CPD continues to receive forfeited assets through ‘federal equitable sharing’ loophole

Since 2010, CPD has received $349,617 from federal equitable sharing funds.

The Department of Justice recently released its report detailing many problems within the Ferguson Police Department and city government. One key issue the report unveiled was a policing-for-profit, more formally known as asset forfeiture, system in Ferguson, Missouri.

Asset forfeiture is the means by which law enforcement can seize private property in relation to suspected crimes. The Columbia Police Department has employed this system to net almost $350,000 since 2010.

Since the report on Ferguson’s release, the city manager and police chief have stepped down amid criticism. In Columbia, despite outcry from local watchdog groups, policing-for-profit continues.

Keep Columbia Free founder Mark Flakne explained the differences between criminal and civil types of asset forfeiture. Flakne said criminal asset forfeiture shouldn’t be confused with civil. In criminal cases, property can be seized after a person has been convicted of a crime.

Civil asset forfeiture, on the other hand, refers to law enforcement seizing property when no proven crime has been committed.

When an innocent owner sets out to reclaim his or her previously owned property, he or she must prove the property’s innocence in relation to the alleged crime. It’s often not worth the hassle, Flakne said.

“Let’s say that you have $5,000 cash seized,” he said. “But it’s going to cost you $10,000 in legal fees to fight the government for your money back. What happens? What are you going to do?”

Missouri uses the “lowest legal standard” to seize property, according to the Institute for Justice. An officer in Missouri who attempts to seize an asset is required to prove with reasonable cause that it was connected to a crime.

“Generally, some of the political complaints are that things get seized where there is a so-called factual stretch of the imagination, that the thing that is being served is actually being used to further criminal activity,” MU’s Student Legal Services Coordinator Stephen Concannon said.

Keep Columbia Free describes asset forfeiture as “the means by which the government circumvents the Fourth, Fifth and Tenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution to steal property from its citizens as it makes unreasonable seizures without due process and overrides the Missouri Constitution.”

Missouri is one of eight states that have laws preventing police from directly benefiting from forfeiture funds. Instead, funds should go toward local education systems, according to the Missouri Constitution.

Still, legislation offers a loophole due to federal equitable sharing. This is the “federal adoption of forfeiture proceedings and equitable sharing arrangements,” according to the Institute for Justice. If processed through the federal government, forfeitures will be given almost entirely to participating law enforcement agencies.

The Columbia Police Department received a total of $349,617 from federal equitable sharing funds since 2010.

Only about 7.5 percent — $26,112 — of the funds received during the past five years were from 2014. This is the lowest amount during this time period. The funds received by CPD since 2012 have decreased by 78.5 percent or roughly $95,000.

Equitable sharing fund expenditures since 2010 total $269,534. The money was spent on police force functions, including investigation tools, equipment, a SWAT armored personnel carrier and more. About $80,000 in funds received during this time were not recorded as being spent.

“The community loses one check and balance, and the police have a perverse incentive to prosecute profitable crimes or wait to act until certain crimes become profitable,” Keep Columbia Free wrote on its website.

Flakne said he disagrees with federal equitable sharing. He said he believes the law should be reformed in order for education systems in Missouri to once again receive their promised funds.

“I think it is a heinous abuse of government power and (the loophole) needs to be closed immediately,” Flakne said.

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