Seized property pays for crimefighting

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Assets taken from convicted criminals benefit local police departments

By Shaina Stockton and Shannon Watkins

When police officers in Virginia get new equipment, weapons or body armor, they often have criminals to thank.
The way Virginia law works, convicted felons are paying for the fight against crime.
Virginia law enforcement has been empowered to use money and items seized in drug busts for local police funding since the late 1980s, according to Galax Police Chief Rick Clark.
Known as civil asset forfeiture, it was enacted by the Virginia General Assembly and is overseen by the Department of Criminal Justice. “I can’t imagine that any police department in Virginia doesn’t participate,” said Clark.
He carefully noted that such funding cannot be used in place of money the city has set aside in its budget for police operations. “We’re very careful in city government how funds are appropriated and used,” Clark said.
While $57 million overall has been received by law enforcement agencies across Virginia, the money comes to each community from its own drug seizures.
“Nobody gets rich doing it, especially in this area,” said Clark. “Sometimes we get large seizures. We use it to supplement radio repair, body armor, crime scene equipment –  we use part of it to support the crime prevention function.”
Clark also noted that while such finding is welcome, it’s not consistent.
“You can’t depend on it, is a good way to put it,” he said. “We get probably no less than $5,000 a year. The most we’ve ever gotten was maybe $15,000. And that money has to be kept in a separate account that’s interest-bearing.
“My [city] manager and the director of finance actually appropriate that money. The way it’s used, it has to pass the muster of the city’s audit that’s conducted once a year.”
In Galax, items seized through drug busts are handled by the Twin County Regional Drug Task Force and sold at public auction. “[We’ve sold] used cell phones. We may sell used computer monitors. Historically we’ve done a city auction once a year. We’ve sold a dumptruck-load of computer modules for $5.”
Firearms are often part of seizures, but Clark has firm rules about how they’re dealt with.
“We don’t sell them,” he said. “What we’ve done in the past, with the permission of the court –  and all this hinges around the permissions of the court – we’ll trade them to Town Police Supply [a police supply retailer based out of Collinsville] for credit on our account.
“In my tenure, we will not auction off guns. That’s probably not a very popular thing to say in this area, but I’m just not going into the gun business.”
Clark says it isn’t really worth the effort, anyway. “The truth is, we don’t seize quality firearms. They’re not Brownings and high-dollar guns,” he said. “I think the last time we did, we got $2,000 worth of credit with Town Police Supply.”
The retailer puts it in their inventory and sells it if it’s not stolen, and must comply with federal firearms laws, said Clark.
If an item is seized in a drug bust, but belongs to someone who isn’t involved in the crime – say, a car that a dealer borrowed from a family member who is unaware of the activities it’s being involved in – there are a few different things that could happen.
In order to seize and keep it, says Clark, “You have to prove that they actively participated, that they knew what their vehicle was going to be used for. And the truth of it is, the bulk of the vehicles we seize – we’re not Miami. We’re not seizing Corvettes and Ferraris.”
As for getting the property back once it’s been seized, Clark says, “There’s actually a hearing in the circuit court, about the asset. You could probably represent yourself. It’s a civil proceeding, it’s not a criminal one, and that’s why the commonwealth’s attorney handles it.”
Galax doesn’t have its own commonwealth’s attorney, so Clark says either the Grayson or Carroll commonwealth’s attorney handles it, depending on where in Galax the property was seized.
“Main Street’s kind of the line. If we seize a car on one side of the line, [Commonwealth’s Attorney] Nathan Lyons in Carroll would decide about it. If we seize it on the other side of the line, then [Commonwealth’s Attorney] Doug Vaught in Grayson would make the decision. Ultimately, it’s up to them.”
Clark also said that if the person the property is seized from says its owner wasn’t involved in criminal activity, and this corroborates with what the owner himself says, the police probably won’t take the property.
“There’s a really good chance that the officer doesn’t seize it at the time,” said Clark. “And both the commonwealth’s attorneys have good heads. But there’s an expense to both sides. The commonwealth’s attorney has expense to do it, we [Galax] have an expense to do it – you have to make some business decisions.”
According to the state database of civil asset forfeitures in Virginia, spanning the years of 2008-2013, Galax seized $47,784 worth of forfeited assets and Grayson seized $29,075.
No assets were listed for Carroll County, but it was noted that only departments that have seized more than 10 items in the past six years are listed.

