Saturday, February 26, 2011

Making the same old mistakes on asset forfeiture: Profit motive has no place in law enforcement strategy

Back during the fight to shut down Texas' network of Tulia-style drug task forces, one of the key revelations that discredited those now-defunct pseudo-agencies, and which prompted a new rule at the Department of Public Safety narcotics division, was that many were focusing their traffic interdiction efforts almost exclusively on southbound lanes, ignoring drugs going north in hopes of snagging more cash, of which they'd get to keep a portion under asset forfeiture laws.

At the time that tactic was seen as discrediting the task forces, and DPS created a rule requiring task forces to spend equal time in the north and southbound lanes, a stipulation that caused many of them not to accept DPS supervision and ultimately led to Governor Perry's decision to de-fund the lot of them, shifting federal grants that used to pay for them to other priorities from drug courts to border security.

Now, though, pretty much that exact same strategy is being suggested as a statewide revenue generating scheme. The Statesman's Mike Ward reported ("Senators, DPS eye millions in seized drug money," Feb. 22):
DPS Director Steve McCraw had just testified that federal officials now estimate that as much as $28 billion a year in cash goes from the United States across the border into Mexico.

Two-thirds of that goes through Texas, he estimated.

"That's the Medicaid budget," Ogden responded after hearing the $28 billion figure.

Since 2006, McCraw said, $140 million in drug cash has been seized along the Texas border, most from trucks and other vehicles headed into Mexico.

With additional officers and checkpoints to examine Mexico-bound vehicles, he said, Texas seizures could increase by as much as 12 percent.

Currently, a percentage of the seized money goes to prosecutors, and McCraw said another percentage — perhaps all the remaining amount — goes into state coffers, depending on whether federal police agencies are involved in the bust.

But Monday's discussion was the first time that additional enforcement has been tied to its success in seizing additional cash, a connection that other states have been discussing to address their budget crises in recent months.

Ogden questioned whether, if the state earmarks additional money to target drug cash seizures, the cost might come out equal to the state's share of what was seized.

"If we're going to spend $50 million we ought to get some credit for this in the budget," he said.

He instructed representatives from the state comptroller's office to investigate how much the state might legally lay claim to in a two-year period, so it could be used in creating a budget.

Other members of the committee indicated an interest in using a share of the forfeited cash, as well — even though Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston , echoed other sentiments when he said the suggestion was not to put DPS "on a sales commission" by funding it based on how much drug cash it seized.
Many of the Tulia-style drug task forces had essentially become complicit with drug traffickers, driven by the same motives on display at this Senate hearing. As a matter of macro-level strategy, they de-emphasized enforcement on northbound drugs so they could take a bigger cut of the southbound cash, or as Grits once put it, "living off asset-forfeiture income from traffic interdiction like pirates living off the spoils from plundered ships." (BTW, do you know the difference between a pirate and a "privateer"?)

So instead of having a vested interest in reducing drug trafficking, the larger concern for some task forces was securing their share of the profits, which in many cases was used as local matching funds for re-upping their federal grants. (See a public policy report I wrote on drug-task force highway interdiction back in 2004.) This amounted to tacit (and occasionally explicit) complicity with the drug traffickers, and the task forces' failure to comply with DPS rules on that score was a big reason why the Governor de-funded them in 2006. But these are lessons, apparently, that Texans must learn over and over again: The aims of law enforcement become corrupted when government's priority is maximizing revenue. (Speaking of which, one of the USDOJ budget cutting strategies suggested by the Obama Administration was "Sharing less of the proceeds from property confiscated from criminals with state and local authorities.")

Ironically, on Tuesday the Senate Criminal Justice Committee will hear legislation by Chairman John Whitmire aimed at restricting the ability of local District Attorneys to manipulate their prosecutorial functions to maximize asset forfeiture income. (See related Grits posts rounded up here.) But the state is considering building southbound border checkpoints (as opposed to the northbound ones aimed at illegal immigrants and drugs) for the exact same reasons - to skew law enforcement priorities toward activities that maximize revenue instead of reduce drug trafficking. I don't see how it's much different, or more defensible, than what the drug task forces were doing.


MaxM said...

So if we are going to fund government with drug money why not just legalize and tax it? Also, the drug cartels and their henchmen are getting more brazen each year. If the state and feds ramp up southbound, money seizure focused interdiction I bet it won't be long before there is a big shoot out at one of these check points.

Anonymous said...

