In early 1999, Star reporter Karen Dillon's investigative reports on asset forfeiture abuses helped propel Congressional reforms of federal asset forfeiture laws. In a follow-up series published last month after a yearlong investigation, Dillon and the Star have once again exposed egregious misconduct by state and local police agencies across the country. (The entire series may be viewed at http://www.kcstar.com/projects/drugforfeit/.)
The Star's investigation found that in every one of the more than two dozen states it examined, law enforcement agencies are deliberately circumventing state laws designed to restrict asset forfeiture or to mandate that such seized funds be used for designated programs, such as education or drug treatment funding.
They typically do so, writes Dillon, by using federal law enforcement to evade state forfeiture laws. Instead of taking seizures to state courts, whose laws are usually more restrictive than federal asset forfeiture law, police instead call in a federal agency, most often the DEA. The feds accept the seizure, the DEA takes a cut of the money, and the rest is returned to the local police agency, not to programs mandated by state laws.
In addition, the series clearly indicts the US Dept. of Justice and the DEA for aiding and abetting police evasion of state laws. In particular, Dillon, points to Justice Department guidelines for "adoption" of state and local cases. These guidelines allow state and local police agencies to turn seized funds over to the federal government, even if no federal agency has been involved. But, the Star reports, even these minimal rules proved too onerous for the DEA, which "in many cases" accepted seizures when defendants were being prosecuted in state courts, a clear violation of Justice guidelines.
The Star series also addresses efforts by the states to rein in the police-federal forfeiture juggernaut, both in statehouses and at the federal level. It finds that reform will be difficult, especially in the face of solid opposition from police organizations.
In a conversation with DRCNet on June 16, the Star's Dillon said her series has generated a high level of interest, both in the press and among politicians. As a result of the series, she said, the National Conference of State Legislatures will hold a special forum on the issue at its annual meeting in Chicago on July 15.
Dillon told DRCNet that she first started looking into the issue while reporting a police slush fund scandal in Kansas City in 1995. Part of the slush fund came from assets seized locally, handed over to the feds, and then bounced back to local police.
When asked about some of the more outlandish police justifications for their actions quoted in the series, Dillon laughed and said, "Well, it's sort of a police mindset that it's their money. They've been doing it for fourteen years, but no one has ever called them on their actions before."
(Further information about forfeiture is available from Forfeiture Endanders American Rights, http://www.fear.org.)