The city of Bay St. Louis, Miss., provides us with a $300,000 lesson on why the widespread use of asset forfeiture at a local, state, and federal level needs to end.
That is the amount the city must repay the Federal Department of Justice after an investigation concluded the city misspent drug forfeiture money.
According to WLOX, the city council voted unanimously to pay back the money owed, which had been spent on city operating costs. Now, they’re trying to find a solution that doesn’t injure local citizens’ wallets.
“I think the only way we can recoup the money so that the taxpayers are not harmed is to go after the bonds of the individuals that we feel are responsible,” said Councilman Joey Boudin. “We put the bonding companies on notice to go after the mayor’s bond, the deceased police chief’s bond, and the two city clerks.”
“We’re not saying this money was mismanaged or misspent intentionally, but it was. At the end of the day, it was mismanaged. We broke every rule that the Department of Justice has laid out on this money, so somebody needs to pay,” Boudin said. “The taxpayer didn’t break the rule.”
While the councilman’s efforts to protect taxpayers is commendable, the entire episode could have been avoided had the city not used the asset forfeiture process as a cash cow.
Police use asset forfeiture to seize property and money the say is linked to a crime. The process often happens with no criminal conviction and sometimes without charges ever being filed. Opponents of asset forfeiture often call it “policing for profit” because law enforcement agencies often get to keep a large percentage of the proceeds, creating perverse incentives to aggressively pursue forfeiture cases. By placing the case under federal jurisdiction, law enforcement can bypass more restrictive state laws where they exist and collect up to 80 percent of the proceeds from forfeited assets via the federal Equitable Sharing Program.
The best solution for the city moving forward would be to discontinue using asset forfeiture money in its budget entirely. A state House bill would take a small step towards statewide forfeiture reform, but the ultimate goal would be to require a criminal conviction prior to any forfeiture proceeding and to bar law enforcement agencies from getting the proceeds. There is reason to allow law enforcement agencies to seize property from ordinary citizens and keep it even if no conviction is ever made.
This setup creates an incentive to “police for profit” rather than enforce valid property laws. It also establishes a perverse relationship between local police and the feds, who can use grant money to manipulate those agencies into enforcing unconstitutional and immoral federal laws.
The recent slew of asset forfeiture reform bills introduced nationwide indicates that Americans are no longer willing to tolerate the rampant abuse and, in the case of Bay St. Louis, misuse for other government purposes.
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