Make no mistake, there will be increased effort to seize money flowing back into Mexico and points south.

The pitch was made and received with open arms on Monday, what remains to be seen is how the revenue stream is divied up. Hopefully,TDCJ,Probation,Mental Health and Parole will step up to the pay window and demand funding for treatment, diversion, rehabilitation, education and reentry.

For the most part the ones these programs benefit are the same ones that put the money into the pot in the first place. So, "come-on man" do something that makes sense with the money.

Anonymous said...

The main reason locals are on the federals task forces is the money seizures. If the fed put their hands on it, it goes to the General Fund.
If a local officer seizes the cash, then that agency gets it, not the local government, that police agency.
The feds have had their issues also. One local sheriff's Lt got removed from the US Customs money laundering task force in Houston years back. HIDTA agents have acted the fool and gotten fired.
The antics at HIDTA, ICE, FBI etc bear watching now that the DPS Task Forces are pretty much gone.

Anonymous said...

Drugs should be legalized and taxed. That statement has been made by some law enforcement, judges and such. But then some law enforcement wouldn't be able to steal some of the goodies. Aransas and San Patricio County has been notorious for that kind of thing.

We are not winning the war on drugs.

Captain Obvious said...

Gee, government wants a bigger share of the drug money spent by US consumers?! Duh! Then Legalize and Tax!! They get plenty of tax money from beer, wine and legal pharmaceuticals.

It's just like gambling. You may not like it, but people are going to do it anyway and the state needs the cash. They'd get a lot more money taxing legal drugs than from these stupid highway fishing expeditions.

Anonymous said...

I hate to be the one to break it to you all but, the drug war will never end. No one wants it to, nor can they afford for it to. Everyone from the DEA chief on down to the rookie cop depends on the Drug War to survive.

Judges, prosecutors, cops, criminal defense attorneys, prison guards, and all manner of support personnel would all be unemployed tomorrow if drugs were legalized today.

The recent ballot initiative in California to legalize marijuana was opposed and defeated by the usual suspects: The California Narcotics Officers' Association, the California Association of Highway Patrolmen, the California Police Chiefs Association, the California Correctional Supervisors Organization, the California Peace Officers Association, the California District Attorney Association, and local police associations. They are joined by all federal drug czars past and present, past and present DEA administrators, both California US senators and most of the congressional delegation, most newspaper editorial boards, the California Chamber of Commerce, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and, lastly, the California Beer and Beverage Distributors.

And Mexico, they can't afford for it to end there either. Drugs are Mexico's 3rd largest source of income, just behind oil exports, and money sent home from workers here in the USA.

I have been fortunate to have traveled to more than 3-dozen countries. And while most all of these countries have drug laws of some form or another on the books, they are rarely enforced, and never enforced to the degree they are here in the USA.

Spain, Italy, and even Mexico have legalized possession of small amounts of recreational drugs, and there has been absolutely no increase in drug use, crime, or any other ill effects. Portugal, where most recreational drugs were decriminalized in 2001 and resources focused instead on education and treatment, has actually had a decrease in drug use. Go figure....

The Drug War is nothing but a slush fund for law enforcement, and crooked politicians, one that us taxpayers are going broke subsidizing.

Peter Hamilton said...

"unrestrained and uneducated"

John Bradley,
Williamson County DA

John, you're too harsh on yourself...

Anonymous said...

If Obama wants the Federal agencies to keep more of the seized cash, then you kiss all the task forces good-bye.

Hook Em Horns said...

Legalizing and taxing drugs is not a good idea. The crime that goes along with being high for weeks on end on meth or crack dealers making a buck cannot be solved with this simple approach.

Legalization of Marijuana is another issue though. The approach to drug enforcement needs to include rehabilitation for those addicted. Serious rehabilitation.

Anonymous said...

I don't know that targeting the cartel's money is necessarily a bad thing. Not to mention, I'm sure DPS Troopers will recover a lot of guns and firearms, stolen vehicles, and wanted fugitives headed to Mexico also. If we take their drugs...they just resupply it with another stash. If we take their money and guns, it may have a larger and more negative impact on the drug cartels. If there is anyone I would want doing this, Its DPS Troopers. I'm sure they have had bad apples just as every Agency in the world does, but they seem to be more insulated from it than many others. I know this opinion may not be the popular one here, but I feel it needs to be said.

Anonymous said...

Good Texas christian, conservative values at work once agian.Going to Mexico?Yaw come back now,ya hear!