An article by investigative journalist Dan Forbes, released yesterday evening by the Progressive Review (http://www.prorev.org), has confirmed something that drug war observers had strongly suspected: John Ashcroft, as Missouri Governor, agreed to "look the other way" while state police federalized asset forfeitures in order to keep money seized in their agencies -- violating a Missouri constitutional requirement that forfeiture funds instead go to the state's school system.
If this information receives the attention it merits, it will raise serious questions about the AG nominee's willingness to obey the spirit as well as the letter of the law. Information provided in recent weeks by DRCNet made the case that legislation sponsored by John Ashcroft as Senator showed a disregard for the 1st and 4th amendments to the bill of rights of the US Constitution (http://www.stopjohnashcroft.org). Now, hard evidence exists showing a disregard for the Missouri state constitution as well, in Ashcroft's actual practice as the state's chief executive. Strongly suggestive evidence of the same was also presented, earlier the same day, by syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington.
Asset forfeiture reform is an issue that has recently received bipartisan attention. Legislation championed by Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) to curb some excesses of federal asset forfeiture law was passed by an overwhelming margin in the House of Representatives, and unanimously in the Senate, last year. The issue is drawing increased scrutiny in state governments as well; for example, forfeiture was a major topic at a recent conference of southern state legislators, with action promised by some attendees (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/161.html#southernforfeiture).
Some states have specifically addressed the issue of forfeiture federalizations. A ballot initiative passed by Utah voters this November diverts asset forfeiture proceeds into education, a similar initiative in Oregon into drug treatment. The Missouri Constitution requires that asset forfeiture funds be transferred to the school system. In Utah and Oregon, a court hearing would be required before any funds are transferred to the federal government, and would mandate that any funds returned would be used as specified in the initiatives.
More than spending choices lies at the heart of such requirements. One of the harms of asset forfeiture is the distortion of law enforcement priorities and standards -- police agencies will sometimes choose cases that promise a lucrative forfeiture take over other cases with greater bearing on public safety -- and the lure of forfeited drug money provides an incentive to take shortcuts with suspects' Constitutional rights. Requiring that forfeited funds go to budgetary areas other than law enforcement is intended to reduce those risks.
In order to circumvent state laws imposing such requirements, however, police agencies will often turn forfeiture cases over to the federal government, which in turn will return most of the money back to the state or local police, rather than to the places the state legislatures intended. This is what happened in Missouri -- where a provision of the state's Constitution, affirmed by the courts and the legislature, directs that forfeiture proceeds go to the schools instead.
The aiding and abetting, by a top state official and the US Department of Justice, of a constitutional violation by that state's police agencies to keep money that lawfully should have gone to the state's schools, could well be seen as having bearing on that official's suitability to head the Department of Justice.
Read Dan Forbes' detailed expose at http://www.prorev.com/ashcroft.htm -- and Arianna Huffington's column at http://www.ariannaonline.com/columns/files/011801.html -- and decide for yourself.