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'PENNIES FROM HEAVEN': CoMo police chief's remarks raise nationwide hackles

Bad timing for cavalier comments

COLUMBIA, Mo 10/7/14 (Beat Byte) -- Less than a month before Columbia voters are asked to fund more police with the largest city property tax hike in nearly two decades, remarks Columbia police chief Ken Burton made about his department's use of so-called "civil forfeiture" money are raising eyebrows -- and hackles -- nationwide.

HBO's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver re-broadcast Burton's comments Sunday.   A Youtube video of the remarks (below, starting at around 8:50) has drawn over 1.1 million viewers in two days.     

"It's kind of like pennies from heaven," Burton told the Columbia Citizens Police Review Board at a November 2012 meeting.  "It gets ya a toy or something that ya need, is the way we typically look at it," he chuckled.   

Originally established to seize weapons, small planes, and other tools of the drug trade, civil forfeiture has come under fire for its misuse, as a way for police departments to make money.   Under the law, whose loose parameters Burton emphasized, police can seize money, cars, and other assets merely on suspicion of their involvement in a crime.  

In one striking instance Oliver cited on his program, a deputy seized $2,400 from a man traveling to California from Michigan.  Though the man's father gave him the money to start a new job, the deputy worried it might be used to buy drugs. 

"You may be thinking...I'm sure there are limitations on how police departments can spend" civil forfeiture monies, Oliver said.  "Well, allow me to take you to a 2012 Columbia, Missouri Citizen Police Review Board hearing." 


"There's some limitations on it, ya know, it's um -- actually, there's not really, on the forfeiture stuff," Burton told Police Review Board member Daniel Jacob.   Oliver's audience roared. 

"His honesty was not over," said Oliver, a kind of British Stephen Colbert whose 16-minute civil forfeiture piece was detailed, frightening, and even funny.   Interrogating a pile of cash, actor Jeff Goldblum added deliberate levity. 

Burton's levity was more accidental. 

"We just usually base it on something that would be nice to have, that we can't get in the budget," Burton explained, about how his department uses forfeited assets.   "We try not to use it on things that we need to depend on." 

The "pennies from heaven" remark followed.  "They should know, those 'pennies from heaven' may not be falling from heaven so much as from the pockets of the people they're holding upside down and shaking," Oliver exclaimed. 

 


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