The truth about multi-jurisdictional drug task forces

(c) 2015 Brenda Grantland
from Truth and Justice Blog, 2/2/2015, updated 10/15/2016

Attorney General Eric Holder’s Policy Order limiting a tiny aspect of the asset forfeiture program — federal adoption — is a hot topic in the news lately.   In reality the policy change will not make a dent in federal adoptions because of the multi-jurisdictional task force exemption. A multi-jurisdictional task force is made up mostly of local and state cops, with a federal agent or two to give it that federal connection.  See the DEA website page DEA Programs: State & Local Task Forces. Be sure to click on the interactive map on that page to see the multi-jurisdictional task forces operating  in your state.

The Holder policy order was partially a clever ploy to appease those clamoring for forfeiture reform. It was also a Trojan horse because it encourages state and local police agencies to form multi-jurisdictional task forces with the federal government if they want to preserve their previously abundant Equitable Sharing revenue streams.

Task forces are governed by contract between participating police agencies.  State and local police agencies are created and regulated by statutes and/or ordinances, and answer directly to the local or state government which created them, and the agency’s chain of command answers to the top official of the agency, with internal checks and balances to ensure that they enforce the law they were hired to enforce. The state or local legislature controls their purse strings and that is a big motivator to get them to obey the applicable state or local law.

The fact that the federal government could override that statutorily established chain of command, substituting federal law for the law of the state, county or city that hired them is questionable in itself.  That state and local officers’ chain of command could be supplanted by a board of directors created by private contract between law enforcement agencies is a topic of grave concern that warrants discussion.

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Once agents are detailed to task forces, the chain of command is no longer the usual government hierarchy of the county sheriff’s department, city police, or state police – even though those local agencies continue to pay their salaries.

Who do the task force agents ultimately answer to?  They owe their allegiance not to the chain of command of the agencies that pay their salaries, but to a board of directors chosen by their individual participating police forces, governed by the task force coordination agreement. So in many ways they are self-governing. Also, because the task force receives a portion of the revenue on every forfeiture it participates in, to a great extent these task forces as self-funding as well. This combination is a recipe for corruption.

The Holder policy change will only cut off Equitable Sharing revenue to state and local police agencies that remain under the chain of command of their local agencies.

This policy change will force the local agencies to form federal task forces to preserve their revenue streams.

From what I conclude from reading the DEA’s website, forming a federal task force is an easy thing to do.  They just negotiate a contract with surrounding local law enforcement agencies to create a multi-juridictional task force and apply to have the DEA sponsor it.  The local agents get cross-deputized as federal agents (probably a brief ceremony with no entrance test or prerequisites except maybe a criminal background check).  This empowers all of them to enforce federal law while they are on the payroll of state and local law enforcement agencies.  The state and local agencies are rewarded by a kickback from the Equitable Sharing program of a percentage of the forfeiture revenue generated each time their agents on the task force help generate federal forfeiture revenue.  The Equitable Sharing program promises law enforcement agencies up to 80% of the proceeds of the forfeiture case they work on, with the profits being split up according to how much each agency contributed, with the U.S. Department of Justice being the sole arbiter on who gets what percentage of the loot, with unreviewable discretion to decide as it pleases.

Nation wide, police agencies are showing serious lacks of control already – violations of civil rights, use of excessive force, falsification of evidence and other misconduct.  Stricter oversight is needed to regain control over the forces that are supposed to be maintaining law and order.  They don’t need more autonomy.

This is why I am not celebrating the “great” news about Holder’s policy reform.

 

 

 

 

Brenda Grantland

Brenda Grantland is a lawyer in Mill Valley, CA, who handles primarily asset forfeiture defense, crime victims’ rights, and federal civil and criminal appeals. She is also the author of several books on asset forfeiture and other subjects.

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