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PART II     The Cops' Share    Page  1  2  3  4

An Administrative Question

An administrative question for Long's boss, Osage County Sheriff Ken Lippert. The laconic, 58-year-old sheriff works in a cramped office with plywood paneling. He says he's had a deputy patrolling I-35 full-time since the early 1990s. "Seems like we seize anywhere from 40 to 60 or $80,000 worth, mostly cash, a year."

He alludes to the old Saturday Night Live sketch in which the Latin American ballplayer talks of how baseball has been "bery bery good to me."

Osage County Sheriff Ken Lippert Photo: John Biewen

"Well," says Lippert, "I-35's been very good to us."

Lippert says the proceeds from seized cash — and the seized cars the county auctions off from time to time — are a modest but much needed supplement to his million-dollar budget. He's spent forfeiture money to equip his squad cars with laptop computers, video cameras and the latest radar. He bought and remodeled an annex building for his investigators. And the Sheriff uses seized money, matched with a federal grant, to pay Deputy Long's salary.

"What he's doing down there doesn't cost the local taxpayers anything," Lippert says.

So, that question again. What if Lippert were not allowed to keep the proceeds of seized assets for his own budget?

"We probably wouldn't be working the Interstate…like we do now."

History of Asset Forfeiture

Asset forfeiture is nothing new. In the late 18th century, the United States government seized boats from pirates and from shippers who didn't pay their customs duty. But forfeiture wasn't widely used in modern times until 1984. Congress passed a law that year that in effect said to state and local police agencies: When you conduct a drug operation, you can keep most of the assets you seize and use the money to supplement your budget.

"It was Congress's intention to take the financial incentive out of crime," says John Roth, head of the U.S. Justice Department's Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section. The 1984 law was meant not only to hurt drug traffickers by taking their profits and their vehicles, but also to motivate police officials to go after drug criminals. "If there is asset forfeiture, people are going to be more vigorous in attempting to seize money," Roth says. "We think under the appropriate circumstances and with the appropriate controls, that's a good thing, because there is a significant law enforcement purpose behind this."

How Asset Forfeiture Works

Among the nation's law enforcers, the effect of the 1984 law was like someone throwing a switch. Asset seizures jumped 20-fold, to more than half a billion dollars a year by the early 1990s. The federal government further encouraged the drug war by making grants to hire more cops and create drug task forces. Drug arrests shot up — everywhere, including rural Kansas.

At the Osage County jail, Sheriff Lippert studies the board listing the fifteen inmates currently occupying the day room. Eight of the fifteen are here on drug charges. A lot of crime in Osage county is tied to the proliferation of methamphetamine labs, the Sheriff says. The money Deputy Long seizes on I-35 helps the department go after local dealers like the ones in the county jail.

"Five of [the inmates' arrests] are direct work from our two narcotics investigators. They were arrested on search warrants and so on," says Lippert.

Proceeds from seized assets helped Lippert create two new drug investigator positions on his now-ten-member force.

Emphasis on Seizing Property

"Law enforcement agencies themselves have become addicted to the seizure of property," says Joseph McNamara, a former police chief in Kansas City and San Jose and now a research fellow with the Hoover Institution. "Law enforcement agencies are constantly under budget pressure and this is sort of a gift. And in some cases the emphasis on seizing property can overshadow the emphasis on enforcing the law."

McNamara remembers a time in the late 1980s when the San Jose city manager drew up a tentative budget for his 1,100-member police department. The budget line for equipment was marked zero. McNamara asked the city manager why. "And he just laughed and he waved his hand and he said, 'Last year you guys seized $4 million in drug seizures and I expect you to do better this year and you can buy all of the equipment that you need. And in fact your job performance will be evaluated on the fact that you seize more money than you did last year.'"

McNamara and other critics say the hunger for cash, through seized assets, leads to racial profiling, which is usually linked to interdiction efforts on highways. Some say it also causes misplaced priorities — too much pursuit of low-level drug couriers and users.

Like Jerry Gober.

Next: The Reverse Sting

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