- Associated Press - Saturday, March 19, 2016

VANCOUVER, Wash. (AP) - On Piper’s first day on the job last November, the drug-sniffing black Lab helped nab three alleged drug dealers - and seize more than 25 pounds of heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine; $220,000 in cash; some guns; and two cars.

The drugs were destroyed. The cash and the rest of the seized items may help foot the bill for Clark County’s multi-agency drug task force, which receives about $100,000 annually through the practice, said Clark County Sheriff’s Office Cmdr. John Horch, who leads the task force.

Revenue from seized cash and selling seized items at auction also covered half of the roughly $15,000 it cost to buy Piper, he said.

“Most taxpayers, I’d say 99 percent, are happy that it’s not actual taxpayer money that’s going to drug enforcement,” Horch said, adding that asset seizures also disrupt drug rings. “Why not use the drug dealer’s money than the taxpayer’s money?”

The government has long been able to take convicted criminals’ ill-gotten gains; it’s called forfeiture. Thanks to more recent laws designed to fight the war on drugs, police in Washington, and in most other states, need a lower burden of proof to take items found at a crime scene thought to be connected to drugs. In those cases, the acquiring and selling of those items is called civil asset forfeiture.

Drug-related forfeitures are considered civil matters, essentially separate from any associated criminal case. The state must show that the items or money were connected to drugs using the burden of proof in civil cases, called a preponderance of evidence. Put another way, it has to be “more probable than not.”

Legal experts worry that the lower burden of proof could lead to forfeiture abuses, as it has in other parts of the nation, but police agencies say that hasn’t been a problem locally.

Local criminal defense attorney Mark Muenster, who has worked on forfeiture cases, says it’s the letter of these laws - not necessarily the spirit - that bothers him.

“It’s almost like turning the presumption of innocence on its head,” he said.

‘Potential for abuse’

The Vancouver Police Department recovered about $50,000 worth of stolen property following a raid last April.

In a nondescript building off of Mill Plain Boulevard sits the department’s recovered stolen property, bulk evidence and seized goods, including the remaining unclaimed items from the April raid.

The bust brought in about 400 items, including high-end bicycles, dozens of watches, power tools, guitars without strings and a weathered knock-off Stradivarius violin.

It all awaits auction, after being forfeited through the state’s drug seizure laws. The goods are stored in what looks like a retail store’s stockroom.

“Most of the stuff is just random,” evidence technician Rebecca Brooks said. She added that higher-quality items usually are fenced by crooks before police make a bust.

Brooks said Vancouver police and the county sheriff’s office, as with many law enforcement agencies, sell the goods through an online auction market.

Washington state law dictates that 10 percent of money brought in through auctioning seized goods or seizing cash goes back to the state. The law limits how cops can spend the remainder. In drug cases, the money has to go back to furthering drug investigations.

“Although there aren’t many current examples of forfeiture abuse in Washington state, the potential for abuse is still there every day,” said Wesley Hottot, an attorney with the libertarian nonprofit Institute for Justice, which advocates for forfeiture law reform. “There very well may be seizures that we never hear about, in which property is taken from entirely innocent people.”

It’s a little disingenuous, he said, to say that police are taking money and goods that would be used by drug dealers when the original owner has yet to be convicted of drug dealing. Someone suspected of dealing drugs doesn’t have fewer rights than someone who is suspected of committing another crime, he added.

The practice also creates, at the very least, an appearance of impropriety, Hottot said. It could appear that police and prosecutors have an incentive to seize more than they really need to.

Asset seizures and how the money has been spent have caused multiple scandals and led to multiple congressional hearings.

A district attorney’s office in Massachusetts spent $985 in 2013 on a Zamboni machine. In 2014, in Philadelphia, police seized a couple’s house after their son sold $40 in heroin from the home.

In 2008, tactical gear-clad Detroit police raided a members-only dance party at an art gallery because the gallery didn’t have the right permits, then impounded patrons’ cars. The guests were ticketed for loitering, charges that were eventually dropped, and charged $900 to get their cars out of the impound.

