Federal forfeiture funds that funnel back to the local level are being put to work in Phelps County funding improvements to the existing jail.

On January 1, 2017, the Phelps County Sheriff's office reported a beginning balance of $2.89 million of federal forfeiture funds, and during the course of 2017 they received an additional $1.12 million of federal forfeitures-- their share of the funds they previously seized and turned over to the federal government-- and reported a balance of $3.26 million, after expenses, at the end of 2017, according to Compilation of 2017 Federal Forfeiture Reports, State Auditor Nicole Galloway published in March 2018.

As reported earlier, Phelps County is paying for the current $2.2 million jail upgrade from the forfeiture funds they have received from the federal government. This was noted as money that was seized from drug interdictions mostly on the interstate, at the county commission outreach meeting on May 8.

A seizure is the act of taking property, and a common example is when a law enforcement officer seizes suspected drug cash during a traffic stop. Forfeiture occurs when the lost rights to the seized property are permanently confirmed through the courts.

There are two types of seizure and forfeiture cases, civil and criminal. In criminal cases, the forfeiture normally follows a conviction, and is punitive in nature, while in civil cases, the owner may not be proven guilty of any crime, since the government simply has to prove that the property was used to commit a crime.

The original intent of seizure and forfeiture was to use the proceeds to put more law enforcement assets in place to fight crime. Proponents see this as a powerful way to level the playing field against criminals and fight crime, while critics believe that civil forfeiture can lead to abuse by law enforcement with few protections in place to protect innocent owners.

Missouri has some of the strictest forfeiture laws in the country where prosecutors must win a criminal conviction or guilty plea before they can enforce forfeiture, and under Missouri law, there is no incentive for law enforcement abuse, since all of the proceeds must go to the state education fund.

However, in July 2017 the Federal Justice Department reversed the Obama administration’s limits on civil forfeiture, reviving a program known as “adoptive forfeiture,” which through the adoptive forfeiture provision allows local state law enforcement to process cases under the federal statute and share the assets with the federal authorities.

Under this provision, the federal government sends 80 percent of the assets back to the local state law enforcement departments, allowing them to effectively bypass the more stringent state law provisions.