Police agencies have used hundreds of millions of dollars taken from Americans under federal civil forfeiture law in recent years to buy guns, armored cars and electronic surveillance gear. They have also spent money on luxury vehicles, travel and a clown named Sparkles.
The details are contained in thousands of annual reports submitted by local and state agencies to the Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program, an initiative that allows local and state police to keep up to 80 percent of the assets they seize. The Washington Post obtained 43,000 of the reports dating from 2008 through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The documents offer a sweeping look at how police departments and drug task forces across the country are benefiting from laws that allow them to take cash and property without proving a crime has occurred. The law was meant to decimate drug organizations, but The Post found that it has been used as a routine source of funding for law enforcement at every level.
“In tight budget periods, and even in times of budget surpluses, using asset forfeiture dollars to purchase equipment and training to stay current with the ever-changing trends in crime fighting helps serve and protect the citizens,” said Prince George’s County, Md., police spokeswoman Julie Parker.
Brad Cates, a former director of asset forfeiture programs at the Justice Department, said the spending identified by The Post suggests police are using Equitable Sharing as “a free floating slush fund.” Cates, who oversaw the program while at Justice from 1985 to 1989, said it has enabled police to sidestep the traditional budget process, in which elected leaders create law enforcement spending priorities.
“All of this is fundamentally at odds with the U.S. Constitution,” said Cates, who recently co-wrote an article calling for the program’s abolition on The Post’s editorial page. “All of this is at odds with the rights that Americans have.”
Of the nearly $2.5 billion in spending reported in the forms, 81 percent came from cash and property seizures in which no indictment was filed, according to an analysis by The Post. Owners must prove that their money or property was acquired legally in order to get it back.
The police purchases comprise a rich mix of the practical and the high-tech, including an array of gear that has helped some departments militarize their operations: Humvees, automatic weapons, gas grenades, night-vision scopes and sniper gear. Many departments acquired electronic surveillance equipment, including automated license-plate readers and systems that track cellphones.
The spending also included a $5 million helicopter for Los Angeles police; a mobile command bus worth more than $1 million in Prince George’s County; an armored personnel carrier costing $227,000 in Douglasville, Ga., population 32,000; $5,300 worth of “challenge coin” medallions in Brunswick County, N.C.; $4,600 for a Sheriff’s Award Banquet by the Doña Ana County (N.M.) Sheriff’s Department;
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