Your Money Or Your Life: Louisville Cops, Prosecutors Dropping Hefty Trafficking Charges In Exchange For Seized Cash
Law enforcement agencies like to portray asset forfeiture as an important weapon in the Drug War arsenal -- one capable of toppling cartels and kingpins. Every so often, a large amount of cash and drugs is trotted out in front of reporters as evidence of this claim.The reality is much, much different. For all intents and purposes, civil asset forfeiture is a government crime of opportunity. Any search that yields cash is a win for the agencies that profit from the seizure, even when there's no evidence the cash taken has any link to criminal activity. Pretextual traffic stops, knock-and-talks, stop-and frisk programs… all of these have the potential to turn everyday police work into something profitable.WFPL's examination of the Louisville (KY) Metro PD's asset forfeiture paperwork shows the agency isn't really targeting drug traffickers and criminal organizations with its seizures. It's just lifting money from whoever it can, like people who've done nothing more than produced an offensive odor. (You are not misreading that sentence.)
Theron Carson and his friends were smoking weed and playing video games when the police showed up at his door.It was 1 a.m., and the officers told Carson someone complained about the smell. The quickest resolution of the problem, they told Carson, was to allow them to search his Newburg apartment.After police found his weed and his digital scale, they emptied his wallet. Then they charged him with drug trafficking.Carson, now 24, says he is not a drug dealer. The $1,200 police took was earned legally, he said, and a mix of rent money, bill money and cash he and his girlfriend socked away in preparation for their daughter's birth.Carson wanted the money back. Prosecutors offered him a deal that would allow him to plead to a misdemeanor… but only if he surrendered all of the cash.This is standard operating procedure for the LMPD and the prosecutors it works with. Any cash seized is treated essentially as a bribe arrestees didn't know they were offering. In 25% of the cases examined, charges were dropped in exchange for the LMPD keeping the money.Local prosecutors pretend the money is not a motivator. They're apparently putting alleged criminals back on the street (minus their cash) because they're just so great at prosecutorial discretion... I guess.
Jefferson County Commonwealth’s Attorney Thomas B. Wine said in an interview with KyCIR that losing cash is the “cost of doing business” if you’re caught with drugs and money, regardless of how the case is resolved.“To somehow suggest that money is going to make a difference for any of us, at least here on the prosecution side, is ridiculous,” Wine said. “It’s not worth it for the prosecutors that I work with.”So. Much. Discretion.
Wine estimates nearly 98 percent of cases his office prosecutes are settled with a plea deal.But no profiting from cash grabs. No sir.
Kentucky law dictates that the police department keeps 85 percent of what it seizes, and the rest goes to the state’s prosecutors.The LMPD seizes nearly $1 million in cash per year. It takes a while to add up when cops -- utilizing their training and expertise -- are able to turn almost anyone into a "drug trafficker" for the purposes of relieving them of their cash. According to WFPL's investigation, almost 40% of the seizures involved less than $1,000. And yet, officers taking property from arrestees tend to describe any amount of cash as "large" to better fit the drug trafficking narrative being pushed to create charges significant enough to be used as leverage against defendants and their natural desire to be reunited with their seized funds.
Police stopped a man in January 2017 for failing to use a turn signal while leaving “a high narcotics area,” according to an arrest citation. The officer reported smelling marijuana but didn’t find any; instead, a search netted a needle loaded with suspected meth, two pills and a “large amount of money”: $231.An LMPD officer arrested a man suspected of selling synthetic marijuana at a west Louisville gas station in March 2017. In the arrest citation, the officer noted the man possessed a “large amount of lower denomination bills” in his wallet. The “large” amount of cash officers seized: $33.These are the people prosecutors ring up on drug trafficking charges. And these are the ones whose cash they take to secure plea deals for lesser charges. Even then, the deliberately-broken system still doesn't work. The $33 kingpin listed above lost his cash and was convicted of drug trafficking.One more data point: the LMPD's drug dogs are only "right" half the time.
