Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Police lie about task force legislation

If you can't win an argument, tell a lie. That's the strategy adopted by Northeast Texas Narcotics Task Force officials who are falsely claiming that HB 1239 by Hodge/Hinojosa "would require assets seized by narcotics operations during drug raids to be turned over to the state." Using that as a justification, the task force announced it would dissolve itself on September 30 of this year.

The only problem: HB 1239 doesn't do that!
Read it for yourself. That bill would only take away asset forfeiture money if a task force is not established in compliance with the law, or if agencies did not agree to comply with DPS rules. The interpretation that their money would be taken away no matter what is pure spin, a flat out misrepresentation.

Rusk County announced it will henceforth operate a single-county task force financed entirely through asset forfeiture funds. The Tyler Morning Telegraph reported:
[Henderson police chief Randy] Freeman said the task force could operate off of seized assets.

"We have several thousand dollars in seized and forfeited assets pending," he said. "They were going to take our forfeiting funds to operate the task force anyway. There was a strong possibility we'd lose money."

Freeman said that because of the drug trafficking on U.S. Highway 59, which is in the task force's jurisdiction, about 39 percent of the force's income comes from seized assets.
I don't get how you do that without violating federal rules that asset forfeiture money "increase but not replace" agency budgets -- i.e., the forfeiture money shouldn't be able to be used to replace local tax dollars or Byrne grant money. They can only "supplement" local budgets with extras. It's unethical for agencies to perennially finance their whole budgets from asset forfeiture -- there's too much incentive for committing an injustice when assets are seized by agencies whose budgetary existence depends on the seizure. But that's what's being contemplated in East Texas.

(Just to fact check: the Tyler paper incorrectly reported that
SB 1125 had passed the Legislature. Portions of it were incorporated into the final version of HB 1239 negotiated in the Senate with the Governor's office, but the bill never received a final vote in the House.)

The Longview News Journal gave
more detail about this scheme to operate a county task force based solely on asset forfeiture funds:
[Rusk County Chief Deputy Dusty Flanagan] said the current task force is operating with about $71,000 in seized drug money.

They have seized another $930,000, but that money hasn't been cleared by the state for use.

Flanagan said it should be available by September. At that time, it will be split evenly four ways between each agency in the task force.

Henderson and Rusk County will use its share – about $465,000 – to operate the new task force.

That money will last about a year-and-a-half, but Flanagan said the new task force should be making more traffic stops and seizing more money in the meantime.

He said the sheriff's office plans to make a request from the commissioners that they put the two task force officers on the county payroll for the 2005-06 budget.

"Then we can use the seized money to operate the task force," Flanagan said.
Does that sound like "increase but not replace" to you? It sounds to me like they're planning to rely on future asset forfeiture income for their base operational budget.

The two articles disagree about whether or not the task force took the Governor's office's three-month extension on Byrne grant funds. (If I had to bet I'd go with the Longview News Journal's version that they did take the extension -- the quotes from the commissioners court seem to back it up.) But they both say local officials hope to continue to operate purely on forfeited funds. I'm not an attorney, but from my layman's understanding of forfeiture law, that model is illegal, and offers a disastrous recipe for corruption if it's actually implemented, much less copied by others.

What an ignominious ploy. Apparently, some of these podunk departments will go to any extreme to mulct cash from the highways and keep their undercover drug operations from being effectively supervised.

Want more? See the
public policy report (pdf) I authored
last year on behalf of ACLU of Texas (with help from Lauri, now at Tres Chicas) analyzing stop and search data gathered under Texas' racial profiling law from drug task force highway interdiction units.

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