War on drugs 

Task force gets new digs

The Missoula High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force, composed of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, is asking the Missoula City Council and mayor to sign off on an agreement that will let the task force rent and renovate a new, larger office at an undisclosed location.

Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir chairs the task force, which polices a range of drug crimes. He presented a brief synopsis of law enforcement plans for the new office to council's Public Safety and Health Committee Jan. 25.

The new office will be renovated to accommodate law enforcement needs. Muir says that will cost $120,000. The Office of National Drug Policy is paying half of those costs. The other half, Muir says, "is coming from drug forfeiture funds."

Using forfeiture money for law enforcement office space doesn't sit well with NORML Board President John Masterson, who testified before the committee last week. NORML aims to reform marijuana laws. "Really, asset forfeiture is not that much different from legalized theft," Masterson says.

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It's a mechanism used by law enforcement to take and keep cash and possessions that belong to people suspected of criminal activity. There are two types of forfeiture, criminal and civil. In the criminal justice system, a defendant must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt before having his or her belongings taken. With civil forfeiture, a property owner must demonstrate before a judge in civil court that the items seized haven't been used in conjunction with or to perpetrate a crime. In order to get property back, owners must illustrate, for instance, that it was purchased with money earned through employment or inheritance. As the Independent reported in September, civil forfeiture is being used increasingly against Montanans as law enforcement cracks down on the state's marijuana suppliers, many of whom say they believed they were running legal operations under the state's Medical Marijuana Act.

Muir explained during last week's meeting that forfeiture funds being used for the task force's new office were likely generated years ago, before medical marijuana became a flashpoint in Montana.

"It's first in and first out in that respect," Muir said.

The Public Safety and Health Committee unanimously supported the lease agreement. Adam Hertz abstained from the vote. The issue will be on the consent agenda during the city council's Feb. 6 meeting.

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