In an analysis of 139 searches since Jan. 1, 2017, in which a dog indicated that drugs were present, 45% turned up no narcotics.Cops don't know the drug dog is wrong until after the search is completed. The drug dog is really there to give officers permission to perform a warrantless search. On the dog green lights the search, anything discovered can be seized by officers, including whatever cash happens to be in the car or on the driver. A drug dog is a mobile warrant exception.Programs where random citizens are relieved of cash just because they happen to be in possession of small amounts of drugs isn't going to stop the flow of drugs. They'll continue to flow as freely as citizens' cash into the accounts of the PD and prosecutors. No one's in any hurry to give up this revenue stream, even if law enforcement resources would be better used elsewhere.
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Violating The Fourth Amendment To Break Up An Underage Drinking Party Means No Qualified Immunity
How far would a cop go to break up an underage drinking party? Far enough to get sued in federal court. (h/t Peter Bonilla)Responding to a tip from a snitch app ("Tip411"), Mequon (WI) police officers rolled up on a house supposedly containing an underage drinking party. The officers first noticed four cars in the driveway and one parked in the street. Hardly indicative of a rager, but the officers had an anonymous tip and apparently nothing better to do.Officer Kristin Toryfter rang the doorbell but received no answer. She called the phone numbers of two of the house's residents -- John and Todd Reardon -- but was similarly rebuffed. What the officers could see from the driveway was "several young people" peeking out at them and various doors and windows closing.At some point, even more officers showed up, including shift supervisor Matthew Schossow. Schossow went around back to "secure the perimeter." Since fleeing teens are a constant threat to law enforcement, Officer Schossow decided to go traipsing across the curtilage to get a look inside the house. Peering through the blinds, Schossow saw -- and let's go to the decision [PDF] for this one...
a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon on the end-table, and an open bottle of vodka on the floor, along with other non-alcoholic beverages…Again, hardly indicative a party was underway (much less one involving underage drinkers), especially since Schossow's unconstitutional peek didn't catch any teens drinking alcohol. Using this complete dearth of information (and after taking an illegal peek herself), Officer Toryfter applied for a search warrant. The warrant was an exercise in carefully crafted, but ultimately creative, writing.
Toryfter attested that there were items to be searched in the house that included alcoholic beverages and persons under the age of 21, both of which were potentially evidence of a violation of Wis. Stat. § 125 et seq., which prohibits furnishing alcohol to underaged persons. She also stated that there was a party at the house “which possibly included guests under the age of 21 consuming intoxicants or illegal drugs,” that there were “numerous vehicles” outside the home, that she had “observed intoxicants within the premises, having seen them. . .through the window. . .of the residence,” and that “young people scatter[ed] or hid when it appeared that the officers had been noticed or recognized.” (Docket #27-2 at 2). At no point did Toryfter represent that she saw the young people consuming intoxicants inside the premise.This was [sigh] signed by a local judge at his home and, roughly one-and-a-half hours after first showing up at the house, officers entered the home. The younger of the two Reardons was charged with violating the city's "social host" ordinance, which prohibits gatherings where underage drinking will occur. Those charges were dropped. As the Journal Sentinel reports (but WITHOUT INCLUDING A LINK TO THE DECISION), eight of the twelve guests seized by officers passed breathalyzers, which again suggests this wasn't a drinking party so much as it was a gathering where some people chose to drink.The federal judge says the invalid warrant isn't at issue here. Obtaining a bad warrant isn't a Fourth Amendment violation. Executing one is. Here, the larger problem is Officer Schossow's decision to enter the backyard and peek through the back window of the house. That was a violation, and it set up the warrant for failure.
