Following months of protest for the killing of unarmed Ferguson resident Mike Brown, a recent US Department of Justice audit of the Ferguson Police Department inadvertently revealed Missouri police in neighboring cities directly benefiting from property they seize.
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 supposed to be required to prove with reasonable cause that it was connected to a crime, but many have criticized the guidelines for how that connection is established.
Keep Columbia Free, a citizens rights group based in Columbia, Mo., 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 with laws that are intended to prevent police from directly benefiting from property they’ve seized, however a federal program called Equitable Sharing has allowed police to get around these restrictions. This program allows police seizures processed through the federal government to be given almost entirely to participating law enforcement agencies, creating an absurd incentive to link as much property to alleged crimes as possible, or to wait until certain crimes become profitable until enforcing the law.
Keep Columbia Free founder Mark Flakne explained the difference between criminal and civil types of asset forfeiture, noting that 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. 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. Because property owners must prove their innocence, as opposed to an accuser proving their guilt, attempting to get property back is often not even worth the hassle.
“Let’s say that you have $5,000 cash seized, 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?”
Despite the Missouri Constitution’s guidelines which are intended to make sure seized assets go to local education funding, police continue to benefit from the seizures they make. The USDOJ audit showed the Columbia Police Department received a total of $349,617 from federal equitable sharing funds since 2010.
Equitable sharing fund expenditures since 2010 total $269,534. The money was spent on police force functions, including investigation tools, equipment, and an armored personnel carrier. About $80,000 in funds received were not recorded as being spent.