COLUMBIA — Dan Viets, an attorney and counselor in Columbia, had a client in Franklin County whose home was raided after a misinformed marijuana tip. Police took her family Bible and pictures and her laptop. When her name was cleared a year later, she tried to get her property back, but police had lost the Bible, destroyed the pictures, and the sheriff was using the laptop as his own.
Viets provided the anecdote as an example of civil forfeiture, a process in which police can seize property it suspects was involved in a crime. A panel convened Wednesday night at The Blue Note to discuss the issue. About 30 people attended.
Moderator Eapen Thampy, policy analyst for Americans for Forfeiture Reform, spoke about the issue with Viets; John Payne, a Show-Me Institute scholar; Marcus Bowen, Jackson County Republican Committee member; and Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia.
According to Thampy, federal law states that individuals don't necessarily need to be formally charged or convicted of a crime for police to seize their property.
"For the last 20 years, the law enforcement agency has kept the money for themselves," he said.
A Missouri statute states that all money received from state forfeitures must help fund public schools, but Thampy said this is not happening.
A federal equitable sharing program allows state and local law enforcement to take seized property to the Department of Justice. According to Thampy, the department gives back up to 80 percent of the property's value to supplement the local law enforcement's budget to buy military equipment, finance SWAT raids and pad police "slush funds."
Viets said Missouri had some of the best forfeitures laws in the country. An individual must be convicted of or plead guilty to a felony offense before property related to the offense can be seized. This is unlike other states, where an individual does not have to be convicted or even formally charged to have property seized.
"The greatest abuse happens when property is turned over to federal law enforcement," Viets said.
Bowen agreed and further argued that before forfeitures laws can be reformed, they must be followed.
"It's not fair to say we like this law so we're going to enforce it, but we don't like this law, so we're not going to enforce it," he said, comparing the enforcement of forfeitures to the enforcement of possession of illegal substances.
"The federal government actually has a job in this universe, and it should be more than just busting pot," Rep. Kelly said to laughter and applause from the audience.
Police Chief Ken Burton said in a separate interview that Columbia police do not seize money from innocent people.
"The forfeiture is done after the case has already been found guilty," Burton said.