Lawmakers Need To Stop Trusting Everything Cops Tell Them

Today the state Senate debated HB1297 which would have repealed state law requiring the involvement of a judge in settling ownership claims on disputed property held by law enforcement. Cops wanted the change because they think it takes too long for a judge to review the property, but the Senate killed with opponents arguing that a judge needs to be involved in settling disputes over things like stolen property.

The opponents had the right of the argument, I think, but normally this sort of in-the-weeds policy isn’t something I’d spend a lot of time talking about. Except I think the debate over the bill illustrated something about debate over policies impact law enforcement which frustrates me.

Sometimes some lawmakers are far too willing to trust everything the cops tell them about a proposed piece of legislation, as if law enforcement weren’t a government bureaucracy every bit as prone to waste and territorialism and hostility to public accountability and transparency as any other government bureaucracy. We can both recognize and appreciate the job cops do for us while simultaneously recognizing that law enforcement administrators can be more than a little self-serving in their outlook on policy.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]We can both recognize and appreciate the job cops do for us while simultaneously recognizing that law enforcement administrators can be more than a little self-serving in their outlook on policy.[/mks_pullquote]

Here’s what I’m talking about.

During the debate Senator Judy Lee (R-Fargo) rose to speak in favor of passing the bill (see the video above). “Our law enforcement officials are professionals who know what they’re doing,” she told her fellow Senators. “Their goal is to return property for which the ownership is not in dispute.”

“It sounds like a really good deal for attorneys,” she continued, referring to the status quo in the law, “but not so good for the person who se bike or purse got stolen.

The problem is we have recent evidence illustrating that cops sometimes screw these things up. Case in point, last fall the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation was ordered by a judge to reimburse the owner of a payloader nearly $50,000 after they apparently released it to someone else inappropriately (the state is appealing the ruling). The BCI had seized the payloader during a raid in which one agent took the phone of a citizen observer and deleted pictures she had taken of the incident. The agent who confronted the woman told her it was illegal to take the pictures, which the BCI later admitted was wrong.

Anyway, back to HB1297, it’s more than a little problematic for law enforcement to tell lawmakers like Senator Lee that we don’t need judges to oversee these disputed property cases because cops do such a great job. And it’s troubling that Senator Lee would simply take law enforcement’s word for it when we have a glaring example of law enforcement not handling these cases appropriately.

Justice is hard. Very often our court system moves much more slowly than any of us would like. But better an arduous process than unjust outcomes.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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