The Columbia City Council voted unanimously to allow the Columbia Police Department to buy $11,320 worth of software using forfeiture funds on Monday. According to the Cornell University's Legal Information Institute, forfeiture is defined as the government seizure of property connected to illegal activity.
Requests to purchase software and other items with forfeiture funds are usually placed on the council meeting's consent agenda, but the discussion was featured on the "old business" section Monday night. Police Chief Ken Burton asked for the item to be placed on the old business section because of recent media attention to the department's use of forfeiture funds.
At a Citizens Police Review Board meeting in November, Burton referred to forfeiture funds as "pennies from heaven" and noted that there aren't many limitations on the "forfeiture stuff."
"There's two kinds of forfeitures that the (Columbia Police) Department deals with," Burton said. "The first kind is - they're kind of small in nature, someone is engaged in criminal activity and we recover $1,000 or $1500 that we think are the fruits of that crime. We forward that to the prosecuting attorney here in Boone County and we never see it again. Those are the funds that go to the school district eventually or are supposed to go to the school district eventually. On larger forfeitures, like we stop somebody with 50 pounds of marijuana and $150,000 in cash in conjunction with the Drug Enforcement Administration - those kinds of things are where we get our forfeiture funds. We don't see forfeiture money from those small forfeitures so - they're very strict guidelines."
Mayor Bob McDavid suggested that forfeiture funds be worked into the regular police budget instead of bringing each purchase in front of the city council.
"It has the sense of found money to me," McDavid said. "I think it should be treated with the same discipline as all (the money). I just wonder if, from a policy standpoint, we shouldn't really be talking about this - it should go into your budget, which you defend on an annual basis anyway."
Several public commentators spoke on the issue, including Tyree Byndom, president of the Douglass Park Neighborhood Association, who suggested using the funds to help the community.
"If this money can be directed back to the community in any way, I think it should be used (to do that)," Byndom said. "Anything that could help this community to have a leg up (should be used). It is a huge issue, it is national, and if we could be the leader in making sure we use these funds appropriately, not only would it help the community that is affected the most, which is usually the First Ward, but it's going to help also to change some of the long standing abuses that we have nationally."
American for Forfeiture Reform was represented by Sean O'Day, who read a transcript prepared by the executive director, Eapen Thampy.
"We ask for an ordinance to be drafted based on the following four ideas," O'Day read. "Any use of forfeiture funds should be subject to meaningful, public oversight, the use of civil asset forfeiture should be restricted entirely, Columbia law enforcement should only engage in forfeiture through the criminal process, Columbia law enforcement should not partner with federal agencies offering forfeiture payouts for participation, Columbia law enforcement should respect their duty under the Missouri Constitution Article 9 section 7 to send the proceeds of forfeiture to Missouri schools."
Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe acknowledged the public comments and said it would be nice for the funds to benefit the community.
"I think we could tie it even closer to community projects that are police related that the community can see directly benefit them," Hoppe said.
The Missouri Constitution states, "the clear proceeds of all penalties, forfeitures and fines collected hereafter for any breach of the penal laws of the state, the net proceeds from the sale of estrays, and all other moneys coming into said funds shall be distributed annually to the schools of the several counties according to law."
The Missouri legislature delegated that all forfeitures of assets shall be appropriated to the School Building Revolving Fund in 1995, which uses forfeiture funds to provide financial assistance to Missouri school districts financing capital construction projects.
"I think to keep everybody as reassured as we can to do everything above board, bringing things in front of council," Second Ward Councilman Michael Trapp said. "I'd be curious to see what kinds of limitations we could do so that we could respect the federal guidelines but honor the spirit of the Missouri law that (forfeiture funds) should go toward education and things that benefit the community."