Newsbrief: Tampa Police Enjoying Seized Cars 8/8/03

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According to a Tuesday story in the St. Petersburg (Florida) Times, police officials in nearby Tampa are using vehicles seized from alleged criminals for their own personal use. Tampa Police Chief Bennie Holder, setting the standard for his force, was spotted tooling around in a black 2001 Lincoln Navigator, complete with DVD player and video screen, worth $35,000. He later upgraded to a 2001 Chevy Tahoe worth $38,000.

Other Tampa police are following the chief's lead. Tampa police are using at least 43 vehicles seized under Florida's Contraband Forfeiture Act, which allows police to confiscate property used during the commission of a felony or bought with the proceeds from crime. A Tampa police major is driving a 1998 Lincoln Navigator valued at $35,000, while a sergeant drives a 1999 Ford Expedition valued at $34,000. The forfeiture fleet includes five Navigators, two Expeditions, a BMW, and a Lexus, the Times reported.

Naturally, Tampa police defended the practice. "We believe it makes good fiscal sense," Chief Holder said in a press release. "We're saving taxpayer dollars. We're taking cars from criminals and using them for legitimate law enforcement purposes." Holder did not explain precisely what "legitimate law enforcement purpose" was served by his being able to cruise in a high-dollar dope wagon.

Depite Holder's protestations, the practice is viewed uneasily by criminal justice ethicists and even other police departments. St. Petersburg police said they used only department-purchased vehicles. "The brass doesn't get to pick and choose from seized cars," said a department spokesman.

"It may not be the best idea. There's a perception problem there," said Leonard Territo, a retired University of South Florida criminology professor. "It's not good PR for the police chief to be driving around in a top-of-the-line expensive car. As any type of public official, you have to be careful. Public perception is very important."

Yes. We wouldn't want the public to get the impression that law enforcement somehow profits from seizing people's property.

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