Not a cash cow locally

Forfeitures, made either for drug investigations or after felony convictions, don’t make much money for local law enforcement.

The Vancouver Police Department took in about $504,000 in drug forfeiture money, and about $34,000 in felony forfeitures, from 2010 to 2015. The department’s budget this year is about $38.5 million.

The Clark County Sheriff’s Office, through drug and felony forfeitures, took in about $319,000 from 2010 through much of 2015. Its budget for this year is about $52 million.

Darin Rouhier, finance manager for the sheriff’s office, said $40,000 of the seizure money goes each year to a pot for replacing in-car computers for deputies.

If there’s anything leftover, it goes into a fund for one-time equipment or supply needs. Once, about $250,000 from that fund went to Tasers for each deputy. Recently, the money helped buy a new armored vehicle.

The money is never directed to the payroll, in large part because there’s no telling how much money the agency will make through forfeitures, Rouhier said.

“It’s not sound financial management to use a very sporadic, volatile source to pay for something as regular as payroll,” he said.

Even if officers make a huge bust and seize a lot of goods or cash, there’s no guarantee it’ll end up being forfeited, he added. Law enforcement may decide not to pursue the forfeiture, or it might be proven that the cash or items weren’t connected to a crime. Furthermore, the forfeiture process can take a year or two.

Vancouver uses the money in largely the same way, said Connie Bridges, the financial systems analyst at the Vancouver Police Department. The point is to take cars, cash or other goods used for drug dealing out of circulation, she said, adding that the department has taken in junk cars that cost more to get rid of than they’re worth.

“The point is not, ‘How much money is this going to bring in for us?’” she said.

Fighting the forfeiture

To fight a drug-related forfeiture, a property owner can go to court or an administrative hearing.

The person leading the hearing is appointed by a top leader in the law enforcement agency, and a local prosecutor represents the state. Defendants may bring a lawyer, but the state doesn’t supply one for people who can’t pay for one, as it would in criminal cases.

“It’s not exactly a level playing field, because you have an interested party acting as the umpire,” Muenster said.

Unless the object in question is a large sum of cash, a car, or another expensive possession, many just walk away, he said.

“I would say people who don’t have much in the way of assets are much more likely to lose smaller assets to a forfeiture than someone who has the means to defend themselves,” Muenster said.

Sheriff’s Cmdr. KC Kasberg, the agency’s hearing examiner for forfeitures, acknowledged that some might find it odd that the arbiter in forfeiture cases is a cop. But, he said, local law enforcement takes care that money is handled appropriately.

“I think the detectives in the field are a lot more judicious with their seizures than they get credit for a lot of the time,” he said.

Most hearings get delayed until after the criminal case ends, and appropriately so, he said. During an ongoing criminal case, anything said at a forfeiture hearing can be used in criminal court.

Changes suggested

Even without concrete examples of abuse in Washington state, Hottot said, it’s inappropriate for law enforcement agencies to have a direct financial interest in the drug busts they make.

Ideally, he said, 100 percent of that money should go back to the state’s general fund, where legislators can decide what to do with it, whether it’s paying for schools and roads or simply sending it right back to drug investigations.

“I’m not saying that those expenses are illegitimate, I’m just saying that elected officials should be appropriating the money for them,” Hottot said. “At the very least, the public needs to be reassured that when things are taken that it’s being done in the interest of policing, and not in the interest of padding budgets.”

Horch, of the local drug task force, said officers’ use of discretion and good judgment is as necessary during a forfeiture as it is during an arrest.

In the case of the drug task force, he said it’s nice to be self-sufficient through seizures and grant money, but the No. 1 goal is to investigate crimes and get convictions, not fund the operation.

Member police agencies pay the salaries for officers on the task force, with forfeitures and a mix of other funds paying for its operations. If it runs out of money, Horch said, the task force would go back to its constituent agencies and figure something out.

“I don’t’ think anybody out there is going, ‘We have less burden of proof, we can take this easier than we can convict a person.’ I don’t think that ever crosses a mind at all,” he said.

___

Information from: The Columbian, http://www.columbian.com

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