The walkway from which Defendants claim they saw the contraband was approximately ten feet from the home, putting it well within an area where “privacy expectations are most heightened.” French, 291 F.3d at 951 (noting that areas within twenty feet of the home generally have higher expectations of privacy). The walkway itself was not enclosed, but it was secluded, flanked by shrubs and trees, and not visible from the street or even the front of the house. Rather, it snaked closely around the back of the house, linking the very end of a lengthy driveway to the patio, which was located on the other side of the yard, and which could not be seen from the start of the walkway. See (Docket #28-1 at 1). This was not an open-to-thepublic walkway that lead to structures in plain view of the driveway. See French, 291 F.3d at 953. Nor was any of the activity occurring “in plain view of the public way.” United States v. Contreras, 820 F.3d 255, 262 (7th Cir. 2016). Nor did this walkway clearly lead to a door that would be open to visitors or delivery people.Both Toryfter and Schossow said they had every right to be in the backyard (and, apparently, peeking through windows) because the "perimeter" need to be "secured." Wrong, says the court. There is no precedent that agrees with the officers' arguments and no court in the land would be willing to concede this argument, at least not as presented here.
Defendants do not, however, cite any cases in support of their broad contention that legitimate law enforcement objectives are an exception to the curtilage rule. (Docket #33 at 7–8). In United States v. Butler, this Court noted that officers may have had a “legitimate reason” to enter the common area backyard of a duplex—where the defendant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy—in order to conduct a “knock and talk” procedure as part of a criminal investigation. 2007 WL 2220260, at *8 (E.D. Wis. Aug. 1, 2007). That case did not, as Defendants suggest, stand for the proposition that law enforcement officers may intrude upon a home or curtilage anytime they have a “legitimate law enforcement objective.”Similarly, in United States v. Davis, which is the magistrate’s report and recommendation that this Court adopted in Butler, the magistrate determined there was no Fourth Amendment violation because there was no evidence that the backyard was not open to visitors or delivery people. 2007 WL 2220261, at *8 (E.D. Wis. April 16, 2007). After drawing this conclusion, the Davis court then speculated that the police’s presence in the backyard was appropriate because it was related to protecting officers conducting the “knock and talk” occurring around front.Like this Court’s order in Butler, the Davis report and recommendation did not cite any precedential caselaw in support of the contention that law enforcement officers may intrude upon a home anytime they have a “legitimate law enforcement objective.” Nor could it: such a holding would gut the Fourth Amendment of its protections, and result in routine circumvention of the warrant process.Since the court isn't going to gut the Fourth Amendment, the officers lose their qualified immunity.
In light of these well-settled principles and the Supreme Court’s instruction in Jardines on the boundaries of the “knock and talk” investigative tactic, a reasonable police officer in 2015 would know that the broad catch-call of “legitimate law enforcement objective” is not an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s curtilage rule, particularly when the law enforcement objective is to catch drunk teenagers running home.As to the warrant, the court says it's terrible. The warrant was predicted on a number of faulty assertions. First, there was the tip that prompted officers to check out the house in the first place. There's no evidence the tip or the tipster was reliable. Officers saw five cars, which hardly indicates a party was taking place. Residents not answering their doors on Halloween is hardly an uncommon thing when people are wandering from house-to-house demanding candy. And, finally, officers observed nothing that indicated underage drinking until they violated the Fourth Amendment by peeking in the back window. Even then, all they saw was a couple of containers of alcohol. The only thing that might have tied what the officers saw to a perceived criminal violation was the thing they couldn't have seen without walking across the Fourth Amendment on their way to the back window.Both officers are now on the hook for Constitutional violations.
[T]he Court finds that Toryfter and Schossow violated Plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches in the curtilage. Flowing from this, Toryfter also violated Plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment rights when she obtained an invalid warrant on the basis of the unlawful curtilage search.It seems no crime is too small for Fourth Amendment violations. And maybe that's where they happen most. After all, how often are misdemeanor charges going to result in federal civil rights lawsuits? At least this one did, as it adds to the ever-growing impression that law enforcement very often views the Constitution as damage and routes around it. And in a distressing number of cases, they get away with it. But in this one they didn't. Party on, Wisconsonians.
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