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Police, Prosecutors Use Asset Forfeitures to Lease SUVs, Customize Motorcycles, Install WiFi at Home, and More

by Douglas Ankney

Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, District Attorney Craig Stedman spent more than $21,000 of drug forfeiture money to lease a 2016 Toyota Highlander. After Stedman was ordered to release records of hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional expenditures from “drug-related” forfeitures, he appealed to the Court of Common Pleas, arguing those records were shielded from public disclosure.

In Illinois, former LaSalle County prosecutor Brian Towne is charged with criminal activity for misconduct and misappropriating public funds because he spent asset forfeiture funds on an SUV, WiFi for his home, and local sports programs.

Local prosecutors, drug task forces, and other law enforcement agencies use asset forfeiture funds as their own personal slush funds. In many jurisdictions, there is little to no oversight of how the money is spent. And often no records are kept. Civil forfeiture laws are liberally construed, enabling police to seize cash and property merely suspected of being connected to criminal activity even if the owner is never charged with a crime. This makes a perverse incentive for cops to abuse the practice and reap huge profits.

For example, in Macomb County, Michigan, an audit of local prosecutor Eric Smith was approved after a lawsuit revealed more than $100,000 in questionable expenditures. The money was taken from the asset forfeiture fund and allegedly spent on furniture, birthdays, and retirement parties. On April 17, 2019, Michigan State Police removed records from Smith’s offices.

Back in Illinois, a Department of Justice Inspector General audit discovered that a police department spent $20,000 in equitable sharing funds to customize two lightly used motorcycles with decorative chrome and heated handgrips. And the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office has spent $7 million in asset forfeiture funds in the last five years, including money spent on one construction contract awarded to a company with ties to the D.A.’s staff.

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