DRCNet readers are all too familiar with the horror stories generated by asset forfeiture, the civil procedure the government uses to seize cash, bank accounts, houses, cars, and other properties it claims are the fruit of crime. In fact, the national chorus of complaints grew so loud that Congress was finally forced to pass a modest asset forfeiture reform bill this year.
But the new law only applies to federal seizures. The vast majority of drug arrests and attendant seizures occur at the state and local level. Now, US News & World Report has reported on a particularly egregious example of entrepreneurial policing and seizure fever run amok.
The South Florida Impact Task Force, operating out of Coral Gables, has been a rousing success by drug war standards. Impact's 50 officers, detailed from state and local law enforcement agencies, have seized more than $140 million in suspect funds and confiscated 30 tons of cocaine and almost seven tons of marijuana.
Impact officers have arrested 532 people and been responsible for 71 deportations since the task force came into being in 1993.
The task force has pumped millions of dollars in seized funds into the accounts of participating police agencies. Drug czar Barry McCaffrey even cited it as an example of effective law enforcement.
But not everyone is so pleased. Its critics include the DEA, the Justice Department, and law enforcement experts, as well as defense attorneys and civil libertarians. The critics also include legitimate businessmen who had the misfortune to encounter the Impact Task Force:
"This is not too much different from the Sheriff of Nottingham, except we don't have any Robin Hood," Robert Bauman told DRCNet. Bauman, a former Maryland congressman, is on the board of the forfeiture reform organization Forfeiture Endangers American Rights (FEAR -- http://www.fear.org).
"I wish I could say this was unusual, but it's not and it's been going on for a long time," added Bauman. "That doesn't justify this conduct, but it doesn't surprise me."
But there is more to this story than merely some overreaching by enthusiastic drug warriors. The South Florida Impact Task Force appears to have some unique and disturbing features.
Impact is an entirely self-funding operation. In other words, to survive it must seize assets. Asset forfeiture is both its reason and its means for existing. This institutional imperative to search and seize led to what US News qualified as "overaggressive" property seizures.
There is more. Woody Kirk, a retired US Customs officer who cofounded the task force with former FBI agent Mike Wald, had financial arrangements with Impact that has raised eyebrows and tempers across the board. While Wald joined Impact as a Coral Gables police commander, Kirk signed on as a full-time consultant.
With a string of potentially valuable informers in tow from his days as a money-laundering investigator at Customs, Kirk cut a deal with Impact in which the task force gave him a 25% cut of all assets he helped seize.
He earned $625,000 in just the first year of the task force's operations. "It was," Kirk told US News, "a very good deal."
Joseph McNamara, formerly chief of police in San Jose and Kansas City and currently a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institute, was surprised. "I'm writing a book about thousands of cases where cops abuse asset forfeiture, but I've never heard of anything that formal," he told DRCNet.
Neal Sonnett, the Miami-based former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense lawyers, was incredulous. "This is very strange," he told DRCNet. "They're a vigilante group."
It was a little too strange even for the Justice Department, which threatened to end cooperation with the task force unless the deal was halted. To comply, Impact put Kirk on a $10,666 monthly retainer.
But the creative Kirk still wasn't done. He confirmed to US News that he had begun asking his informants to sign contracts handing him a 15% commission on rewards they received from asset forfeiture cases. He lent one informant $115,000 as an "advance" on future seizure income; in another case, Kirk lent an informant $50,000 in return for a 60% share.
Such deals are apparently not illegal under existing law, but even Kirk's colleagues in the drug war can barely stomach this. "It's abhorrent, it just grates on the nerves of a lot of cops who've done the work that Kirk has done," former Customs agent Bill Gately told US News.
"In money laundering investigations there can be no room for any personal interest in any transaction," former DEA dirty money specialist John Moynihan told the magazine.
McNamara, however, pointed out that it was only Kirk's brazenness that was unusual. "Lots of people personally profit from the drug war, and not just crooked police," he said. "Drug testing labs, mandatory treatment programs, police and prison guards unions, and don't forget the cartels. Eisenhower warned us about the military-industrial complex; there's a drug war complex as well."
What the Impact Task Force has done "shouldn't be done," McNamara added, "but until these laws are repealed this kind of corruption is waiting to happen and does happen every day."
"It's inherent in the conception of the current statutes, because the money substantially goes for the police to augment salaries, budgets, and expenses," the ex-chief explained. "There's an incentive for police to take property."
But there is still more. Under the tutelage of Kirk, one of the Impact Task Force's techniques was the money laundering sting. To gain credibility with suspected money launderers, Impact itself laundered more than $120 million since 1994. Most of that money went back to drug dealers.
Ex-DEA analyst Moynihan told US News, "You want to seize at least twice what you launder. If not, you're creating as much crime as you're solving."
Impact's overseers, a committee of state and local officials, have no problems with the task force, but now the DEA and Customs have announced they have severed ties with Impact, and the Justice Department is conducting a review that could halt all federal cooperation with the task force.
McNamara is not reassured. "When it comes to the war on drugs, the feds are the worst. They certainly fought tooth and nail against federal asset forfeiture reforms. They think they're fighting a holy war, so anything goes. Forget about the Bill of Rights or ethics as long as they're fighting the evil of drugs."
"This is just another example of the moral bankruptcy of the war on drugs," he concluded.