After they bought a pound of marijuana from a city man during a 2008 undercover operation, Fort Wayne police officers raided his home.
Inside, they found a plastic bag that contained marijuana residue, a drug ledger and a backpack stuffed with nearly $50,000. Of the cash, $140 was marked money that undercover officers had used to buy the pound of marijuana, according to federal court records.
And officers seized the $50,000.
In recent years, both the Fort Wayne Police and Allen County Sheriff’s departments have seized a growing amount of money in federal cases. Unlike in state-level cases, police agencies can keep a large amount of the cash they take in federal cases.
A study released last month by the Institute for Justice – a non-profit, libertarian organization – graded each state on its police seizure laws and how law enforcement used such laws. The report, “Policing for Profit,” gave Indiana a C+.
Indiana’s state laws, which do not allow law enforcement to gain monetarily from seizing money, were given a B+ by the study’s authors. The grade was lowered because in Indiana, police have the option of following federal laws that let them keep more cash after a seizure.
But officials with both the Fort Wayne Police and Allen County Sheriff’s departments said the reason for the rise in federal seizures is not to make a buck. Rather, more and more cases are meeting the standards of prosecution as federal crimes.
Basically, officials said they are finding suspects with larger amounts of drugs in their possession or working longer-term cases that expose larger drug operations.
“I think if you have someone in office doing that, they shouldn’t be in office,” Allen County Sheriff Ken Fries said in response to the notion of profit-motivated police work. “You do not go out and enforce the laws to make money. You go out and enforce the laws to protect people.”
After police confiscate money or property during the course of a case, it becomes a civil court matter involving the Allen County Prosecutor’s Office or the U.S. Department of Justice.
The county prosecutor’s office files 100 to 120 such confiscation cases a year, said Deputy Prosecutor Jack Roebel, who handles the local cases.
Most involve people found with drugs, drug paraphernalia, cash or a combination of the three.
“If I’m a police officer and I stop a person, and they have cash and drugs, my argument is that the cash was either to purchase the drugs or made from the sale of drugs,” Roebel said.
Unlike in criminal court, Roebel does not have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the money or property he’s seeking to confiscate is connected to crime.
“My burden of proof is substantially lower than a criminal case,” Roebel said. “I just have to be able to prove to the court that there is some reason to believe the property I’m seeking to forfeit was related to crime.”
At the state level, police and prosecutors can use a seizure to recoup the cost of pursuing that case. They must submit documentation of how much they spent, and they cannot keep more than that total. Any excess goes into the state’s education fund.
“There’s no financial gain for anybody,” Roebel said.
In federal cases, though, police can keep up to 80 percent of money they seize. When more than one agency is involved, that money is divided according to how much time each agency put into the case.
Capt. Jim Feasel of the Fort Wayne Police Vice and Narcotics Unit said a case can be pursued in federal court only if it meets certain requirements. The amount of drugs or money involved plays a part, he said, as do other factors.
“The reason we go federal, it’s not because it’s more bang for the buck, it’s because we have enough information to meet federal guidelines,” Feasel said. “But a lot of times, we don’t have enough.”
A call to the U.S. Department of Justice office in Hammond, which handles federal confiscation cases in the area, went unreturned.
At the Allen County Sheriff’s Department, the amount of money confiscated in federal seizure cases has increased dramatically since 2006, the year before Fries took office.
Even barring one unusual case two years ago – in which sheriff’s officers found nearly $2 million in cash connected to a rural marijuana sting – the amount of money the department has seized under federal law has still risen, from $10,000 in 2006 to $292,000 last year.
Fries said the reason his department is taking more money through federal cases is because he has a reinvigorated and refocused vice and narcotics unit.
Most money confiscated by the department involves drug cases, he said.
“I believe drugs are at the center of crime,” Fries said.
Fort Wayne police have also seen an increase in the amount of money taken through federal seizures in the past two years, growing to more than $547,000 in 2008 and $410,000 in 2009, both up from the 2007 seizure total of $265,000.
“I think part of that is we’re trying to focus a little more on long-term investigations,” Feasel said.
Both Feasel and Fries said any money confiscated must go to law enforcement uses. Departments can buy computers or equipment or send officers to seminars.
In 2008, the sheriff’s department seized nearly $2 million and vehicles from a man found with more than 6,700 pounds of marijuana stashed inside a Harlan home. From that money, Fries used $600,000 to build a shooting range at Paulding and Adams Center roads, where he would like to also build a training facility.
He has also allotted $350,000 of seized funds for a building planned at the training site, which he hopes one day will include a driving course designed to help officers train for pursuits as well as to train teen drivers. He said such a facility could not be completed solely with seized funds, though.
“We could never get enough through seizures,” he said. “The only way is through corporate donations.”
Fries, Feasel and Roebel said money and property are confiscated only if officers can prove such items were connected to a crime.
If someone has a logical explanation why they are carrying around large amounts of money, police aren’t going to take it, they said. But if someone is carrying around large amounts of cash with no job or proof of where it came from, there’s a chance it could end up in the hands of police.
In any case, law enforcement officials said, anyone has the opportunity to prove in court that their seized money came from legal means.
“The problem is, forfeiture cases proceed just as any other civil case,” said local attorney Quinton Ellis, who represents some clients trying to get their money back from law enforcement. “It presents an issue for people who have funds forfeited.”
These people must hire a lawyer, and there may be court fees involved. Some cases he can’t take because the clients would be fighting for less money than they’d eventually have to pay him for his time, he said.
“More often than not, it’s just a few hundred dollars, but I’m going to have to put in many, many hours of my time,” Ellis said. “More often than not, people throw up their hands.”
Still, Ellis said that as in any civil case, the two sides can sometimes settle.
Last month, Fort Wayne police found out what they could keep from a 2008 undercover sting that initially netted about $50,000. The department settled with the man they took the money from. Police received $15,000. The man got $34,865 of the cash back.
“Both sides, unless the case is clear-cut, run a risk of not prevailing” in a trial, said Ellis, who was not involved in that case.
May 2, 2010
The Journal Gazette
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