Pubdate: Sun, 26 Mar 2006
Source: Free Lance-Star, The (VA)
Copyright: 2006 The Free Lance-Star
Author: Bill Freehling
Bookmark: (Asset Forfeiture)
Bookmark: (D.A.R.E.)


Law enforcement agencies benefit when drug dealers' ill-gotten money
and property are used to offset the rising costs of fighting crime.

The war on drugs netted Virginia law enforcement agencies nearly $6
million in 2005, and about $40 million since 1990.

That's according to data from the Virginia Department of Criminal
Justice Services, which runs the state's asset forfeiture program and
receives 10 percent of all proceeds from drug seizures.

Law enforcement agencies in the Fredericksburg area received about
$442,000 last year from drug asset forfeitures, and more than $1
million since the state's program started in 1990. Before that, seized
assets went to the Literary Fund.

Local agencies have used the money to buy a wide variety of
items--including drug dogs, polygraph machines, vehicles, surveillance
equipment and more.

"I don't have to go to the taxpayer to ask them to pay for it," said
Spotsylvania County Sheriff Howard Smith, whose office received nearly
$60,000 from seized drug assets last year.

In addition to saving taxpayer money, Smith said the forfeiture
program gives police more resources to fight the drug problem. And it
lets them hit drug dealers where it hurts--in the wallet.

The desire to shut down illegal activity by seizing assets led Smith
and Spotsylvania Commonwealth's Attorney William Neely to approve a
controversial prostitution investigation at the Moon Spa massage parlor.

Spotsylvania detectives received sexual services at the now-closed
business across from BJ's Wholesale Club on State Route 3. Neely said
that was necessary to get the money into the hands of the business
owners and shut them down, but Smith has now suspended the tactic.

Virginia's asset forfeiture laws allow the seizure of assets gained
through illegal activity, including prostitution and gambling. Local
agencies don't have to report non-drug-related asset forfeitures to
the DCJS.

The preliminary hearing for the five people charged in the Moon Spa
case--two suspected operators and three suspected prostitutes--is
scheduled for Thursday in Spotsylvania General District Court.

That's a first step toward seizing the business's assets. That will
ultimately be a civil matter that will likely be heard in Spotsylvania
Circuit Court.

Similar tactics were used to shut down two Spotsylvania massage
parlors in 2003--Genex Therapeutic Massage and Fredericksburg Spa.
Those businesses ultimately forfeited four vehicles and more than
$35,000 in assets.

Although those investigations have drawn a lot of attention, Smith
said the vast majority of asset forfeitures are from drug cases.

It sometimes takes more than a year for asset forfeiture cases to
clear and for the money to be distributed to local agencies, said
Debbie Turck, who coordinates the program for the DCJS.

Forfeited assets are placed into separate accounts with the
localities' treasury offices. The money is sometimes used to buy
illegal drugs as part of ongoing investigations. It's also spent on
equipment purchases.

For example, Smith said recent expenditures from the asset forfeiture
account in Spotsylvania have included $15,335 for audio equipment,
$480 for a hard drive for forensic investigations, $500 for lettering
for the forensic van and $2,195 for a digital recorder.

Vehicles that are seized are sometimes used for undercover operations.
They're also auctioned off at times, and the proceeds are returned to
the agency involved in the seizure.

Proceeds are split between sheriff's/police departments and
commonwealth's attorneys' offices. In Stafford County, for example,
Sheriff Charles Jett said his office gets 70 percent and the
prosecutor's office gets 30 percent.

Virginia statute requires that the money be used for any law
enforcement purpose, a broad definition that allows a variety of
purchases--which are regularly audited by the DCJS. Purchasing
decisions are typically made by the head of each office.

Caroline County has used the money to buy computer and camera
equipment, an all-terrain vehicle, a storage trailer and tire spike
strips, said county Finance Director John Sieg.

In King George County, Sheriff's Capt. Steve Dempsey said, the money
has supported the D.A.R.E. program and been used to buy equipment for
drug investigations.

The Fredericksburg Police Department has bought undercover cars,
software to track purchases made at pawn shops, body wires for
detectives and crime scene software, said department spokesman Jim

Jett said Stafford has tried to be pretty frugal with its money,
mostly using it to support the vice and narcotics unit. He said there
is no line item in his budget for that division because of the
proceeds from asset forfeitures.

Stafford has had some big cases lately--including the seizure of
$200,000 in cash from the home of Alphonso Bennett in 2004. The county
seized more last year than it has in all the other years since 1990
combined. That's also true in Culpeper, Caroline and Orange counties,
according to the data.

"It's a huge savings," Sheriff Smith said. 
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