This Week’s Civil Forfeiture Outrage (Tenth in a Series: Baltimore Edition)

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This Baltimore Brew news story describes how the Baltimore Police Department (BPD)—like many police departments around the country—seizes millions of dollars, thousands of weapons, and scores of vehicles every year. All that is needed for police to seize property is probable cause to believe that the property has been used, or will be used, to break the law.

What’s especially notable about the BPD, however, is their record keeping—or, more precisely, their lack thereof. The BPD is supposed to fill out a seizure form whenever a seizure occurs and give a copy to the suspects from whom they take the property. However, in an audit that randomly sampled 47 BPD seizures, the police weren’t able to produce copies of all 47 forms. In fact, for those 47 seizures—involving 20 vehicles and over $580,000 in cash—the police were able to produce a copy of exactly one form.

For eight other seizures—where BPD records indicated that seized property had been returned to its owners—the department was able to produce exactly two return receipts.

Now, I will admit that strict compliance to bureaucratic recordation requirements isn’t always at the top of my concerns, but there are reasons that you want to have strict audit controls when dealing in that much currency. When you have half a million dollars lying around, that’s a little bigger than a couple of bills in the office’s petty cash drawer. A lack of security in such cases invites theft.

The November 30, 2021 audit also found that it was impossible to substantiate the destruction of 3,363 seized firearms, even though all those guns were scheduled to be destroyed. In fact, the disposition of the majority of the firearms that were sampled—all of which were scheduled for destruction—could not be substantiated; the required witness approvals and supporting documents apparently do not exist. Furthermore, the BPD failed to report the destroyed firearms to the Maryland State Police.

Sloppiness in public administration is evergreen— the sentiment behind the phrase “good enough for government work” are rarely laudatory. But there’s something especially disturbing about poor safekeeping of the public’s seized property, and that’s why this story about how the BPD flunked their seizure audit is especially notable.

When law enforcement officers discover that someone they are searching is holding a substantial amount of currency—and that person can’t explain exactly where the money came from—sometimes those law enforcement officers draw the inference that they have discovered evidence of criminal conduct. Then they seize the money. People who think that seizure takes place too often then complain that this doesn’t look very fair; people who think that this kind of seizure is necessary to fight crime then complain that the people who disagree with them just don’t understand the realities of police work.

Again: the inference is “cash, with origins that cannot be explained, means crime.” I wonder how well-grounded such an inference would be if those law enforcement officers were to look at the Baltimore Police Department itself. Surely, they shouldn’t act as if its massive audit failure is evidence of criminality, or should they? And if they shouldn’t, what does this tell us about the appropriateness of the seizures that regularly take place on the street?