A Texas district attorney’s office whose county in known as a key drug-trafficking route faces accusations that it repeatedly allowed suspected drug runners and money launderers to avoid charges or face minimal sentencing if they gave their cash to prosecutors.
The result was that authorities have collected more than $800,000 in less than a year with a practice that basically allows suspects to buy their way out of charges or jail time. The money from those and other defendants increased the DA’s forfeiture account, easing pressures from a tight budget.
The practice has become the focus of a federal criminal investigation. A former auditor testified that at least some of the seized assets were used to pay for campaign materials, parades and gifts.
One example authorities uncovered was the case of a man accused of transportation 15 kilos of cocaine and more than $80,000 in cash. He was put on probation after forfeiting the money to the district attorney.
But it gets worse. The Shelby County officials are also part of a criminal investigation and class action lawsuit for claims they used a drug enforcement program as a pre-text to stop black motorists and threaten them with money laundering charges if they didn’t forfeit their cash.
Forfeitures are a common practice across the country. Law enforcement agencies often seize money or property they believe is linked to a crime. If they can prove that link in civil court then the authorities can take possession of it permanently.
But to use forfeiture as a threat, or some kind of bargaining chip in significant criminal prosecutions turns it into nothing more than a shakedown. And it creates the wrong incentives for stops as this case shows. Of course, there’s a not-so-complicated solution to the “fix” brought by increasing forfeitures by 200%: adequately fund our justice system to begin with.
Photo from mikecough via flickr.