Asset forfeiture, and the manner in which police departments and law enforcement agencies around the country participate in the practice is a concerning process. The news is simply filled with stories of the practice being abused, of people being deprived of money or property without conviction, and even in cases in which no charges are ever filed.
The way that the money is often used by these police and law enforcement organizations is also questionable, with some localities considering it to be basically a slush fund for their law enforcement efforts.
This makes it all the worse when the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office in New York was caught handing bonuses out to prosecutors from this fund. According to records received by Newsday in response to an FOIA request, it appears that $3.25 million has been paid out in bonuses from the fund, causing some local legislators to voice their anger at the practice.
Topping the list of recipients of the money is deputy chief homicide prosecutor Robert Biancavilla, who earned a total of 108,886 dollars between 2012 and 2017, all pulled from that fund and all paid in the form of bonuses. Division chief Edward Heilig and public corruption prosecutor Christopher McPartland also got free money from funds gained through seizing property, raking in 73,000 dollars each during the 2012 to 2017 period.
Shockingly, the problem here is not that they used 3.25 million dollars in assets seized from citizens to pay themselves bonuses averaging out at in the tens of thousands a year. No, the issue here is that they spent 500,000 of that money on their bonuses without the approval of the local government.
On Tuesday, November 28, 2017, the local legislature held a public hearing. This hearing was held to discuss a bill proposed by Legislator Robert Calarco, a bill that will require all use of funds generated via asset forfeiture to go through the Public Safety Committee. According to Calarco, millions of dollars of asset forfeiture money come into the county annually.
Calarco firmly believes “that’s a lot of money to be spent at the sole discretion of an individual with no oversight.” There is no doubt that he is correct about that.
According to Newsday, whose FOIA request generated the records that uncovered this spending in the first place, the US Attorney has taken an interest in the case and has subpoenaed the District Attorney for Suffolk County, New York, hoping to get to the bottom of the issue. This likely-illicit use of seized funds to pay bonuses was discovered due to an ongoing probe concerning the investigation of former Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke, who was sentenced to 46 months in the federal penitentiary for what may be one of the silliest crimes ever.
In 2012, a young man stole a duffel bag of pornography and sex toys from the unlocked SUV of then-Chief James Burke. Burke caught him and beat him, and then initiated a coverup of the incident, one which included district attorneys McPartland and Spota, leading Spota to resign the day after being indicted for his part. Investigations concerning the coverup have uncovered a range of illegal and morally questionable activities in Suffolk County, and threaten to uncover more.
Asset forfeiture funds have been revealed repeatedly to have been used as a slush fund, kept off the books by many of the law enforcement groups that have used it. In Philadelphia, reports linked the use of asset forfeiture funds to drive about 7 million dollars in work toward companies linked to staff members for government construction projects.
As it exists in the United States, asset forfeiture is generally very questionable. There are many different rules concerning it, but in far too many instances, it is basically a slush fund for the law enforcement agencies attached to it. Furthermore, in many cases, money is taken on flimsy pretexts. There are stories of people having cash taken because they had ‘too much’ on hand, even if they had just sold a house or a car, on the assumption that the cash was ‘drug money’. In many places, recovering the seized property requires that the person whose assets have been seized spend money to litigate their case in order to get their property back.
According to the libertarian-leaning law firm The Institute for Justice, 26 states have limited or no requirements for transparency and reporting related to asset forfeiture, while 14 states simply have no requirements for tracking the money and goods seized and the funds generated.
As long as asset forfeiture is a practice that is so poorly controlled and regulated, and as long as the funds it generates are used as a law enforcement slush fund, these kinds of practices will continue. Expect to see more similar stories in the future, concerning funds being used for bonuses or perks for powerful people with access to them.