Police agencies have used hundreds of millions of dollars seized from people under federal civil forfeiture law years to buy guns, armored cars and electronic surveillance gear. They have also spent money on luxury vehicles, travel and a clown named Sparkles, the Washington Post reports. The Post obtained 43,000 reports by local and state agencies to the Justice Department's Equitable Sharing Program, an initiative that allows local and state police to keep up to 80 percent of the assets they seize, through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The documents offer a look at how police departments and drug task forces benefit from laws that allow them to take cash and property without proving a crime has occurred. The law was meant to decimate drug organizations, but it has been used as a routine source of funding for law enforcement at every level. “In tight budget periods, and even in times of budget surpluses, using asset forfeiture dollars to purchase equipment and training to stay current with the ever-changing trends in crime fighting helps serve and protect the citizens,” said Prince George's County, Md., police spokeswoman Julie Parker. Brad Cates, a former director of Justice Department asset forfeiture programs at the Justice Department, said the spending suggests police are using Equitable Sharing as “a free floating slush fund.” Cates, who oversaw the program while at Justice from 1985 to 1989, said it has enabled police to sidestep the traditional budget process, in which elected leaders create law enforcement spending priorities.