Those interested in the use of aggressive, militarized law enforcement tactics in Ferguson, Missouri, should consider the role of non-appropriated asset forfeiture revenues as a substantial funding mechanism for military weaponry and its use. First, consider this note from the website of the Metro Air Support Unit (a joint operation with the St. Louis County Police Department, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, and the St. Charles County Sheriff’s Department):
The contracts signed by each of the three participating departments specify the agreements of each department to provide the personnel as listed above and the annual dollar amount to be contributed by each department towards operating expenses. The contracts state the St. Louis County Police Department and the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department are to contribute $150,000 annually and due to a lower call volume and usage of the helicopter the St. Charles County Sheriff’s Department is to contribute $100,000 annually.
All of the money contributed by each department is money that is collected from asset forfeiture. Asset forfeiture is a term used to describe the confiscation of assets which are either the proceeds of crime or the instrumentalities of crime. No funding of the Metro Air Support Unit comes from any of the police departments actual budgets.
In recent years all of the Metro Air Support Unit’s major equipment purchases have been funded with federal grant money, most of which is provided through the Department of Homeland Security or U.A.S.I. (Urban Areas Security Initiative). The unit’s 2009 model MD-500E helicopter, FLIR (forward looking infra-red) system, and onboard moving maps systems are some examples of this equipment that has been purchased. The unit is also scheduled to receive a fourth MD-500E model helicopter upon its completion at the MDHI factory in November of 2012.
Second, consider this October 2011 story by Christine Byars in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
Use of rifles has raised questions in some communities about liability and the propriety of issuing military-style weapons to rank-and-file officers who seldom encounter terrorist or spree shooting situations.
But Fitch cited a 2008 Maplewood shooting, in which a sniper killed a firefighter and wounded two police officers, and the 2008 Kirkwood City Hall attack, that left six victims and the killer dead, as situations in which rifles would be valuable.
"I understand the criticism, but it isn't realistic," Fitch said. "Hoping that it never happens is not a good strategy."
St. Louis County was among large departments to issue rifles after a 1997 incident in which two heavily armed bank robbers shot it out for 44 minutes with Los Angeles police, wounding 11 officers and seven civilians before being killed. Out-gunned police obtained rifles from a gun shop to fight back.
The county police have bought about 156 rifles with asset forfeiture money, about half the number needed. At more than $1,000 each, it could take years, Fitch said.
Taken individually, it doesn't seem like much that these law enforcement agencies purchased heavy duty weapons or fund personnel costs for the operation of military-grade hardware through asset forfeiture revenues, but it begs the question: why do we have a legislative branch of government when the executive branch can fund itself through property seizure and forfeiture? Would a legislature make substantially the same appropriations if this money were part of the general fund for the respective political units involved in these organizations? Should the Missouri legislature, county, and municipal governments continue to abdicate their power of the purse over law enforcement?
It is also worth noting that under Missouri law, civil forfeiture revenue is supposed to go to the School Building Revolving Fund. Unfortunately, thanks to the federal Equitable Sharing Program, law enforcement can funnel these revenues through federal agencies. As the Institute for Justice notes:
Equitable sharing makes this bad situation worse. Through equitable sharing, police and prosecutors can take property from citizens under federal civil forfeiture law instead of their own state laws. From the perspective of law enforcement, this is a good deal: Federal law makes civil forfeiture both relatively easy and rewarding, with as much as 80 percent of proceeds returned to the seizing agency.
Thus, with equitable sharing, state and local law enforcement can take and profit from property they might not be able to under state law. If a state provides owners greater protections or bars law enforcement from directly benefiting from forfeitures, agencies can simply turn to federal law.
I am reminded of this quote from Kevin Glaser, a retired narcotics officer who currently serves as current vice president of the Missouri Narcotics Officers Association, from an article in the St. Louis Riverfront Times. To wit (emphasis mine):
"If we seize $50,000 from a drug seizure and it is drug proceeds, it's forfeited through the state of Missouri to the school fund to fund our schools. That sounds good. They have $50,000 to play with now. In actuality, though, what happens is our state legislators, when they're divvying out the money to the schools, and they see that $50,000 go into the school fund from asset forfeiture, they take out $50,000 they were gonna contribute to the school fund. The school fund does not make an additional $50,000 off of that. That's the way asset forfeiture has been since it came into effect.
What law enforcement has done is, seeing that there's really no good coming to Missouri from asset forfeiture because other than funding general revenue -that's all it really does - we utilize federal forfeiture, which allows us to take that $50,000 seized from the drug proceeds and then we can, applied through a court system that has several checks and balances to make sure it was a very factual and legitimate seizure, then that $50,000 -- and actually it's only 80 percent of that because the federal government gets 20 percent right off the bat -- but 80 percent of that $50,000 can come back and be used by local law enforcement for very specific -- buying equipment, buying cars, -- there are very specific requirement, you just can't go out and spend it randomly on whatever you want. It can be utilized by the police department to further enhance the department and drug investigations and criminal investigations.
In other words, Kevin Glaser has a problem with the idea that the Missouri Legislature might do their duty and *gasp* appropriate funds to public uses that aren't law enforcement. Indeed, under federal asset forfeiture, Missouri law enforcement does not *really* need the consent of the legislature to receive or spend public dollars...which is really the point of having a legislature in the first place.
Carl Bearden, who served as the Speaker pro tem of the Missouri House of Representatives from 2005 to 2007, responded to Glaser's statement:
His statement is a bunch of bovine fecal matter. It is an example of attempting to show the ends justify the means. His statement of redirecting money is false. He simply plays on a common perception of what happens. In the end, It is much better to have people we elect to make those decisions that the non-elected, unaccountable people like Glaser make them "on our behalf".
There are two legislative solutions that can fix this situation. First, the Missouri legislature can ban the practice of civil asset forfeiture and state law enforcement participation in federal equitable sharing; the Institute for Justice has drafted excellent model legislation on this point. Second, US Senator Rand Paul's (R-KY) Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration Act would send federal forfeiture revenues from the Department of Justice to the Treasury's General Fund, and would further force federal forfeiture distributions to state law enforcement to follow state law. You can support Senator Paul's FAIR Act by clicking through here and using AFR's Popvox legislative advocacy tool to send an endorsement of this legislation to your elected federal representatives.