Police in the Florida suburb of Sunrise used sexy female informants to lure out-of-town men, offering to sell them low-cost cocaine. When the buyers showed up with satchels of cash, officers jailed them and confiscated their money and cars.
In two years, Sunrise dope squad members grabbed $5.8 million in forfeited loot -- lavishing much of the money on themselves. Officers got $1.2 million in overtime pay. One sergeant pocketed $240,000. They also bought expensive equipment and gave $800,000 to a buxom informant who enticed buyers.
After the Sun-Sentinel newspaper revealed this operation, Sunrise police were forced to abandon it, because the trap was exposed.
Former West Virginia newsman Fred Grimm, now at the Miami Herald, said the Sunrise forfeiture sting wasn't as bad as a different one in Bal Harbour, population 3,300, where undercover cops flew out of state to meet drug dealers and grab their assets. "In 2010 alone, village police seized $8.2 million from drug suspects, all outside Florida, without law enforcement agents making a single arrest," he wrote.
America's forfeiture laws, designed to take ill-gotten gains from rich drug lords, sometimes victimize small, defenseless folks. A couple of months ago, The New Yorker exposed what it called "policing for profit."
The article spotlighted a Texas hamlet where local police stopped many cars on flimsy pretexts. If the occupants carried cash, they were offered a choice: forfeit the money and go on their way, with no arrest -- or go to jail on trumped-up drug charges, have their car and money seized, and lose their children into state custody.
The U.S. "war on drugs" is largely a failure. Prohibition of narcotics doesn't work any better than prohibition of alcohol did in the 1920s. Prisons are bursting with offenders, while drug trafficking keeps increasing.
There's no question that addiction is an American nightmare. West Virginia's record-breaking number of overdose deaths -- along with the curse of meth labs and pill mills -- provide plenty of evidence.
But maybe it's time to begin treating this evil as a health problem, rather than a massive, never-ending police operation.