Charlotte-area police departments are rolling in forfeiture funds

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I’ve always loved William Blake’s poem “Auguries of Innocence,” which begins by asking the reader “To see a World in a Grain of Sand.” I was reminded of Blake’s poetic vision recently when I watched a five-minute news story that WNCC-Charlotte broadcast last week.

WNCC’s news story was truly a public service. Its five-minute news video did an excellent job. It both illuminated a local scandal and illustrated a national problem. Furthermore, it showed how much we can learn about big things through the examination of small things.

WNCC’s story explains how Charlotte-area police departments are sitting on bank accounts flush with money funded by seizure operations. “Seizure operations” is a kind of euphemism. It’s a label for the way that cops take money from people without ever charging them with a crime. The resulting seizure accounts held by Charlotte-area police departments have roughly $16 million of cash on hand. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg seizure account contains $8 million alone.

A spokesman for that police department contended that it has plans to spend the entire surplus – but declined to say where the money would go.

Where have the funds been spent in the past? Some of the expenses sound legitimate: police cars, guns, a motorcycle, body cameras, investigations, and training. Other expenses may be less justifiable: awards, memorials, and a golf cart to patrol a greenway path.

Of course, if you think that government budgets should be determined by democratically elected lawmakers, whose job it is to scrutinize public bodies and minimize corruption and waste, then none of these expenses are justifiable at all. That’s because pouring civil forfeiture money into law enforcement budgets has the consequence of avoiding both public scrutiny of government spending and the pain of raising taxes to pay for government services.

WNCC’s news story also contains the greatest use of scare quotes I’ve ever seen in my life: a graphic of two purses, with money going from one to the other, labeled “CRIMINAL” FUNDS and COMMUNITY SPENDING. The scare quotes emphasize that there’s really no way to know whether the funds actually came from criminals. Once again, civil forfeiture is the practice of taking money from people who, by definition, aren’t convicted of any offense.

Here’s what we do know: around 80 percent of seizures are completely uncontested of seizures are completely uncontested – at least in the states where data is publicly available. In other words, four out of five times, the victim of seizure never shows up in court to ask for his or her property back.

The defense of civil forfeiture provided in the news story, from a law enforcement representative, is mordantly hilarious. “How many people’s rights have we violated? I would have to say zero,” the spokesman explains – because, he says, his department never receives any complaints.

What he leaves unsaid is that silence is hardly consent. The people who lose their money are quite aware that, in order to get it back, they’re going to have to spend more money just to hire a lawyer. Many victims of forfeiture make the rational decision that spending a couple of thousand dollars on legal representation in order to have a chance at getting their own money back is a lousy investment.

But perhaps the real scandal is that nobody really knows the extent of forfeiture, and the spending of forfeiture funds, in the nation. The majority of states require no transparency at all in the spending of forfeiture money. Nearly a third of the states do not designate the details of forfeiture records as accessible to the public.

It would be wonderful if more news organizations followed WNCC’s lead by explaining what governments are doing with forfeiture money. WNCC has given us the grain of sand that is needed in order to begin to understand the civil forfeiture situation in Charlotte. Sadly, in many parts of the country, we aren’t even allowed access to have the grain of sand that we’d need to begin to understand the world – because government secrecy makes that impossible.