Ga. police buy gear with seized money
Local and state agencies a cut of the cash or assets seized while helping the feds make cases
By Andria Simmons
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Officials call it poetic justice for crooks, but critics find it unseemly.
Police officers in the town of Braselton are driving brand new Chevy Tahoe SUVs on patrol these days. Lawrenceville's police department boasts 21 new vehicles, along with new in-car cameras, 48 laptops and assorted tactical gear.
The money for these upgrades didn't come from tight local budgets that suddenly loosened. It came from a program that gives local and state agencies a cut of the cash or assets seized while helping the feds bust interstate drug rings, take down white-collar criminals and make other cases.
Seizures and the payouts to locals have been growing — especially in Georgia. Agencies in the state last year got nearly $30 million, up from $28.6 million in 2010 and $25 million in 2009, and double the amounts of a decade ago.
Though some worry the practice puts too much emphasis on profit, law enforcment officials say seizing assets is a valid anti-crime tool with the added benefit of bolstering local and state resources. They say the growing amounts involved reflect the size and scope of cases, not a bigger emphasis on making seizures.
"If you know from the start that if you're caught, not only will you go to jail but you're not keeping the cash and the cars and the house, that, we hope, is more of an effective deterrent to committing crimes," said John Horn, the first assistant U.S. attorney in Atlanta.
Some critics say the system creates a profit incentive and can lead authorities to seize property from people who aren't even convicted or charged.
"There is no penalty on the government for seizing improperly," said Atlanta defense lawyer Don Samuel, who also teaches law students about asset forfeiture, "so there is no disincentive for a trooper to not seize the money."
The growth, also mirrored nationally, partly reflects an expansion of federal laws allowing seizure of cash or property — called asset forfeiture — used in the commission of crimes or acquired with ill-gotten gains.
The total amount of asset forfeitures in Georgia last year was $56 million, putting the state behind only New York, California, Florida and Texas.
Some of the money is used for victim restitution, if called for. Under a program called "equitable sharing," local agencies can recoup up to 80 percent of money they help seize. Nationwide, the federal government doled out $500 million last year to state and local law enforcement agencies, up about 75 percent over the past decade.
Horn noted that Georgia's total seizures last year included a single $25 million forfeiture penalty that was part of a settlement in a criminal case against drugmaker Allergan.
Also boosting recent totals are big-time drug busts like Operation Four Horsemen, a multi-state investigation of two Mexican cocaine-trafficking cartels operating in the Atlanta area. That operation netted a total of $23 million over several years, about $3.5 million of which went to Lawrenceville, Henry and Troup counties, and another $2.2 million of which went to the GBI and Georgia Department of Public Safety.
"We have been focusing recently on a much higher-level drug organization defendant or group of defendants . . . ," Horn said. "Instead of seizing $100,000 or $200,000, which would have been large seizures 10 years ago, we are seizing millions in cash."
Lawrenceville police got about $4.7 million last year from the equitable sharing program — one of the biggest amounts for any Georgia agency. It was a substantial boon to an agency with a yearly budget of $9 million. One reason: The department has officers assigned to joint task forces with the DEA, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives.
"One thing I want to stress is we didn't get involved with the federal agencies to get money, we got involved to get these drugs off the street," said Lawrenceville Police Chief Randy Johnson.
Braselton has only 15 officers, but because of its location along I-85, they often seize large caches of drugs or cash as a result of traffic stops. The city got $660,080 in federal forfeiture funds last year, enabling the Tahoe purchases and funding pencils, erasers and safety booklets they can distribute to the community.
Criminal asset forfeiture was set up in the 1970s to deprive racketeering groups like the Mafia of the proceeds of their crimes. Laws governing its use have expanded over the years to grant authorities the power to seize proceeds from nearly every federal crime.
The Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 broadened the authority to seize property without requiring anyone to be convicted of or even charged with a crime. Prosecutors need only to prove that the property was ill-gotten.
The Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm based in Virginia, contends there has been a relentless increase over the years in using seizure proceeds to augment local and federal law enforcement budgets.
"Often it does happen that property is taken without the owner being charged with a crime," said Anthony Sanders, a spokesman for the Institute for Justice.
Federal officials say people who feel their property was wrongly taken can file a claim. If they can prove their assets are legitimate or that they didn't know the property was being used for illegal means, the money is returned.
"We are mindful of the fact that it is a powerful tool and does need to be used appropriately," Horn said.
A North Carolina man and his girlfriend got a crash course in federal asset forfeiture in 2010 when Jefferson police stopped his vehicle on I-85 heading into Atlanta. The officers — who patrol a 2.5-mile section of the highway in Jackson County and often encounter drug smugglers — found $22,055 in the woman's purse. The couple said they were going to use it to buy a tractor-trailer in Atlanta.
Police doubted the story since the driver gave a series of inconsistent statements about how much money he had and what he was carrying it for. He also professed to be unemployed and had a prior drug-related conviction. So the officers seized the cash and worked with the DEA to require the man and woman to forfeit it, even though neither was charged with any crime.
The man's attorney, Careton Matthews, eventually negotiated a settlement in which his client got $9,000 back after providing proof he'd gotten the money in an insurance settlement. The woman recouped $6,000. The federal government and the city of Jefferson kept the remaining $7,000 under the agreement.
Things turned out better for his client than for most other people, Matthews said.
"It normally turns out that [the government] gets to keep it all, or they keep 75 or 80 percent," he said.
Money received in 2011
Georgia seized $56 million in asset forfeitures last year. Nearly $30 million was distributed among state law enforcement agencies — including several in metro Atlanta — for their assistance in the cases.
Alpharetta Police Dept. $780,046
Atlanta Police Dept. $2 million
Clayton County Sheriff's Office $323,484
Cobb County Sheriff's Office $2,655
DeKalb County Police Dept. $747,750
Doraville Police Dept. $281,384
Georgia Bureau of Investigation $2.9 million
Georgia Dept. Of Public Safety $3.5 million
Gwinnett County Police Dept. $273,529
Gwinnett County Sheriff's Office $452,159
Lawrenceville Police Dept. $4.7 million
Marietta Police Dept. $763,068
Roswell Police Dept. $305,884
Sandy Springs Police Dept. $60,816
Statewide Total $29.8 million
(including some agencies not listed above)
Federal asset forfeiture in 2011
New York $699 million
Copyright 2012 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution