The MetroWest Daily News recently ran an article detailing the practice of District Attorneys and Police Departments using seized drug money to fund investigative operations and the prosecution of crimes. In the past three years, law enforcement officials in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts have seized over $33 million in cash, cars, cell phones, bank accounts, and other property as a secondary result of crime prevention.
Massachusetts General Law, Chapter 94C, Section 47, allows law enforcement officers to take anything they have probable cause to believe was “proceeds of” or “used in” a drug crime. As a result of the vagueness in this statute, police have wide discretion in what they may seize. For example, imagine police have probable cause to believe that a suspect is dealing drugs. Further, that the suspect has an expensive watch or expensive car. Using this statute, the police may seize these items and use the proceeds from their sale to fund subsequent police investigations. Although some funds are deposited into forfeiture accounts, which are included on annual reports and are used for a number of police operations including purchasing equipment, everything else goes unmonitored and falls into a category of “other law enforcement purposes.”
According to the MetroWest article, “‘other law enforcement purposes’ include everything from purchasing bottled water, office supplies and furniture, to paying for printing and attendance at conferences, accounting records show.” Worcester County DA, Joseph Early, defends this standard. His office stated, “an aggressive, proactive approach to preventing crime is one of the best uses of funds that are confiscated from the drug dealers that are ruining our neighborhoods. The law enforcement purpose for the use of these funds is very clear: it is the prevention of crime.”
While many of these seized funds are allocated to police departments, individual police officers are being incentivized with these funds to fight crime. According to Middlesex DA, Gerry Leon, it is not a conflict of interest when police get paid for pursuing drug crimes. This statement by DA Leon could not be more accurate. It’s not a conflict of interest because pursuing drug crime is a police officer’s job. With this job comes an annual salary and possible bonuses. Moreover, if officers work long hours, they receive overtime. A conflict is born, however, when an officer’s pay is influenced by how much property they are able to seize in a calendar year.
Incentivizing seizures inherently takes the focus off the accuracy and substance of a police investigation and on the potential financial gain. The MetroWest article proposes that the seizure of goods has become a “business decision,” and I couldn’t agree more. What I mean by saying this is that even if an investigation has merit, evidence that has no financial benefit to the officer will not be seized. Allowing admissible evidence to go un-seized can lead to the non-conviction of guilty individuals, which is contrary to the purpose of law enforcement.
I understand that this post doesn’t paint law enforcement personnel in the best light. I am a firm believer, however, that police officers serve an extremely important purpose and do a terrific job. The aim of this article is simply to point out that we are in need of legislation controlling the accounting of seized funds. This, I believe, will have a direct affect on minimizing the potential for abuse in our system.
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