Law leads to better reporting of assets seized

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- More stringent reporting requirements on how local law enforcement agencies handle cases involving the seizure of cash or property appear to be having the desired effect, with 90 percent of county prosecutors complying with the new law.

Reporting of seizures made during 2001 marked a dramatic improvement in compliance over that for 2000 under the more lax requirements in place at the time. Only 26 percent of prosecutors filed timely reports last year with the Department of Public Safety for 2000 seizures.

The law now requires prosecutors in all 115 Missouri counties plus St. Louis city and the attorney general's office to annually report seizure cases in their jurisdictions to the state auditor, as well as DPS. Prosecutors who intentionally fail to do so could be charged with a class A misdemeanor and fined up to $1,000. Previously, there was no penalty for not reporting.

For 2001, prosecutors reported a total of 2,248 cases involving the seizure of more than $3.5 million in assets.

Including reports the auditor received after the Jan. 31 statutory deadline, all but 11 county prosecuting attorneys -- four from Southeast Missouri -- met the new requirements.

'We had nothing to report'

Prosecutors in two of those area counties said it was a simple oversight.

"The reason we didn't file a report was because we had nothing to report," said Dunklin County Prosecuting Attorney Stephen P. Sokoloff. "But I'll get with them to make sure we're clear."

Reynolds County Prosecuting Attorney Robert A. Johnson also said he overlooked filing his report because his office handled no seizure cases last year. Johnson said he would immediately rectify the situation.

Prosecutors in Perry and Wayne counties, who also didn't submit reports, were out of their offices Tuesday and couldn't be reached for comment.

The reports are required under revisions to the Criminal Activity Forfeiture Act Gov. Bob Holden signed into law in May. The changes were intended to stem perceived abuses by police in property seizure cases.

Will be reminded

Glenn Campbell, McCaskill's spokesman, said prosecutors who didn't submit their reports would be called this week and reminded of the law. Campbell said most of those, like Sokoloff and Johnson, likely thought they didn't have to report if they had no seizures.

Though it isn't expected to happen, Campbell said McCaskill would ask the attorney general's office to pursue charges against a prosecutor who flat out refused to comply.

"It's not as if we're walking out the door today with a bunch of warrants for prosecuting attorneys around the state, but we have certain obligations," Campbell said.

However, Scott Holste, a spokesman for Attorney General Jay Nixon, said it doesn't appear Nixon's office has jurisdiction over such cases, if any were to be pursued. Holste said a judge likely would have to appoint a special prosecutor.

State Sen. Harry Wiggins, D-Kansas City and sponsor of the CAFA law, said it is clear the attorney general would pursue such charges. However, he said the jurisdiction question would probably be moot.

"I can't imagine us prosecuting prosecutors," Wiggins said. "I think notification of the law should be enough" to encourage compliance.

Closed a loophole

Though detailed reporting is key to ensuring state oversight over seizure procedures, the main drive behind passing the law was to close a legal loophole some law enforcement agencies used to circumvent the Missouri Constitution and pad their budgets.

The Constitution requires assets seized in relation to a crime to be turned over to a state education fund. However, some local agencies would claim they merely "detained" assets until federal agents, usually with the Drug Enforcement Administration, came to "seize" them.

After taking a cut of the proceeds, the federal agency would return the rest to the local agency. Critics of the practice likened it to money laundering.

The new law clarified that the seizing agency is that which first exercises control over cash or property. Approval from a state judge is required to turn assets over to a federal agency.

According the report, 14 percent of the $3.5 million in assets seized last year was transferred to federal agencies. Only 6 percent went to the state. About 41 percent of the total was pending disposition and 31 percent was returned to the owners. The remaining 8 percent wasn't immediately accounted for.

Because the new law didn't take effect until Aug. 28, transfers to federal agencies with judicial approval before that time were still legal.

Unspecified law enforcement agencies in Cape Girardeau and Butler counties were the only ones in Southeast Missouri to involve federal agencies in seizures last year, according to the report.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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