ST. LOUIS--A measure to reform Missouri's Civil Asset Forfeiture Act (CAFA) to ensure that police departments deposit seized assets into a public education fund, as required by the Missouri Constitution, will be signed into law today by Governor Bob Holden in Jefferson City.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has criticized asset forfeiture laws as a ""license to steal,"" called passage of the reform measure ""a victory for all Missourians.""
"In the end, this law will provide funding for education and protect citizens from having their property taken from them for improper reasons," said ACLU of Eastern Missouri Executive Director Matt LeMieux. ""It is astounding that such a law was needed. The fact that seizure had to be defined in the law to make some police departments comply is disgraceful.""
Senate Bills 5 and 21, introduced by Senators Harry Wiggins of Kansas City and Wayne Goode of St. Louis, seek to close a loophole in the law that has been used by many Missouri police departments to keep seized assets.
Under both federal and state law, law enforcement officials may seize property they suspect of being used in or derived from criminal activity. In 1990, the Missouri Supreme Court held that the state constitution requires all property seized by Missouri law enforcement agencies be deposited in a fund for Missouri's public schools.
Yet since 1990, Missouri police departments have netted over $32 million in proceeds from property seizures. Many Missouri police departments, in cooperation with federal law enforcement agencies, have claimed that when they take property as part of criminal investigation, they are not seizing the property but merely holding it until a federal agency can take control.
Missouri's asset forfeiture law, they claimed, only applied to "seized" property, not "held" property. In return for turning the property over to a federal agency, many Missouri police departments have received what amounts to a kick back, which in some instances has been as much as 80 percent of the proceeds from the seized property. The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department alone netted over $2.5 million in 1997 and 1998 using this practice.
The new law will close this loophole by defining seizure as the moment a Missouri police department takes control of the property.
Under the new law, Missouri police departments must immediately turn over control of the property to the local county prosecutor, who will eventually deposit the proceeds into the public education fund as required by the Missouri Constitution.
Advocates of the new law have argued for several years that allowing police to profit from property they seize creates a conflict of interest and encourages illegal seizures.
The practice of ignoring civil asset forfeiture laws is not unique to Missouri. The new law, which was also sponsored by Speaker of the House Jim Kreider of Nixa, is part of a nationwide effort to insure that police departments are not seizing property for the wrong reasons.
In 1999, Congress adopted a measure that somewhat reined in federal asset forfeiture laws. The ACLU, which worked hard to build support for the bill, said it represented a historic first step in ending the unfair seizure of innocent people's property, but said much more remains to be done.
In a recent national advertisement, the ACLU launched a new attack against this form of unfettered law enforcement abuse.
""Thanks to civil asset forfeiture laws, possessions that took you a lifetime to acquire can be taken in the blink of an eye, or, more accurately, the flash of a badge," the advertisement says. "The forfeiture laws were designed as a new government weapon in the 'war on drugs.' But they've done little more than provide law enforcement with a license to steal."
To view the ad, go to http://archive.aclu.org/forfeiture/