Reforms Sought For Asset-Foreiture Laws
Subject: FEAR: Two new Kansas City Star articles
Date: Thu, 15 Jun 2000 15:01:22 -0700
From: Brenda Grantland <bgrantland@...>
Forfeiture Endangers American Rights
THE KANSAS CITY STAR
Asset-forfeiture laws stir reform attempts
To protect and collect
In Missouri, lawmakers are vowing that next time they'll succeed. California legislators just took a big step toward reform, while education attorneys in North Carolina are just beginning their own battle.
In recent weeks, officials in several states across the country
have pledged action to block local law enforcement from keeping property confiscated in drug busts and traffic stops.
Most states have passed laws blocking seized property from going directly back to police, and many states require seized property to be used for other purposes, such as education.
But last month The Kansas City Star reported that police agencies in more than two dozen states checked by the newspaper circumvent their own laws and keep millions of dollars in seizures.
When police seize money or property, they hand it off to a
federal law enforcement agency instead of going to a state court. The federal agency keeps a cut, usually 20 percent, and returns the rest to police.
Police say they need the money to fight the war on drugs. But lawmakers and some legal experts say the circumvention threatens civil liberties by bypassing state laws, which generally provide more protection to property owners than federal law.
Unlike many legislators elsewhere, those in Missouri already knew about the federal handoffs and passed a reform bill in the state Senate this year. But the bill died on the last day of the session. Now Sen. Harry Wiggins, a Kansas City Democrat who co-sponsored the bill, pledges to make it his primary goal to get the bill passed by February. The session begins in January.
The other sponsor, Rep. Jim Kreider, a Nixa Democrat and speaker pro tem, said he will be pushing from his side of the General Assembly. "It's high on my radar screen," Kreider said. "This is the right thing to do."
Missouri law prohibits police from handing seized property over to a federal law enforcement agency. Instead police are required to notify a prosecutor. A judge then decides whether the property should be forfeited and go to education or be transferred to a federal agency.
But police say when they give property to federal agencies, they are not doing anything wrong because they have not seized it - they only detained it until a federal agent seizes it.
Wiggins and Kreider sponsored a bill that would:
Try to close any loophole by defining a seizure "as the point at which any law enforcement officer or agent discovers and exercises control over property."
Require detailed reports of each seizure as well as audits.
The bill was blocked with only about three minutes left in the
session by Rep. Craig Hosmer, a Springfield Democrat, who thinks police departments need seizure money to fight the war on drugs. "There is nothing in my read of our constitution that what they are doing is illegal," Hosmer said. "They are using another avenue that is available to make sure they have resources to do the job that they believe is very important."
"Rep. Hosmer believes the bill will hurt law enforcement,"
Kreider said. "I sincerely believe that it will hurt law enforcement
worse the way it is now. It will hurt their reputation. It will hurt
them in the long run by circumventing the law and possibly violating the rights of Americans."
Gov. Mel Carnahan said this week through his spokesman that police were doing nothing illegal. "The governor believes law enforcement is operating within the law," said spokesman Jerry Nachtigal. "The governor stands by the highway patrol. They are doing their best to slow down the drug trade."
But Nachtigal said the governor would not comment on state law requiring forfeitures to go to education or discuss whether he believes keeping the proceeds is a conflict of interest for police.
Developments in other states:
California. The state Senate this month passed a bill that would require police to get a court order before drug money could be transferred to a federal agency.
The bill now must pass the House, where lawmakers expect a stronger fight from law enforcement. The bill would make it a crime for police to hand off seizures without a court order - possibly the toughest such provision in the country.
"The lure of increased revenue has blinded local law enforcement to their responsibility to abide by our state policy and to protect the due process rights of our citizens," said Sen. John Vasconcellos, a Santa Clara Democrat, in a statement.
Kansas. Rep. Ralph Tanner, a Baldwin City Republican, plans to meet with the speaker of the House next week to discuss introducing a bill to redirect forfeited money away from law enforcement and to education.
The bill also would specify that only a judge could decide if
forfeiture proceeds should be transferred to the federal government.
North Carolina. Attorneys for school boards are talking about reform after discovering that little forfeiture money is going to education, as the state's constitution requires.
One of them, Michael Crowell, an attorney who works for the state board of education, is researching legal remedies. He said he is going to speak to the attorney general. "We are going to pursue this," Crowell said.
Massachusetts. A citizens group says it won't back away from reform efforts despite new opposition from law enforcement.....- To reach Karen Dillon, call (816) 234-4430 or send e-mail to
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