Posted on Sun, May. 04, 2003
Police spend drug cash
By Claire Booth and Kristi Belcamino
CONTRA COSTA TIMES
In the midst of the state's worsening budget crisis, the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office is buying a new $1 million helicopter -- courtesy of the county's drug dealers.
The Sheriff's Office has saved its share of seized drug proceeds during the past few years and now has enough to pay for the high-tech, crime-fighting chopper.
"It's just nice to see that sometimes the crooks can give something back," Sheriff's Office Capt. Steve Fuqua said.
Law enforcement agencies throughout the East Bay, with no other way to buy needed equipment in these lean times, appreciate more than ever the state law that allows them to confiscate and spend illicit drug money.
If prosecutors can prove in court that the seized cash comes from the sale or manufacture of illegal drugs, the money goes into public coffers, with half the proceeds going to the lead investigating agencies.
Police departments may spend their portion on enforcement of drug laws or equipment to help that cause. Funds cannot be used to hire more police officers or to pay for items that are already included in an agency's budget, such as salary increases.
People have 30 days after being notified that their property -- including boats, cars, cash or land -- has been seized to file a claim for it with the court.
Many people drop their fight when prosecutors want specific documentation about the source of the money or property, said Jose Marin, the Contra Costa deputy district attorney in charge of the office's drug unit.
"Once we begin to ask questions, most people drop out," he said.
"With money, it's not very hard to explain where it comes from," said Andy Cuellar, the Alameda County deputy district attorney in charge of asset forfeiture.
Critics disagree. Civil libertarians and criminal defense attorneys have argued that asset forfeiture laws penalize innocent members of a family and are costly to defend in court.
Responding to those concerns, Congress in 2000 approved a law that imposed new limits on federal asset seizures.
It imposes notice and time requirements and shifts the burden of proof onto the government, making it necessary to show that the property owner was complicit.
State law, revamped in 1994, requires that the person be convicted of the underlying offense before any property worth less than $25,000 is forfeited.
For property worth more than $25,000, a conviction is not required; however, the forfeiture must be decided by a judge, regardless of whether the person has filed a claim for the property, Marin said.
Police agencies have increasingly relied on the funds.
Concord police Lt. Gary Norvell said that if his department needs a vital piece of equipment that wasn't included in the budget, it uses drug forfeiture money to buy it.
Over the years, the department has spent between $80,000 and $100,000 for eight unmarked police cars equipped with computers and police radios. The department also bought an SUV that converts to a mobile command post and SWAT gear, rifles and surveillance equipment.
The Pittsburg Police Department is considering using asset-forfeiture money to purchase wiretaps for narcotics officers that can cost between $8,000 and $15,000 each, said Lt. Michael Barbanica.
Past expenditures include off-road motorcycles to help combat street-level drug activity, he said.
In Livermore, the police department spent about $9,000 last year on a remote-controlled, closed-circuit television camera that uses infrared technology to see interior images of a building without having to send someone inside, said Capt. Mark Weiss.
In Contra Costa County, people file a claim in about half the asset seizures, with about 20 percent being fully contested in court.
Because of time and expense, prosecutors rarely take asset forfeitures to trial. Instead, they settle the claims, usually agreeing to take some of the money and give some of it back, Marin said.
Confiscated money is divided among the state's general fund and other public agencies.
In 2001, the state's general fund received nearly $26 million in asset forfeitures. The money came from 3,116 forfeiture cases, including some that had been initiated as far back as 1995, according to the state Department of Justice.
A committee in each county made up of a police chief, the chief probation department official, the district attorney and the sheriff dole out 15 percent of the money for drug and gang prevention programs.
Those funds can be given to educators, community-based organizations or law enforcement.
"One of the more common ones is DARE programs," said Alameda County District Attorney Tom Orloff, who is chairman of that county's committee. "That's where the (reduced) budgets really hurt them -- the kinds of things that don't catch crooks but are good to do."
Alameda County has about $320,000 available for its drug and gang prevention work, Orloff said.
Contra Costa's committee fund -- with a balance of about $400,000 -- has barely been tapped. Marin said he suspects many people do not even know the money, which is administered by the Contra Costa Sheriff's Office, is there.
"I myself have made it a personal crusade," he said. "I make sure that whenever I'm brought into a function where I'm discussing asset forfeiture, I always mention the fact that these funds are there."
Police agencies are well aware of how much they have in their forfeiture accounts. Many save the money for big-ticket items.
The Richmond Police Department has spent $150,000 to renovate a high-tech conference room and command center, according to Armand Mulder, commander for the department's support services bureau.
It plans to spend another $91,000 to maintain squad cars' mobile computers and may spend another $150,000 to buy patrol motorcycles, he said.
The Oakland Police Department has used its funds to maintain and fuel its helicopter and equip it with heat-seeking, infrared night vision.
Saving the money makes sense because the amount coming in is impossible to predict.
"One of the problems with asset forfeiture is it's not like a business," Cuellar said. "It really depends on how much investigation is done and also how lucky you are."
Sometimes, Cuellar said, an eight-month investigation will net nothing, but a routine traffic stop where the car is legally searched will turn up $100,000.
"You just never know," he said.
Contra Costa officials seized about $140,000 in cash last year in a single bust, and $300,000 in money and vehicles as part of a West County case, Marin said.
Mulder called the extra revenue only a side benefit to narcotics enforcement.
"The main emphasis is -- whatever activity we do -- it is to decrease crime, not increase revenue," he said.