Bradenton police should require court oversight

Justice is found in courtrooms, not on sidewalks.

The Bradenton Police Department doesn’t think so. It doesn’t need the help of the courts to “take the profit out of the narcotics business” anymore. The force can handle it on its own – or at least that’s what Bradenton Police Chief Michael Radzilowski seems to think.

Under a “Contraband Forfeiture Agreement,” which the Bradenton Police Department has been using for years, police can confiscate cash and property “from people they arrested for drug possession and other crimes.” All that is needed is the suspect’s signature on a three-page form that waives legal counsel, any settlement review and a jury trial, in addition to eight other stipulations.

The purpose of the document is to “avoid the cost, delay and uncertainty” of the legal system. After all, that old ideal about letting 100 guilty men go free rather than putting oneinnocent man in jail is just idealistic nonsense. In Bradenton, innocent people take their chances like anyone else.

With no external oversight from a court, such an “agreement” between the accused and police is rife with the possibility of corruption. A suspect not charged with any crime might sign the paperwork to avoid being charged. The police might take cash and property not specified in the agreement. With absolutely no checks and balances on police behavior during these “agreements” and no attorney present for the suspects, anything could happen.

Unfortunately, such instances are already occurring. According to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Bradenton police confiscated $43,551 in cash from Ezequiel Maldonado during a stop for a traffic violation in January 2006 and never charged him with a crime. Janie Brooks sat in the back of a police cruiser while officers berated her until she signed over $1,200, telling her “things would go a lot smoother” if she signed it. Delane N. Johnson from Orlando is suing for $10,020 police seized from him in July.

Attorneys and constitutional law scholars see this unique form of fundraising in a different light than the Bradenton Police Department. They cite state law, which says judges in courtrooms – not police officers on the streets – are the ones to determine the legality and amount of forfeitures.

Negotiating with police officers is a bad idea in the first place, so any agreements between suspects and police are necessarily unwise. The fact that these agreements are vacant of any semblance of constitutionality, any hint of defendants’ rights and any reasonable oversight to prevent abuse contribute to the agreements’ already disturbing similarity to vigilantism under the guise of a police department.