Former Governor Allowed State Police to Keep Money from Seized Assets that Should Have Gone to Schools; Tactics Were Later Said to 'Violate the Missouri Constitution' by Federal Appeals Court <br> Critics Charge Ashcroft is Way out of Step with Mainstream Americans on the Drug War, May Be Unwilling to Enforce Laws He Doesn
Under the leadership of then-Governor John Ashcroft, Missouri officials including the state highway patrol worked with the Drug Enforcement Administration to circumvent a provision of the Missouri Constitution requiring the proceeds of "asset forfeiture" to go to schools rather than to the police, syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington reported yesterday.
Asset forfeiture (the legal term for government seizure of private property belonging to citizens suspected of criminal activity) is used overwhelmingly in drug cases. In many states these policies allow the police to seize - and keep - property even if the owner is never convicted of a crime. In Missouri, the Constitution specifically requires that proceeds from asset forfeiture go only to fund public education. Under Gov. Ashcroft, however, state and federal law enforcement devised a way - later said to violate the state constitution by a federal appeals court and a Missouri appellate court - to keep seizure profits in the hands of police.
Sen. Ashcroft's critics say this is alarming evidence that he would put his own beliefs - about the drug war and many other controversial issues - above his responsibility to enforce the law.
"As governor of Missouri, John Ashcroft ignored the dictates of his own state constitution in allowing money to be diverted from public education to his state highway patrol," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of The Lindesmith Center - Drug Policy Foundation, a leading drug policy reform organization. "When it comes to making sure federal agencies don't aid and abet the trampling of state law, Attorney General Ashcroft would be the proverbial fox guarding the chicken coop."
The Missouri Supreme Court affirmed in 1990 that the constitutional provision in question applies to all forfeited proceeds in the state, requiring them to go only to the public schools. The ruling, in a case brought by a Missouri school district, declared unconstitutional a statute signed by Gov. Ashcroft in 1986 which made forfeiture proceeds available to law enforcement agencies. In order to circumvent this ruling, Huffington reports, the Missouri State Highway Patrol and local law enforcement began to work in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Justice to "federalize" their asset forfeitures.
Under this arrangement, state police would turn over to federal agencies assets they had seized from Missouri citizens suspected, generally, of a drug crime. Then, by prior arrangement, the federal agency - which is not subject to state law - would officially process the forfeiture and return a large share of the forfeited money to the state police. In the case of Missouri, despite the clear intent of the state constitution and the directive of the state supreme court, public education did not receive the funds it was entitled to under the law.
In a 1998 opinion by the U.S. Court of Appeals, the justices wrote that the Missouri Highway Patrol and the DEA had "successfully conspired to violate the Missouri Constitution." Earlier this year, a Missouri appellate court ruled that Kansas City police must refund more than $34,000 to a convicted drug felon because the federalized seizure violated the Missouri constitution.
Drug policy reformers, who have long advocated changes in asset forfeiture laws, warned that Sen. Ashcroft is far out of step with the growing movement for a reevaluation of the United States' heavily punitive approach to drugs.
"While Americans are increasingly demanding new approaches to the drug issue, focusing on treatment and education rather than arrest and incarceration, John Ashcroft is as committed as ever to the failed policies of the past," said Nadelmann.
Five state drug policy reform initiatives won voter approval last November, two of which involved asset forfeiture; in Utah and Oregon, voters passed measures barring confiscation unless a crime involving the property is proven, and requiring that seizure proceeds be used for treatment (Oregon) and public education (Utah).
Voters also show increasing support for issues such as medical marijuana and treatment rather than incarceration for non-violent drug offenders - as evidenced in the 2000 elections by another successful medical marijuana initiative in Nevada, and by California's Proposition 36, which will divert most non-violent drug offenders to treatment instead of prison for their first and second offenses.
Sen. Ashcroft, by contrast, maintains an extremely punitive drug war line. He favors eliminating or cutting the budgets of both prevention and drug treatment programs, arguing that a government that spends resources on such programs "is a government that accommodates us at our lowest and least." He adamantly opposes needle exchange and medical marijuana, and is a strong supporter of the harshest mandatory drug sentencing laws (opposed now even by President Clinton and his recently retired drug czar, General Barry McCaffrey).