There is no question that cultivating, manufacturing, processing and distributing drugs is profitable.
What you may not realize is that so is busting people.
Our Birmingham criminal defense attorneys know that law enforcement agencies are making a great deal of money in initiating drug stings, making arrests and then proceeding with civil forfeiture actions.
A recent expose by a South Florida newspaper, the Sun Sentinel, delved into this very issue. Although the reporters were highly focused on their own community, these same techniques and practices have been well-documented all over the country.
The reporters mapped out law enforcement efforts to use undercover informants and detectives to lure big-money drug dealers from all over the country – and even some from outside the country – to negotiate large-scale drug buys. Once those deals are clinched, the police agencies initiate forfeiture actions that allow them to seize everything from cash to vehicles to homes to boats to jewelry – and sell it all to line the agency’s coffers.
Long-standing state and federal forfeiture laws grant police permission to seize assets obtained by gains related to criminal activity.
In many cases, police agencies can generate millions of dollars annually by doing this, creating a powerful incentive to organize more illicit drug busts. In addition to the forfeiture action, police personnel can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime each year.
That means the motivation for these actions is more likely the money, rather than public safety.
This raises a host of moral, ethical and legal questions.
From a defense lawyer’s standpoint, the question is whether these operations amount to entrapment. This is a difficult legal defense to prove, but it is possible, particularly in those cases where law enforcement is actively pursuing these kind of deals.
As the Sun Sentinel revealed, it often seems as if law enforcement personnel are targeting individuals who are down-on-their luck. In many cases, they are mules or brokers or lookouts. They earn a few hundred or maybe a few thousand dollars to deliver money or collect cocaine. It often seems as if they are persuaded by informants to engage in these activities as a way to earn some fast cash. The deals are sometimes too good to be true (because they are).
Most of the stings work like this:
An informant alerts authorities that he or she has a buyer interested in purchasing a large quantity of a certain drug (often cocaine). Then the informant meets up with the buyer, introduces the undercover officer and prices and terms are negotiated. At some later point, the buyer arrives at the agreed-upon location, ready to do business. Money is exchanged, authorities pounce.
This is called a reverse sting because the officers are acting as the seller, rather than the buyer.
Civil forfeitures also create a strong incentive for officers to harass motorists regarding drug possession.
A 2010 report by the ACLU called this kind of action, leading to civil forfeiture profits, “easy money.” A spokesman for the civil rights group called it a “lousy way to fund a police agency.”
Those targeted by civil forfeiture are required to prove in court why their property should be returned to them, rather than requiring police to prove why they should be able to keep it.