I am writing to you regarding an article you recently published written by Victor Riches of the Goldwater Institute entitled, Arizona still has a chance to rein in “policing for profit.”
Mr. Riches refers to civil asset forfeitures as a “cash cow.” While his intent may be honorable, the information he provided is biased and paints an inaccurate picture of the viability of civil seizures by law enforcement agencies.
The RICO act, a federal law, was originally enacted as a way to combat organized crime, in particular the Mafia. RICO violations were a way to bring organized crime figures to justice. In fact, were it not for RICO laws many, many organized crime figures would never have been brought to justice. RICO permits all law enforcement agencies at all levels to seize the money and property of criminals arrested and charged with specific crimes where the property and money seized and forfeited were related to the specific crimes charged in criminal courts. Mr. Riches neglected to mention the importance, evolution and reasoning behind such seizures.
Having spent over 25 years in law enforcement, with seven of those years as a chief of police, I have firsthand knowledge of how communities benefit from civil forfeitures as a result of the commission of certain crimes – in particular narcotics related crimes. This law permits any money or property (buildings, homes, vehicles, boats, air planes, weapons, etc.) to be seized and stored by law enforcement agencies when such money and/or property was being used in the commission of narcotics-related crimes or was obtained with the profits of the commission of narcotics-related crimes.
At the time of an arrest police may temporarily seize and store any of the aforementioned assets until such time as they file for the permanent forfeiture of said assets in a civil court of law. This is a civil action separate and apart from any criminal cases charged and pending against the owners of said property. Mr. Riches also neglects to mention that the forfeitures are decided by a judge and based on the presentation of a preponderance of evidence that any forfeited money or property was used to traffic narcotics or purchased by the proceeds from sales and trafficking narcotics. Mr. Riches describes these forfeitures in such a way that would lead people to believe that the police unilaterally seized and deprived the owners of their money and property. Most criminal cases can take up to two or three years to go to trial, during which time the criminal offender may make bail as determined by the court. Failing to seize their money and assets would allow them to use the same assets to continue in trafficking narcotics. Not seizing their money would provide the financial means to flee the jurisdiction or country to avoid prosecution.
Civil seizure laws related specifically to narcotics enforcement cases require all property and money seized must be used to aid law enforcement agencies in combating narcotics-related criminal activity. In some cases, property such as motor vehicles are used for narcotics enforcement, while property such as homes and buildings are sold with the profits going to the law enforcement agencies to be used solely for narcotics enforcement equipment, narcotics enforcement officers’ overtime pay, and drug-related education programs such as the D.A.R.E. program in schools. In many cases, motor vehicles seized were also painted and used to advertise each community’s D.A.R.E. programs.
From my personal experience, a motor vehicle we seized that was purchased with the profits from narcotics sales and used to transport narcotics, was used by undercover narcotics enforcement officers to make additional narcotics-related cases. In this instance, use of this car aided in the arrest and subsequent convictions of more than 200 narcotics dealers and traffickers while taking millions of dollars worth of illicit narcotics off of the streets. In other cases, deciding not to seize homes as a bargaining tool in particular resulted in criminals providing valuable intelligence information leading to additional narcotics arrests and seizures while also protecting the safety of law enforcement officers.
Eliminating civil forfeitures would take away a valuable law enforcement tool in combating narcotics-related crimes. Mr. Riches implications that civil forfeiture laws are a deprivation of any civil rights is not accurate. Furthermore, should the state overturn or alter our current civil forfeiture laws, state, county, and local law enforcement agencies could and most likely would turn their completed narcotics enforcement cases over to the DEA, ATF, and FBI where these federal agencies can file for civil forfeitures in federal courts and go before federal judges to obtain civil forfeitures in these cases.
Michael R. Grill is a retired police chief and veteran of the Vietnam chief living in Mesa.