Carroll County
Some police departments are more active in the program than others. For example, Chief Greg Bolen of the Hillsville Police Department said his department had not seized anything in years.
The Carroll County Sheriff’s Office, however, is more familiar with asset forfeitures, and has seen some benefit from the program in recent years.
“We’ve received a new radio system, tactical equipment and a tactical vehicle [for the Twin County Drug Task Force],” said Seth Greer of the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office.
Although he didn’t have exact numbers in front of him, Greer said that there were many more examples of how Carroll has benefitted. “It gives us a way to purchase equipment and things we need to effectively do our job without putting the burden on the community. We don’t want raised taxes,” he said.
As the revenue from forfeitures varies from year to year, these funds aren’t exactly counted on when planning the budget. However, the extra money serves as icing on the cake, providing additional funds for upgrades, programs, raises within the department. In years when the budgets are tighter than normal, a little more wiggle room for annual costs.
Most of the proceeds from asset forfeitures come from drug dealers, according to Greer. Another benefit of the program is that the seizure of vehicles, money, property — or other resources that help the offender continue their trade — are taken away, crippling the business.
Of course, there are rules that have to be followed when seizing personal property. Carroll County Commonwealth Attorney Nathan Lyons explained that the Code of Virginia dictates what police can and cannot seize. Asset forfeitures are limited to the bigger crimes, like money laundering and drug distribution, in order to hit repeat offenders where it hurts.
Greer explained that if a department can prove that at item is being used as a resource to commit the crime, or if the item was paid for by money made by committing a crime — that item is considered fair game.
Furthermore, resources like currency are easier to obtain, since even a small wad of “drug money” added to currency gained through a more honest profession taints the entire amount. “Even if they work an honest job… if they mix their drug money with the rest of their money, we can seize that money,” said Greer.
Like Clark said, laws protect the innocent from having to fight for their seized belongings in court, but Greer said that “if a husband and wife are part of the conspiracy involving the vehicle, then we would take it. But if it’s someone driving their grandpa’s truck, we would just impound the vehicle.”
Lyons said the owner would then be required to sign a notice stating that they are aware of what the offender is doing. “If that person is later caught using the car again, we would assume that the owner knows, and they would no longer be called an ‘innocent owner,’” Lyons said.
Leins against vehicles are another exception to the rule. “In that case, the bank owns it, and it does us no good [to seize it],” he said.
In cases like this, Lyons uses caution and doesn’t ignore any doubt that he might have. “If there is any question when it comes to a case like this, especially with property, then we don’t pursue it. We want to always be ethical in everything we do.”
For the court systems, it is a careful process that typically begins with an inquiry from a law enforcement agency in regards to a property. “We review the case, then make a determination if we can proceed. Then we file a civil forfeiture,” Lyons said.
The offender then gets 21 days to respond or a default judgment is passed. If the offender does respond, a civil hearing is held where law enforcement must prove that the item is tied into the crime.
Forfeitures are turned over to the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Service (DCJS) in instances of a state offense. Money is disbursed back to the agencies after the DCJS receives a percentage.
If departments work in tandem on a case — for instance, the Twin County Drug Task Force, which is comprised of Carroll and Grayson deputies, Galax police officers and Virginia state troopers — the money is split with the involved departments.
“This works as a huge deterrent. If someone is working as a dealer, and they get caught and go to jail… when they get out, they could pick up where they left off. But if you cut off their financial stream, you discontinue their ability to distribute. That is our goal and purpose — to focus on the large-scale crimes,” Lyons said.

Grayson County
“We’re hitting drug dealers in the pocketbook where it hurts. At the same time, it allows us to better equip our deputies,” said Grayson County Sheriff Richard Vaughan.
The sheriff had plenty of examples of how his department has reaped from the program. “Our last grant through the Attorney General’s office was $106,000, which was a drug asset forfeiture from a pharmaceutical company, that was up in the millions of dollars,” he told The Gazette. “We ended up getting two four-wheel drive vehicles, 16 AR-15 rifles, scopes and software for our mobile data terminals for our vehicles.”
When he first put on his sheriff’s hat, he used funds from the pool of forfeited funds to better equip deputies so that they would be safer out on the field. “We purchased AR-15 rifles, digital cameras, things that were necessary for them to do their jobs. And the best part was that we didn’t have to go to the board of supervisors for extra funds to do this,” said the sheriff.
The current total in the department’s drug asset forfeiture fund sits at right around $80,000, so the department is in good shape when it comes to surprise expenses, matches for grants, equipment upgrades and tough budget years. “A few years ago, I used $22,500 to keep a school resource officer when the budget was cut,” he said as an example.
Vaughan also appropriates between $8,000 and $10,000 from the fund for drug interdiction. “They like to see us putting money back into the drug effort. When we do that, it generates more revenue, so it’s a win-win.”
He noted that drug crime in Grayson County typically involves trade items, so their stash of seized items can be very colorful at times. “We’ve taken ATVs, four-wheelers, motorcycles, weed-eaters, chainsaws… anything of value,” he said.  
To provide an example of what is typically kept as a result of these seizures, Vaughan noted that out of the 18 seizures that are recorded from their department, only 12 of those were actually forfeited.
As these items are collected, they are placed into storage units until they are full, and then a public auction.
The proceeds are divided among the departments.