Displaying much of the same confusion and political schizophrenia on drug policy that is beginning to afflict statehouses around the country, the Missouri legislature has passed and Governor Bob Holden has signed a bill designed to reign in police abuses of asset forfeiture laws. At the same time, the state is on the verge of enacting draconian new penalties for Ecstasy and other so-called club drugs.
While several states have passed citizen initiatives on asset forfeiture reform, Missouri now becomes the first to have taken the legislative route. The state came close to passing asset forfeiture reform last year, but the measure died on the last day of the General Assembly.
Under the Missouri constitution, cash or goods seized by state or local police officers in connection with drug or other offenses are supposed to go to a state education fund. Missouri law enforcement agencies, however, routinely flouted the state constitution by handing seizures over to federal authorities, typically the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Local cops who seized assets during drug busts would argue that they only "held" the assets for federal agents to "seize."
The federal agency would then take a 20% cut of the booty and return the rest to the arresting agency. Police coffers overflowed, while the education fund went hungry. US Attorney General John Ashcroft, a former Missouri AG and governor, was himself implicated in a little-noticed exposé published during his Senate confirmation process earlier this year (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/169.html#copsrobbers).
Under the new law, sponsored by State Senator Henry Wiggins (D-Kansas City), that loophole is closed. The bill modifies the state's Criminal Activities Forfeiture Act by clarifying that the first agency to exercise control over the cash or property is the seizing agency. It also requires permission from a circuit court judge for state and local authorities to transfer seized goods to federal agencies. And, under the revised law, local law enforcement agencies must file detailed annual reports of all seizures to either local prosecutors or the state attorney general and to the state auditor.
"This truly is a landmark day in Missouri," Gov. Holden said in a press release. "We are the first state to take this action. These new actions will hopefully restore the public's confidence in how the police handle seizures, particularly in the area of confiscated funds," Holden said.
Sen. Wiggins told the Southeast Missourian (Cape Girardeau) the passage of the law was the culmination of "a long, three-year struggle." House Speaker Jim Kreider (D-Nixa), another supporter of the bill, said that Missouri police who used the federal system to circumvent state law risked creating the appearance of impropriety that besmirched the image of the police. Kreider said his goal "has been to protect the reputation of Missouri's finest law enforcement" officers. This is a piece of model legislation that many other states are looking at," Kreider said. "This is a nationwide issue, and we are proud in Missouri to have addressed it."
Much of the credit for public interest in asset forfeiture reform, however, must go to Kansas City Star investigative reporter Karen Dillon. Her series of articles on asset forfeiture abuses in Missouri and nationwide, "To Protect and Collect" (http://www.kcstar.com/projects/drugforfeit/) made it impossible for state lawmakers to ignore widespread asset forfeiture abuses in Missouri.
After Dillon's first report in January 1999, State Auditor Claire McCaskill in 1999 released a report showing that 85 percent of all forfeitures in the state went through the federal process. State and local cops seized $47 million from defendants that year, but only $7 million was turned over to the education fund, as required by the state constitution. If the federal 20% share ratio stayed constant, that means that Missouri police took $32 million from the state's schoolchildren that year.
While some enlightened law enforcement officials, seeing the writing on the wall, welcomed the reforms, others took extraordinary, if ultimately unsuccessful steps to ward them off. An example of the former was Colonel Weldon Wilhoit, the superintendent of the State Highway Patrol. He told the Southeast Missourian that the law clarifies the power of police and won't hamper drug interdiction and other crime-fighting efforts.
Platte County (north suburban Kansas City) Sheriff Dick Anderson, however, was so concerned at the prospect of reform that he used county funds to hire high-priced lobbyists to push an amendment he wanted. The amendment would have exempted drug enforcement efforts at the state's two major airports, Kansas City International and St. Louis' Lambert Field.
Anderson told the Kansas City Star the reforms would "hamper" detectives working with federal task forces at the airports. Anderson denied that loss of seized funds for his agency was a motive for his opposition, but then added he would not voluntarily turn over money to the education fund. He would obey the state constitution "only if the Missouri legislature said I had to do it," Anderson said. Anderson's Platte County Sheriff's Office has raked in more than $100,000 per year in funds turned over to the feds and then returned to the department, the Star reported.
Under Anderson's proposed amendment, Missouri law enforcement agencies would only have had to declare themselves part of a federal task force to evade the state law. "It is just opening a crack," Sen. Larry Rohrbach (R-California) told the Star. "But, you know, stuff runs out of cracks."
Anderson's expensive lobbying campaign also came under scrutiny. The Star reported that Anderson was paying Kansas City attorney law firm Lathrop & Gage attorney fees ranging from $130 to $195 per hour to influence lawmakers, but that neither Anderson nor the law firm could say how much county money had been expended in the futile effort. Platte County officials, who theoretically oversee the sheriff, uniformly refused to comment. Platte County Auditor Sandra Thomas told the Star she would not comment because of the "political nature" of the situation. State auditors were more forthright. "This is troubling," state auditor's office spokesman Glenn Campbell told the Star. "These are public monies. It is the kind of thing that if it was occurring in any of the counties we audit, we would have a serious problem... and ask that the practice be discontinued."
While Missouri legislators took a progressive stance on asset forfeiture, they have also voted for regressive, draconian new penalties for possessing or selling Ecstasy and other "club drugs." In fact, the same senator, Henry Wiggins, introduced both the asset forfeiture and the Ecstasy bills. "This is an issue that is so important to Missouri," said Wiggins.
In an op-ed in the Kansas City Star the weekend before the state senate vote, Rep. Cathy Jolly (D-Kansas City) argued that the legislation was necessary because five young St. Louis men who died of carbon monoxide poisoning in a car had Ecstasy in their bloodstreams.
The office of Gov. Bob Holden had not returned DRCNet calls asking whether the governor will sign the legislation. He has until July 14 to sign or veto the bill. If the governor fails to sign, the bill is dead.