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Published: March 22, 2009 3:00 a.m.

No charges, but police can keep the cash

Jeff Wiehe
The Journal Gazette
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Money seized
Money in the Allen County Prosecutor’s Office’s state seizure fund has grown in recent years:

2004…$53,062

2005…$38,378

2006…$64,513

2007…$91,609

2008…$105,852

Going 62 in a 50-mph zone, a Jeep barreled west on a slippery, snow-covered Airport Expressway on Valentine’s Day and blew past an Allen County sheriff’s squad car.

One traffic stop later, two men inside the Jeep were outside being patted down by officers. They acted nervous, according to a police report. At one point they looked as if they wanted to fight; at another they looked as if they wanted to flee.

In the Jeep’s back seat, police found more than $26,000 in cash wrapped in a stocking cap.

Though officers held the two men for a short time in squad cars, they were eventually released without charges, save for the driver receiving a citation for driving with a suspended license.

And the money? The police kept it.

Having that much cash is not a crime, but police have the right to seize it if they suspect it has been used or procured through criminal means. Most of the money seized comes from drug cases and can then be used by various law enforcement agencies.

And at least one local agency, the Allen County Prosecutor’s Office, has taken a more aggressive approach in forfeiture cases, with the amount of money in its state seizure fund growing from more than $53,000 in 2004 to more than $105,000 in 2008, according to Allen County’s Chief Deputy Prosecutor Michael McAlexander.

“We’ve gotten a little more aggressive,” said McAlexander, citing better communication with police in how confiscations work locally. “We’ve created a better process.”

In the situation with the $26,000, police seized the money because the driver could not give an adequate reason for having that much money. First, the driver said it was to buy a car, according to the police report. Then, he said it came from working at various jobs. The passenger said he had no clue about the money.

Those factors allowed police to take the money.

“If it’s way, way over and above what a normal person will carry, and if things don’t add up (on how it was acquired), we take the money,” said Lt. Art Barile, head of the sheriff department’s vice and narcotics unit and the Allen County Drug Task Force, a multiagency unit run out of the sheriff’s department.

How often money is confiscated from people not charged with crimes is hard to determine, Barile said, but his best guess for his department is that it happens “maybe 10 percent of the time” his department performs a seizure.

Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards said her office seldom sees forfeitures without criminal charges attached.

Bob Trgovich, assistant U.S. attorney at the local federal court, said it’s not necessarily a rare practice for his office but it does happen, sometimes with more drawn-out cases.

“We had a case a few years ago where members of this conspiracy, over the course of two years, were stopped several times,” he said. “Each time they were stopped, they had large amounts of money.”

Though the processes may differ with each case and whether it’s handled by federal or state prosecutors, people who typically have money seized must file a claim if they want it back. They have to show how they got the money and that it was procured legally. Many don’t even file a claim, according to Trgovich.

“If you find money in a vehicle, and that’s all you find, many times (the people) in the vehicle don’t want to admit it’s theirs,” Trgovich said.

After money is seized by a law enforcement agency, prosecutors in either state or federal court take over a process that determines where the money ends up. Typically, federal prosecutors handle large amounts of money, such as the $26,000 case, which Barile said has been forwarded to federal authorities. Local prosecutors take the cases with smaller amounts of cash, from $1,000 to $4,000, according to Richards.

Depending on the subtleties of the case and what court is involved, the money usually ends up divided among prosecutors and the police agency or agencies responsible for seizing the money. The process can be long and intricate, though.

“It’s a complicated nightmare, actually,” said Auburn Police Chief Martin McCoy, who sometimes is a spokesman for the IMAGE Drug Task Force, made up of officers from Noble, LaGrange, Steuben and DeKalb counties.

In a state seizure case, the arresting agency must show how much money it used in the investigation that led to the seizure. Prosecutors, too, have to show how much money went into the litigation for the seizures.

“You’re supposed to take your law enforcement expenses out of (the seized money), which could be anything from the attorney’s time to write a search warrant, the cost of doing the forfeiture, the court costs, or (drug) buy money for the police department,” Richards said.

In some cases, that money gets funneled back into the respective agencies involved with the seizures, according to Richards, McCoy and Barile.

The money left over after expenses goes to the state’s Common School Fund, which was established in 1851 and has historically been used to provide low-interest loans for school-building projects.

For example, if police seize $5,000 and the department and prosecutor show the investigation and litigation into the case cost $2,000, the two agencies will probably split $2,000 of the money. The remaining $3,000 goes to the Common School Fund.

A federal seizure typically goes quicker, McCoy said, and the Common School Fund is not in play. A police agency can receive up to 75 percent of the money it seizes, according to Barile and McCoy, while prosecutors at the federal level keep the rest.

According to McCoy, his department does not seize a lot of money, and maybe has one case a year that results in the confiscation of more than $5,000. When the Auburn Police Department seizes money, whatever is recouped usually goes into a general fund for the city of Auburn, and the police department does not see that money again.

If the IMAGE Task Force takes the money, it usually gets that cash back. But, he said, it’s not like seizures are in abundance in his jurisdiction.

“We’re not getting rich on seizures, by any means,” he said.

jeffwiehe@jg.net

Source: Allen County Prosecutor’s Office