Law enforcement agencies like to portray asset forfeiture as an important weapon in the Drug War arsenal — one capable of toppling cartels and kingpins. Every so often, a large amount of cash and drugs is trotted out in front of reporters as evidence of this claim.
The reality is much, much different. For all intents and purposes, civil asset forfeiture is a government crime of opportunity. Any search that yields cash is a win for the agencies that profit from the seizure, even when there’s no evidence the cash taken has any link to criminal activity. Pretextual traffic stops, knock-and-talks, stop-and frisk programs… all of these have the potential to turn everyday police work into something profitable.
WFPL’s examination of the Louisville (KY) Metro PD’s asset forfeiture paperwork shows the agency isn’t really targeting drug traffickers and criminal organizations with its seizures. It’s just lifting money from whoever it can, like people who’ve done nothing more than produced an offensive odor. (You are not misreading that sentence.)
Theron Carson and his friends were smoking weed and playing video games when the police showed up at his door.
It was 1 a.m., and the officers told Carson someone complained about the smell. The quickest resolution of the problem, they told Carson, was to allow them to search his Newburg apartment.
After police found his weed and his digital scale, they emptied his wallet. Then they charged him with drug trafficking.
Carson, now 24, says he is not a drug dealer. The $1,200 police took was earned legally, he said, and a mix of rent money, bill money and cash he and his girlfriend socked away in preparation for their daughter’s birth.
Carson wanted the money back. Prosecutors offered him a deal that would allow him to plead to a misdemeanor… but only if he surrendered all of the cash.
This is standard operating procedure for the LMPD and the prosecutors it works with. Any cash seized is treated essentially as a bribe arrestees didn’t know they were offering. In 25% of the cases examined, charges were dropped in exchange for the LMPD keeping the money.
Local prosecutors pretend the money is not a motivator. They’re apparently putting alleged criminals back on the street (minus their cash) because they’re just so great at prosecutorial discretion… I guess.
Jefferson County Commonwealth’s Attorney Thomas B. Wine said in an interview with KyCIR that losing cash is the “cost of doing business” if you’re caught with drugs and money, regardless of how the case is resolved.
“To somehow suggest that money is going to make a difference for any of us, at least here on the prosecution side, is ridiculous,” Wine said. “It’s not worth it for the prosecutors that I work with.”
So. Much. Discretion.
Wine estimates nearly 98 percent of cases his office prosecutes are settled with a plea deal.
But no profiting from cash grabs. No sir.
Kentucky law dictates that the police department keeps 85 percent of what it seizes, and the rest goes to the state’s prosecutors.
The LMPD seizes nearly $1 million in cash per year. It takes a while to add up when cops — utilizing their training and expertise — are able to turn almost anyone into a “drug trafficker” for the purposes of relieving them of their cash. According to WFPL’s investigation, almost 40% of the seizures involved less than $1,000. And yet, officers taking property from arrestees tend to describe any amount of cash as “large” to better fit the drug trafficking narrative being pushed to create charges significant enough to be used as leverage against defendants and their natural desire to be reunited with their seized funds.
Police stopped a man in January 2017 for failing to use a turn signal while leaving “a high narcotics area,” according to an arrest citation. The officer reported smelling marijuana but didn’t find any; instead, a search netted a needle loaded with suspected meth, two pills and a “large amount of money”: $231.
An LMPD officer arrested a man suspected of selling synthetic marijuana at a west Louisville gas station in March 2017. In the arrest citation, the officer noted the man possessed a “large amount of lower denomination bills” in his wallet. The “large” amount of cash officers seized: $33.
These are the people prosecutors ring up on drug trafficking charges. And these are the ones whose cash they take to secure plea deals for lesser charges. Even then, the deliberately-broken system still doesn’t work. The $33 kingpin listed above lost his cash and was convicted of drug trafficking.
One more data point: the LMPD’s drug dogs are only “right” half the time.
In an analysis of 139 searches since Jan. 1, 2017, in which a dog indicated that drugs were present, 45% turned up no narcotics.
Cops don’t know the drug dog is wrong until after the search is completed. The drug dog is really there to give officers permission to perform a warrantless search. On the dog green lights the search, anything discovered can be seized by officers, including whatever cash happens to be in the car or on the driver. A drug dog is a mobile warrant exception.
Programs where random citizens are relieved of cash just because they happen to be in possession of small amounts of drugs isn’t going to stop the flow of drugs. They’ll continue to flow as freely as citizens’ cash into the accounts of the PD and prosecutors. No one’s in any hurry to give up this revenue stream, even if law enforcement resources would be better used elsewhere.
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