Asset forfeiture is an issue that has been in the news lately. This occurs when law enforcement agencies take property from people suspected of a crime. “Suspected” is the key word here because often, no criminal conviction is required. The Washington Post did a big series on this in 2014:
Mandrel Stuart, a 35-year-old African American owner of a small barbecue restaurant in Staunton, Va., was stunned when police took $17,550 from him during a stop in 2012 for a minor traffic infraction on Interstate 66 in Fairfax. He rejected a settlement with the government for half of his money and demanded a jury trial. He eventually got his money back but lost his business because he didn’t have the cash to pay his overhead.
The Institute for Justice gave Missouri a B+ for its asset forfeiture laws, with these reasons:
- Conviction required, but low bar to connect property to the crime
- Poor protections for innocent third-party property owners
- No forfeiture proceeds go to law enforcement [this takes away police incentives to take money under questionable justification]
However, if law enforcement agencies cooperate with federal agencies to seize property, they can get around state laws, and they then get to share the seized proceeds with the federal government. The state auditor releases an annual list of property seized under both federal programs and under state law. Jefferson County was ranked quite high in both listings in 2015.
According to the auditor’s report, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office (JCSO) ranked 2nd in the state in 2015 in “Total Value of Items Seized and Turned Over to the Federal Forfeiture System,” with a total of $1,760,410. JCSO received $118,696 that year through equitable sharing. For comparison, JeffCo is the 7th largest county in the state by population (counting the city of St. Louis as a county). St. Louis and Kansas City are the only Missouri cities that have more people than JeffCo. Keep in mind, too that the JCSO only covers the unincorporated part of the county. The number one asset seizer in Missouri was the Phelps County Prosecutor’s Office (Rolla is here), which took $2,227,153 and got to keep $119,684. Here are totals from some other entities, for comparison:
- St. Louis city: $88,786 turned over to feds; $489,271 in received funds
- St. Louis County: $217,150; $1,226,624
- Jackson County: $0; $85,480
- Kansas City: $1,937; $432,422
I’m not sure how these entities brought in so much money while sending little to none to the feds. It may be that some of the receipts came from seizures in 2014, and it just took a long time for payment to be made. The latter three agencies turned over more money to the feds in 2014 than in 2015.
In total, Missouri law enforcement agencies turned $8,438,434 to the feds, meaning that JeffCo made up 21% of the state’s total. In 2014, JeffCo turned over only $9,088, a mere 0.1% of the state’s total. Why the big increase? We don’t have specifics on these cases, so we don’t know how much money was seized from individuals not convicted of any crimes, but it is something the JCSO, which has exhibited a limited respect for the Constitution, should answer for. Are they trying to bring in extra money to get around limits placed by the county council? In 2013, $131,223 was turned over to the feds, and JCSO received $138,608.
Also of note, the city of Arnold’s seizures were $0 in 2015, compared to $1,388,828 turned over to the feds in 2014.
The statue auditor also released a report on asset seizures performed under state law, which as a reminder, requires a criminal conviction. In 2015, Jefferson County reported $232,812 in seizures, ranking 7th in the state, behind Franklin, Jackson, Phelps (which had over $2 million), St. Charles, and St. Louis counties and St. Louis City. JeffCo made up 4% of the state’s $6 million total. Of JeffCo’s total seizures, $46,097 was returned to the property owner.
County prosecutors, who are responsible for reporting this state seizure data to the state auditor, are required to report the following information: date, time, and place of the seizure; property seized; estimated value of the property seized; person(s) from whom the property was seized; criminal charges filed; and disposition of the seizure/forfeiture, and disposition of criminal actions. Like all of the large-seizure entities, JeffCo reporting nearly all of the required data, except for two items – charges filed and disposition of charges. JeffCo reported what charges were filed for only 12 of its 35 seizure cases, and the disposition of charges in only 15 cases. This would suggest that perhaps JeffCo should be returning more money to property owners, if it isn’t filing charges, as state law requires.
Of the $6 million that was seized in under state law, over half was transferred to a federal agency, including over half of the money seized in JeffCo. It is not clear to me why that is done. One would think that if a federal agency was involved that the items would have been seized under the federal rules, not the state rules.
In 2014, JeffCo seized only $69,629 under state law. So in 2015, the JCSO seized a lot more money, through both programs, than in 2014.
Negative Correlation with Meth Busts
One might think that an increase in asset seizures might occur if there was an increase in meth lab busts. But, in fact, those are on the decline. Here are recent meth lab bust numbers for JeffCo:
- 2013 – 223
- 2014 – 205
- 2015 – 127
- 2016 (Jan – Apr) – 22
What About JCMEG?
In 2013, Jefferson County Municipal Enforcement Group (JCMEG) – a multi-jurisdictional drug task force based in Jefferson County- was one of seven entities that did not file the required reports with the state despite being involved in seizures.
In 2014, Aaron Malin from Show-Me Cannabis tried to find out what was happening with the JCMEG. He submitted a Sunshine request, but did not receive a very helpful response from the organization.
In 2014 and 2015, JCMEG filed the required information, but reported no assets seized and turned over to the federal government. The state seizure reports give one number for the county – it is not broken down between JCSO and JCMEG.
New Sheriff in Town
In November, JeffCo voters will be electing a new sheriff for the first time since 1992, as Glenn Boyer is retiring. One Democrat, current 2nd in command Steve Meinberg, and three Republicans, current JCSO employees Dave Marshak and Ron Arnhart and Madison County Sheriff 2nd in command Sean Cooper, are running to replace him. What do these candidates think about asset forfeiture in cases where no charges have been brought and no conviction won? Perhaps you should ask them if you see them on the campaign trail. And ask the three candidates who currently work in the JCSO what happened in 2015 to make seizures increase so significantly.