority to enforce the law themselves?
Of these seven non-complying agencies, one stands out as having the most to lose by being cut off from funding through the Department of Public Safety. The Jefferson County Municipal Enforcement Group -- a multi-jurisdictional drug task force based in Jefferson County -- received over $336,000 in funding allocated through DPS in the last two years. With so much on the line, you might think law enforcement would be more attentive to reporting requirements, but JCMEG has flouted reporting requirements for asset forfeiture not only from the State Auditor, but from the Department of Public Safety as well.
A look into documents obtained from DPS via open records requests might shed some light on how this important responsibility could have been cast aside. To maintain eligibility for state grants from DPS, state law requires each multi-jurisdictional enforcement group (like JCMEG) to:
"(2) Establish a MEG policy board composed of an elected official, or his designee, and the chief law enforcement officer from each participating unit of local government and a representative of a hazardous materials response team or, if such team is not formed, then a representative of the local fire response agency, to oversee the operations of the MEG and make such reports to the department of public safety as the department may require;"
These policy boards provide some of the only formal oversight of drug task forces, so the law requiring them serves a compelling public interest. Unfortunately, documents from a site monitoring visit/compliance check conducted by DPS in March 2014 indicate that the Jefferson County MEG does not have an established policy board as required by state law. This raises the question: Does anyone actually oversee this government agency?
Moreover, some members of the task force seem to openly disdain public oversight and their roles as public servants. As part of another research inquiry, open records requests were filed with the JCMEG in November 2013. The commander of the task force, Corporal Chris Hoffman, was extremely hostile and disorganized in his response.
Upon receiving my requests, Corporal Hoffman started off his response by mocking my open records request and sarcastically thanking me for my "official-sounding email."
I replied the day I received this email with a follow-up request, providing some clarification on my end and requesting additional information. That second request went entirely ignored for over a month, at which point I emailed Corporal Hoffman again to follow up on my second request.
He responded by saying he planned to have answers to my request "forwarded to you at our convenience," either unaware that the Missouri Sunshine Law requires a response to an open records request within three business days, unwilling to comply with that law, or both.
The Sunshine Law exists because legislators decided (rightfully) that Missourians have a right to basic information about how their government agencies enforce laws and spend their tax money. When state officials openly mock the Sunshine Law, they are mocking one of the basic tenets of good governance in a republican society while simultaneously proving its necessity.
The Sunshine Law lays out specific guidelines to ensure transparency, including provisions of law that require timely responses to requests for information. I informed Corporal Hoffman of this provision and requested a response within three business days as required by state law.
He responded by telling me to talk to someone else (after nearly six weeks of back and forth emails in which he fulfilled submitted open records requests himself). Maybe if JCMEG complied with the state law that requires it to organize a policy board for oversight and transparency, it might find it easier to comply with state open records law. Just an idea.
Unfortunately, the lack of oversight I found in Jefferson County is hardly an isolated incident. I hope to continue exploring how Missouri's drug laws are enforced and the shocking lack of transparency and accountability shown by these government agencies.
However, this research is time-intensive and expensive. Simply acquiring the records upon which this research is based cost nearly $4,000. There is far more to write about those documents, but we can't do it without the funding.
Aaron Malin is the Director of Research for Show-Me Cannabis. You can email him with questions or comments at Aaron@ShowMeCannabis.com. Special thanks to Americans for Forfeiture Reform and the National Cannabis Coalition for making this research financially possible, as well as to Kelsey Smith for countless hours of research assistance.