When it comes to the practice of civil asset forfeiture, the state of Missouri has the right idea. State law mandates that 100 percent of proceeds from cash and property forfeitures that result in convictions be used to fund the state’s public schools. That’s a sound idea, but there’s one problem: It isn’t happening.
In 2016, local law enforcement only sent $100,000 to public schools when it seized $6.3 million worth of property. And of that total, 44 percent went to the feds. What accounts for this discrepancy?
Simple: Missouri law enforcement has conspired with the Department of Justice, in defiance of state law, to ensure that the cash goes into their coffers rather than to the school children of Missouri.
In 2001, Missouri’s Civil Asset Forfeiture Act (CAFA) was amended in an effort to impede state and local law enforcement from policing for profit, a common practice in many states across the county whereby police are incentivized to seize property and pocket its cash value. CAFA aimed to ensure that upon a defendant’s conviction their seized property be handed off to the local county prosecutor who would “deposit the proceeds into the public education fund as required by the Missouri Constitution,” thereby curtailing law enforcement’s incentive to arbitrarily and pervasively seize, and then keep or cash in, property allegedly involved in a crime.
Seventeen years later, this constitutional promise has not been realized.
Missouri is one of a handful of states with a relatively strict civil asset forfeiture law. The law itself requires a criminal conviction or guilty plea be entered before the state government takes ownership of the seized property. Furthermore, the entirety of the state’s forfeiture revenue then must be distributed to its public schools.
Instead, state and local law enforcement have eagerly taken advantage of a federal program known as equitable sharing. Rather than bringing cases locally, and upon conviction sending forfeiture proceeds to public school, this program allows local law enforcement and prosecutors to litigate forfeiture claims in partnership with the federal government. The federal government is then rewarded 20 percent of the forfeiture proceeds while the remaining 80 percent is pocketed by state and local law enforcement. No conviction is necessary before the property is forfeited, and no funds are sent to public schools.
This program effectively allows the federal government to collude with state law enforcement to evade the clear intention of Missouri’s civil asset forfeiture law. An option much more enticing than transferring all forfeiture funds to public schools.
Of the $19 million in cash and property value that Missouri law enforcement has seized since 2015, only “$340,000 of that made its way to schools.” The irony of the matter is that civil asset forfeiture laws disproportionately impact hard-working, low-income people of color — many of whom might have actually benefitted from the funds being transferred to their schools.
During former President Obama’s administration, United States Attorney General Eric Holder made a slight effort to limit state and local use of equitable sharing because the system was too often used in questionable circumstances. This effort “barred local and state police from using federal law to seize cash and other property without warrants or criminal charges, unless federal authorities were directly involved in the case.” Unsurprisingly, this reform was reversed by our current administration, placing the incentive to skirt strict state laws back on the table.
In a second attempt to limit Missouri’s reliance on equitable sharing, Missouri House Rep. Shamed Dogan introduced a new bill on February 20 that seeks to limit the cases that can be brought before a federal court to those where the forfeiture amounts are over $50,000. Although a step in the right direction, there is more to be done. Missouri must remove the incentive from police and prosecutors to go around state law and engage in profit-seeking forfeiture through the federal system.
Missouri’s law, requiring a conviction before goods are seized and a distribution of forfeiture proceeds to schools and not law enforcement must be enforced. There should not be a way for state agents to circumvent their own laws and disenfranchise the people the law aims to protect. New Mexico and California are examples of states that have made efforts to eliminate or restrict the use of equitable sharing. These next steps, in conjunction with the enforcement of Missouri’s law, are what all state legislatures should seriously consider.
Without this level of reform, police are being given the permission to continue the perverse practice of policing for profit. This is not crime-stopping law enforcement. It’s corruption, plain and simple.