PART II of Corrections, Inc. from American RadioWorks®, the documentary project of Minnesota Public Radio and NPR NewsSM. On the Internet at

April 2002

The Cops' Share

by John Biewen

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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?"

"To Kansas?"

"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, um….'"

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.

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."

"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."

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.

The Reverse Sting

For more than a quarter-century, the 46-year-old Jerry Gober has been in the cabinetmaking business. He proudly shows off his busy woodworking shop in suburban Sugar Hill, Georgia, where he employs fifteen people making cabinets and shelving for homebuilders around Atlanta.

Gober insists he's never sold drugs. He does have a history of marijuana use and addiction to methamphetamine. But as a condition of his divorce in 1996, Gober had to take monthly drug tests in order to visit his children. He'd passed one on the morning of his arrest. He'd been clean for several months, he says. "It wouldn't have happened. I wasn't out looking for drugs that day."

But Gober's girlfriend at the time, Yvonne, called him and urged him to buy some meth for both of them from a dealer she knew. Gober and Yvonne were having a rocky time. What he didn't know was that she'd gone to the Gwinnett County police and offered to act as a paid informant.

"We weren't getting along that good and she didn't get along with the kids too good. I told her she had to move out and that pretty much made her mad. I guess that's what made her decide to try and get me in trouble."

Yvonne was helping the police set up Gober for a "reverse sting." In a traditional drug sting, undercover cops pose as drug buyers to bust a dealer. In a reverse, the cops become the seller and arrest the buyer. Reverse stings used to be rare; even now, not all police departments do them.

Attorney Donn Peevy heads the law firm representing Gober. In a former life in the 1970s, Peevy worked undercover drug cases as an officer with the Gwinnett County police. He recalls the first time he heard of reverse stings, in a discussion with the local district attorney.

"He said 'I've heard that in some of these states and in some other jurisdictions, they're doing reverse stings where police are selling drugs,'" Peevy recalls. "He told [those of] us in the vice squad then, 'Don't do it because I'm not going to prosecute it. Particularly if these people are addicted, they're easy targets and they can't help themselves. We could do them everyday and fill up the jails, but we wouldn't be stopping the problem with drug abuse and drug use.'"

Police departments started doing more reverses after asset forfeiture came into vogue in the 1980s. The traditional sting has no payoff; the police seize drugs and destroy them. In a reverse, the target brings cash the police can seize.

Now, back to our story. Jerry Gober's girlfriend, a police informant, calls him about a meth connection. "She told me that it was her cousin that had it," Gober says. He recalls Yvonne's initial offer was two ounces of the drug, though he says he can't remember the asking price.

Gober said no — three times. Yvonne kept calling back, lowering the amount of methamphetamine and the price. "And then the fourth time she called back, it was an ounce for a $1,000, which I think is probably half price," Gober says.

The Gwinnett County Police say a $1,000 for an ounce of meth is not a bargain; it's the going rate for traffickers. Gober says he'd never bought a whole ounce before that day. In any case, he gave in — to his girlfriend's pleading, he says, and to his own addiction. He got a $1,000 cash and went to meet the dealer — actually an undercover cop — in the parking lot of a local K-Mart.

A police video of the "take-down" shows Gober climbing into the detective's SUV and asking of the meth, "Is it pretty good?" Gober hands over his fistful of cash. Two vehicles pull up and four officers jump out shouting, "Don't move — police!"

The police arrested Gober and seized his SUV and his money. They first charged Gober with trafficking because he'd tried to buy an ounce of meth — a trafficking amount under Georgia law. If convicted on that charge Gober would have gone to prison for ten years. But he got lucky. Some of the powder spilled during the arrest, so the district attorney — fearing trouble in the courtroom over the alleged ounce — reduced the charge to possession. Gober spent just 30 days in jail and a year in house arrest. Because of technical mistakes by the police he even got his car and his $1,000 back.

Still, Gober and his lawyers argue that the Gwinnett County police, motivated by asset seizure, created a crime.

"I admit I shouldn't have been there to start with," Gober says. "I made a mistake. But after they called the first time and I said no, I think that should have been it. I don't think they should have pushed it, especially the second and third — you know, they called me four times before I said yes."

Gwinnett County law enforcement officials defend Gober's arrest as good police work. They argue Gober's hesitancy to make the buy was standard negotiation that comes with any drug deal. The fact that police created an opportunity for Gober to break the law doesn't make him any less guilty, says Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter. "If you possess a controlled substance, if you sell it, if you manufacture it, if you possess it with intent to distribute, you're in violation of the law. Period. That's it."

Gwinnett is a large and fast-growing suburban county with a lively drug trade, police say. The local police seize, on average, $600,000 in cash and vehicles every year. Porter insists the police would do reverse stings even if the operations didn't yield cash for the department. Then again, he concedes the promise of asset seizure makes reverse stings affordable. "Because when you pretend to be a drug dealer, you've got to pretend all the way and you've got to show up with all the toys," Porter says. If not for the forfeiture statues, he adds, it would be hard for the head of the narc squad to "go up to the Chief of Police and say, 'We need to rent a fancy SUV for this case that is not going to — that's going to net us an arrest.' I suspect we'd have a harder time with that. So certainly forfeiture has some inducement, but we don't do it just for the money."


Some critics of asset forfeiture want to end the practice altogether. Others agree with police that forfeiture is a useful law enforcement tool; their objection is to what they consider a police conflict of interest. To solve that, some say, the proceeds of seized assets should go to general government coffers, not to police agencies. Every time someone proposes such a measure, law enforcement officials complain loudly.

In Kansas, a couple of state lawmakers want to redirect asset forfeiture proceeds to the school system. Here's what Osage County Sheriff Ken Lippert thinks of that idea: "I don't see the schools out there, in all kinds of weather, in a car with a gun and a badge, trying to take the dope away from these people like my guys are. I feel like it's law enforcement money because we're out there earning it."

Each year, police make about one and a half million drug arrests and seize more than $500 million in assets. People who applaud the war on drugs and those who have doubts about it agree on this: Police and sheriffs' departments would not have waged the war with the same vigor over the last decade and a half if not for asset forfeiture.