Prostitutes, drugs and sports cars.
Those are just a handful of the outlandish items police forces across the country have purchased with money seized from American citizens, often without any criminal charges being filed against them.
In its video, “The Craziest Things Cops Spent Forfeiture Money On,” the civil liberties nonprofit Institute for Justice highlighted its top six examples of unorthodox purchases made with the thousands of dollars seized from families, small business owners and individual citizens suspected – but not charged – with criminal activity, as allowed under U.S. civil asset forfeiture law.
“Under civil asset forfeiture, police can seize property suspected of involvement in criminal activity. Unlike criminal asset forfeiture, with civil forfeiture, people don't have to be convicted — or even charged — with a crime to permanently lose their cars, homes, or cash,” the Institute noted. “Even worse, in many cases, police get to keep what they seize through asset forfeiture. As long as cops get to keep what they seize, civil asset forfeiture will keep on spawning scandals."
The Institute for Justice calls out police forces for spending seized money on “steak and booze” at celebrity-studded barbecues and for splurging on kegs and a margarita machines at various parties — but those are just the tip of the iceberg.
Larry Salzman, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, said all too often, the spending falls within federal spending guidelines for civil asset forfeiture money.
“We know next to nothing about how local and state law enforcement agencies spend the proceeds of forfeiture, because the law does not demand enough accountability," Salzman said.
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a handful of Milwaukee County sheriffs splurged on “customer service training” from the Disney Institute. Using nearly $25,000 of forfeiture funds, 50 police officers attended “Disney’s Approach to Business Excellence,” learning both “thinking ‘inside’ the box” as well as “thinking ‘outside’ the box.”
Not all the money is spent on seemingly frivolous items; the Milwaukee sheriffs also provided examples of when the forfeiture money was sent to charitable organizations. But the percentage of those donations pales in comparison to the amount spent on other expenditures.
“Of the sheriff's $826,577 in forfeiture money over the past four years, 55 percent went for equipment, 18 percent for training, 14 percent for donations, 9 percent for travel and the rest for awards and other costs ... Donations went to 10 organizations, including Boy Scouts of Milwaukee County, several sports leagues and Hope Christian School,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
Some district attorneys and police chiefs have faced their own time in court for misusing forfeiture funds, like Texas District Attorney Ron Sutton. Sutton flew his entire office, their spouses and a Texas judge to Hawaii for a six-day law conference. The district attorney used more than $27,000 in asset forfeiture proceeds to pay for the getaway. In 2010, he pleaded guilty to two felony charges for misusing forfeiture funds.
Salzman also explained that under a system called “equitable sharing,” local law enforcement agents can share in the funds seized by federal agencies, even if the state laws offer protections against “policing for profit.”
“Using the equitable sharing program, local and state law enforcement agencies can team up with federal officials to do civil forfeitures under lax federal laws. That provides many agencies with money they couldn't get or spend under their own state laws," Salzman said.
TheBlaze TV's For the Record on Wednesday will expose more cases of civil property forfeiture abuse in the new episode, "Seized." For the Record will reveal how business owners targeted by the Internal Revenue Service and Department of Homeland Security found out the government had zeroed out their bank accounts before they were even charged with a crime.
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