The Sarasota, Florida, police have turned asset forfeiture laws into a cash machine by luring outsiders with offers of sweet drug deals, then arresting them and seizing their goods. While "policing for profit" -- where police target individuals based on potential financial return -- is a common consequence of asset forfeiture laws, Sarasota's self-perpetuating scheme takes the game to a new level, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported this week.
Working with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, police in the medium-sized Florida town routinely set up "reverse stings" using paid informants to lure "high-level international buyers interested in large quantities of cocaine," the paper reported. In other words, law enforcement creates the opportunity to commit a crime in the hope that someone will try to do so. When the would-be buyer attempts to consummate the deal, he is arrested and his goods are seized. It's happened at least 40 times in the past decade, according to Sarasota police.
It's been quite profitable for the Sarasota Police Department, which has received more than $1.3 million from the scam since 2001. Of that, $500,000 came under state law, the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act, while $800,000 was booty divvied up with the feds. Like any good hustlers, the Sarasota police are plowing some of the dividends into growing the enterprise, the Herald-Tribune found.
The department spent at least $215,000 on informants to scare up business, $160,000 to lease expensive cars, $45,000 on cell phone bills and $35,000 on lawyers who handle forfeiture proceedings, the paper found. Oh, and another $240,000 was spent on "training trips" to Orlando, Panama City Beach, and that asset forfeiture training mecca, Las Vegas. Officers stayed at the MGM Grand in Vegas and the Hilton Disney World in Orlando, the Tribune reported.
The practice and the spending raised eyebrows when the Tampa Tribune contacted asset forfeiture experts. "Most communities are not interested in spending their resources dealing with out-of-town bad guys," said David B. Smith, a former US Department of Justice forfeiture official. "It's obviously a money-making scheme." And quite unusual for a small department, he added.
While City Commissioner Fredd Atkins told the Tribune he didn't mind the international deals, he said perhaps the police could use some of the money on dealing with local drug problems. "They've basically ignored the opportunity to help the people," Atkins said. "Instead, they continue to buy their toys and take their trips."