Over the last twenty years, drug offenders have been the fastest-growing segment of the prison population. The trend picked up speed during the crack epidemic of the 1980s, when policymakers lengthened prison sentences for drug criminals and called for stepped-up enforcement efforts. They also handed police and sheriffs' departments a tangible incentive to focus on drugs. New laws allowed police to supplement their budgets using assets they seized in drug operations: cash, homes, cars, boats and airplanes. Some critics say this has created a conflict of interest, by giving police agencies a financial stake in the war on drugs.
Out on I-35
If you drive Interstate 35 through Osage County in the flint hills of southeastern Kansas, chances are you'll pass Sheriff's Deputy Wally Long.
"This is what I mainly do for eight hours a day," says the barrel-chested deputy as he steers his Crown Victoria cruiser down the left lane of the highway so he can turn quickly in the grass median if necessary. "Just drive the highway and enforce the traffic code."
Long wears a baseball cap on his shaved head. From his well-equipped squad car he'll clock your speed, eye that little registration sticker on your license plate, and check for any swerving. Given any justification, he'll pull you over.
Near milepost 154 (it's actually in neighboring Coffey County, which Long patrols in addition to Osage as part of a multi-county Drug Task Force), he pulls over a brown Pontiac with Texas plates. Long wears a microphone and his exchange with the driver is audible over an intercom in his car.
"Running just a little bit fast there today," he tells the driver. "Checked you at eighty-five."
The driver will get a warning, not a ticket, because his car was in a cluster with other vehicles so Long wouldn't be able to prove in court that the radar hit on the Pontiac. Still, Long does a routine check. "Do you have your drivers license or your insurance with you?"
The driver is a 30-ish Hispanic man with an older woman his mother visiting from Bolivia, he says.
"Is this your car?" Long asks.
"Yeah," says the driver.
"And where did you say you were going?"
"Kansas City? What takes you up there?"
The young man's answers are specific: he names a man he and his mother are going a visit an old friend from her days as an exchange student thirty years ago. The driver volunteers that he's a stockbroker with Fidelity Investments. "I live in Dallas. I'm a legal resident. I have my green card. I'm married with an American citizen so everything's in order."
"That's good," Long says.
Long keeps the man parked on the shoulder for more than twenty minutes. He runs checks on his driver's license and car, then probes one of the Pontiac's body panels that he says looks like it's been removed.
"Has anybody worked on your car, put a stereo in it or speakers or anything?" he asks the man. "No? Would it be OK if I take a quick look in here, take a quick search of the car looking for drugs, alcohol, guns?"
When the man hesitates, Long offers a choice: "You don't have to let me search, but if you allow me to search, I'm just going to take a few minutes and get you on down the road here. If you don't want me to search, I'm going to ask my partner to come up here with his dog. He can do an exterior sniff of the vehicle and we can get you out of here. It's up to you, whatever you want to do."
"The sooner we leave, the better," the driver says.
So Long searches the body panel but finds nothing. As he's doing so, the driver recalls that in fact the panel was removed not long ago when he had the car's rear seatbelts replaced. Long finally lets the man and his mother go.
But once or twice a month, Long says, he finds a good-sized shipment of drugs or money. While working for another Kansas county a couple of years ago, he hit the jackpot when he stopped a speeder.
"He was really nervous. I asked him where he was coming from and he was almost unable to recall where he was coming from because he was trying to think up a lie. And he kept saying, 'Um, um, umů.'"
Long searched the car and found a laptop computer bag stuffed with $400,000 in cash.
"He had no idea where the money came from. It was a rental vehicle and he thought that somebody must have left it in there that rented it before him. He signed a disclaimer and the money was forfeited."
The driver wasn't charged with a crime; there was no evidence against him besides the cash, Long says.
Most of the 40,000 asset seizures made by police every year go uncontested. Police consider that virtual proof they're taking drug money. When Long makes a seizure, the county sends a fraction of the proceeds to the state or federal government to cover paperwork. The local sheriff's department keeps what's left 80 or 85-percent.
"I can tell you this," Long says when asked about the practice. "I have never been instructed by anybody that I've done criminal interdiction work for to go out and seek out only money. That's not what it's about. It's about putting bad guys in jail, criminals in jail. And criminals occasionally have money."
Would Osage County devote a deputy to full-time interdiction work on the Interstate if the effort didn't, in effect, pay for itself?
"That would be an administrative question," Long says.
Next: An Administrative Question