As state legislatures convene across the country, police unions and their lobbyists have begun a nation-wide campaign to preserve – and, where possible, expand – “Blue Privilege” in its various guises, from efforts to criminalize video-recording police to the preservation of the officially sanctioned larceny called “civil asset forfeiture.”
Police unions in Maryland are pressuring the state legislature not to override last year’s gubernatorial veto of a package of bills that would decriminalize possession of marijuana paraphernalia and place restrictions on the practice of asset forfeiture. Senate Bill 528 would establish a $300 threshold for cash seizures, redefine “presumptions and … certain burdens related to forfeiture of money” (which is to say, it would place the burden on the state, not the property owner), and prohibit the transfer of confiscated property to federal control “unless there is a federal criminal charge or the owner consents.” That last provision would impede the pernicious practice of “equitable sharing,” in which seized property or cash is handed over to the Feds as a way to prevent victims from seeking redress through state courts; the Feds then keep a small portion and kick back the rest to the state or local agencies that confiscated it.
In his veto message last May, Republican Governor Larry Hogan explained that he opposed the measure because “the Maryland State’s Attorney’s Association, the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association, and the Maryland Sheriff’s Association have requested a veto” of the reform measure – and who is the governor that he should resist the will of those who stand to profit from drug war plunder?
When faced with public criticism over the abuses associated with narcotics prohibition – of which asset forfeiture is the outstanding, but hardly the only, example – police unions and the professional associations they control, plead helplessness: They only enforce the laws, rather than writing them, their spokesmen tell the public. Yet in Maryland, as elsewhere in the country, law enforcement lobbyists are actively intervening to prevent reforms that would rein in those abuses.
In Indiana, the Republican-dominated state legislature is considering a bill that would allow police departments to withhold police body cam or dash cam video from the public unless media outlets and others seeking its release can prove that the “public interest” would be served by doing so. House Bill 1019 would require any person seeking police videos to “petition to obtain a court order to inspect or copy a law enforcement recording,” which would involve a lengthy and expensive procedure in a forum that is reliably prejudiced in favor of government law enforcement agencies.
“When you get to the crux of it, it’s … a bill that leaves all the cards in the law enforcement [agency’s] hands,” protested Steven Key, executive director of the Hoosier Press Association, during January 11 testimony before the legislature.
In Idaho, the scandal-plagued State Police are seeking to create their own fleet of “stealth vehicles.” A bill proposed by the ISP would give its Director, Colonel Ralph Powell, the ability to create a state-spanning fleet of covert surveillance vehicles. The measure, RS 24032, would apply not only to the ISP but also “Any other department, agency, or entity of the state” whose written application to Colonel Powell is rewarded with “a finding of good cause.”
The ISP’s “Statement of Purpose” claims that the bill would have the relatively modest objective of using “some unmarked patrol vehicles to address the issue of dangerous driving behaviors that a resulting in an increase in fatalities and injuries” on Idaho’s roadways.
Admirable as the ISP’s concern for Idaho motorists might be, its own official report for 2014 (the year for which the most recent statistics are available) observes that “The number of motor vehicle crashes decreased by 1 percent, from 22,347 in 2013 to 22,134 in 2014.” Fatalities were also down – from 214 to 186 – during the same period, as were the number of serious injuries. The state’s fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled “was 1.15 in 2014, down from 1.35” from the previous year.
Since the claim made in the “Statement of Purpose” for the secret police fleet bill is a falsehood, a far likelier explanation for the ISP’s proposal is the agency’s zeal to conduct marijuana interdiction, and related seizures of cash and contraband.
As marijuana prohibition has been rolled back in Washington, California, Oregon, and Colorado, the ISP and its satellite agencies have escalated enforcement efforts. Idaho drug laws inflict some of the most draconian sentences in the country as punishment for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute – even when the contraband is cannabidiol, a marijuana extract with no mood-altering effects that is used for the treatment of epilepsy and other serious diseases.
Last August, the Idaho Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) academy in Meridian, which is operated by the State Police, hosted a two-day asset forfeiture seminar taught by Joe David, founder of the “Desert Snow” drug enforcement consulting company.
Although the ISP claims that their secret police fleet bill would impose “no fiscal impact to the General Fund or other funds” for which the state government is responsible, it would have significant costs to the tax victims who reside within the state. Every freeway or highway traffic stop is being treated as a potential forfeiture opportunity; those prolonged encounters increase the risks of abuse on the part of the officers who conduct them with the covert intent of finding money or other property suitable for seizure.
These examples are drawn from three Republican-ruled states from across the country, where “law-and-order conservatives,” in defiance of their supposed commitment to reducing the size and intrusiveness of government and general hostility toward unions, are doing their formidable best to protect and enrich the police state.