The nation’s high court took a big step this past week to curb the policing for profit that is corrupting law enforcement across our nation. The Missouri General Assembly is considering and should pass a measure to stop the practice in Missouri.
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Constitution imposes restrictions on the imposition of excessive fines by Indiana law enforcers in seizing a $42,000 Range Rover.
Tyson Timbs, the Indiana man who pleaded guilty to selling $225 worth of heroin to an undercover officer, was sentenced to house arrest, probation and $1,200 in fees and fines. The maximum fine for the offense is $10,000, but prosecutors went after Timbs’ Range Rover through civil forfeiture, a process that allows law enforcement agencies to seize property they say was used in a crime.
The high court rightly ruled that taking the vehicle amounted to an excessive fine forbidden under the Eighth and 14th amendments. Indiana had argued that the restriction did not apply to the states. The court trashed that argument but did not end forfeiture or determine what constitutes “excessive.”
Beyond the Supreme Court case, the vague definition of “used in a crime” is abused in many states to allow the seizure of property owned by people accused who are not ultimately convicted. The standard to connect property to a crime is not high. Frequently property belonging to third parties is seized. They then bear the costly and difficult burden of proof to get the property returned. The system is a corrupt cash grab that must be curtailed.
A conviction is required to seize property in Missouri, and the law requires proceeds from such forfeitures to go to education. But they don’t. In 2016, law enforcement officials seized an estimated $6.3 million worth of property. Only $100,000 of that was turned over to public schools.
Some of the money is still tied up in court, but 44 percent of it was diverted from state education into federal coffers where it could be clawed back by local law enforcers through a process called “equitable sharing.” The lure of the cash is so corrupting to law enforcers that they hand jurisdiction off to the feds in order to shift 80 percent of the money back to local law enforcement agencies. The feds retain 20 percent, while the schools get nothing.
The bill before lawmakers would close that loophole, prohibiting Missouri law enforcement agencies or prosecutors from joining agreements to transfer seized property to a federal agency. It would also require all property seized by joint task forces with the feds — a frequent source of seized property money — be handed to a state prosecutor for forfeiture under state law.
This bill will enforce Missouri’s rightfully stringent forfeiture law and diminish corrupt policing for profit. We call on our area lawmakers to work diligently for its passage.