The conviction last week of a corrupt federal agent once again highlights the dangers of incentivizing policing for profit through civil asset forfeiture.
A New Orleans jury on Aug. 27 found former Drug Enforcement Administration special agent Chad Scott guilty of seven counts, including obstruction of justice, perjury and falsifying government records. Federal prosecutors told the jury that Scott and other members of a New Orleans anti-drug task force stole money from suspects and the agency’s evidence locker while tampering with paperwork to hide their activities.
One of Scott’s many misdeeds, Reason magazine reports, was to convince an informant to purchase a $43,000 Ford pickup truck that he could later seize and use at work. Scott falsified seizure records involving the scheme, the magazine noted.
Scott’s illegal activities are purported to date back more than two decades. In 2016, the New Orleans Advocate reported that Scott was a DEA “star” and “golden boy” who was often credited with high-profile drug arrests and busts. “He seizes a lot of dope and a lot of cash,” one anonymous source told the Advocate, “and he makes his managers look good. Casemakers are protected.”
One of the most controversial tools in the law enforcement quiver is civil forfeiture. It allows the police to seize homes, cars, cash and other valuables that they merely suspect were involved in a crime. The property owner need never be charged with wrongdoing, let alone convicted. If prosecutors subsequently initiate forfeiture proceedings, innocent owners in many jurisdictions are considered guilty until proven innocent and face an expensive and arduous legal battle to reclaim what is theirs.
Law enforcement agencies often have an incentive to pursue forfeiture cases because they typically are allowed to keep some or all of the money generated by the assets they seize. That’s how Scott planned to manipulate the system to secure a new work vehicle.
Such abuses are not unusual. A publication called Government Fleet magazine outlined in 2014 how federal agencies may use civil forfeiture to easily and quickly expand their inventory of unmarked vehicles. The Institute for Justice noted in 2014 that agencies around the country have used forfeiture money to buy “new and used sports and luxury cars, including at least 15 Mercedes, a dozen Mustangs, a handful of BMWs and two Corvettes.”
In the wake of high-profile abuses, Congress has considered a number of bills in recent years intended to rein in forfeiture excesses. But the law enforcement lobby enjoys considerable clout and many elected officials remain petrified to be characterized as soft on crime. Let’s hope the Scott case helps further erode the continued resistance to reform.