Did you know that in many states, if government officials suspect your home, business, car, or other property was used in the commission of a crime, police officers can seize it without proving you guilty or even filing charges against you? It's true. As journalist Randall Fitzgerald documented in his 2003 book Mugged by the State, it happens all across the country. Even worse, many states allow police departments to auction off the seized property and keep the proceeds. That creates an obvious conflict of interest: the more property they seize, the more money they have to spend.
Here's the good news: Missouri's asset forfeiture laws avoid that conflict of interest by prohibiting law enforcement officials from keeping forfeiture profits. Instead, the money is dedicated to a public education fund. And under Missouri law, seized property cannot be auctioned off until its owner has been convicted of a crime.
But some law enforcement officials don't like those sensible safeguards for property rights. For example, at an October 27 meeting with Governor Blunt in Kansas City, Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd called Missouri's asset forfeiture system "broken." He lamented that because law enforcement agencies don't get a share of the loot, they have little reason to seize assets from the drug trade, leading to "very, very few forfeitures."
It's easy to sympathize with officials like Zahnd. He points out that police departments and prosecutors' offices face tight budgets and competing demands on their limited resources. It's easy to see why they'd seek additional revenue sources to help pay for their crime-fighting efforts.
But in a free society, citizens' rights have to come first. To see what could happen if the state's asset forfeiture laws were loosened, we need only look to other states that lack the safeguards present in Missouri's law. Take the case of Cheryl Sanders, whose story Fitzgerald tells in Mugged by the State. The California resident was driving through Louisiana in 1995 when police officers in the town of Sulphur asked to search her car, which she had purchased used six months earlier. Under a false bottom in her trunk, police officers discovered a compartment capable of carrying drugs. Despite the fact that the compartment was empty, no drugs were found in the car, and she had no criminal record, they hauled her down to the police station for a search. Finding no drugs on her person, the police let her go. But they kept the car on "suspicion of involvement with drugs."
It took her seven months in court to get it back. And it was a hollow victory. The legal battle cost so much that she had to sell the car to pay her lawyer.
Sanders might be forgiven for wondering if the police officers who seized her car might have had an ulterior motive. Under Louisiana law, the Sulphur police department would have received 60 percent of the revenue from selling Sanders's car. In the previous five years the Sulphur police department, which served 20,000 people, had taken about $5 million in property using asset forfeiture laws.
Fitzgerald documents equally troubling examples in Washington state, Arkansas, Alabama, and Texas. Law enforcement officials seized cash, vehicles, homes, and businesses without convicting their owners of any crime. In some cases, the property was recovered, but only after months in court and tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
Of course, the vast majority of public officials, in Missouri as in other states, are honest individuals dedicated to public safety. But when it comes to protecting our rights, it's better to be safe than sorry. The Missouri legislature, recognizing the importance of property rights, enacted legislation in 2001 to ensure that all profits from asset forfeitures would be spent on education. It's a good rule, and legislators in Jefferson City should resist calls to revisit it. There's nothing "broken" about a system that provides strong protections for private property.
Timothy B. Lee is an editor at the Show-Me Institute.