Sticky-Fingered Cops


            State and federal law enforcement agencies make millions of dollars each year manipulating asset forfeiture laws. Generally, these laws permit seizure of items -- including houses, cash and cars -- that are the fruits or instrumentalities of a crime. If forfeited, the funds, whether cash or liquidated property, typically go to police departments.

            Lawmen are plenty aggressive when it comes to seizing money, and prosecutors are often aggressive in perfecting these claims. By an odd twist of law, one needn’t be convicted of a crime to lose assets.

            In recent months, our office has clashed with lawmen who refuse timely to return property the court has ordered them to return. The police, it turns out, have sticky fingers when it comes to other people’s money – they are quick to grab it, but reluctant to let it go.

            It’s shameful, and requires a closer look by both lawmakers and the courts.

            In one case, we had to threaten to file a motion to hold a police chief in contempt to catch his department’s attention. Months had passed and the department had ignored our demand that firearms seized from a client, and then ordered returned, be delivered to their rightful owner.

            We contacted the prosecutor responsible for the file to request assistance. The department was at least polite enough to respond to the prosecutor. But after several rounds of broken promises, I finally broke down and told the prosecutor in an email that we were prepared to file a motion for contempt: the department had notice of a court order, demand for compliance had been made, and the department ignored it.

            I was surprised to receive a copy of the email the prosecutor sent to the police chief informing the chief the prosecutor would support our motion for contempt.

            The guns were finally returned.

            In another case, local law enforcement agents seized $60,000 from a young woman in a narcotics arrest. We presented evidence that the funds were the fruit of the settlement of a lawsuit. After the criminal case was worked out, we got an order from the court directing the police to return the money to the client.

            Months later, we still don’t have the money. I called the top prosecutor in that jurisdiction, who then lateralled the matter down the line to the associate who handled the file. The line prosecutor is as frustrated as we are, apparently. We’re standing down to give him one last chance to get our client’s money back before asking for a contempt hearing.

            I’ve heard other lawyers and prosecutors grumble about the same sort of thing in other cases: the police are quick to seize cash and property, eager to convert it to their own use, and delighted to play with the toys the money buys. But when ordered by a court to return property, departments suddenly grow deaf.

            It is contemptible, and, candidly, I think the sight of a police chief sitting behind bars until his subordinates cough up the items in question would be a useful tonic.

            But I doubt there is a judge in the state who would date discomfit a police chief in such a manner. Sadly, when it comes to accountability, police officers too often get a pass.

            I’m hoping the Legislature will take a look at what’s going on in local police departments. Just how much money are departments seizing each year? How long does it take them to return property ordered returned? Who is pocketing the interest they are making holding other people’s money?

            What’s needed is legislation requiring prompt return of property, with meaningful penalties for failure to return it. Respect for the law isn’t promoted when police departments behave like contemptuous deadbeats ignoring court orders and withholding property they were only to willing to seize when they thought they would get the right to keep it.

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