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Published August 27 2012

Making crime pay: Seizures, forfeitures bolster law enforcement budgets on both sides of Red River

MOORHEAD – Sometimes crime does pay, just not for criminals.

In the basement of the Clay County Courthouse, a flat-screen TV seized from a drug house hangs on the wall in the conference room of the county attorney’s office.

Down the hall, a $5,436 interactive whiteboard – purchased with seized funds and forfeited property – helps prosecutors prepare for trials. Secretaries sit on new chairs, doing their work with the aid of a second computer monitor.

Parked outside, patrol cars driven by Clay County sheriff’s deputies are equipped with video cameras – again, paid for with money generated mostly by drug searches and DWI vehicle seizures.

Thousands of dollars flow into city and county coffers in Cass and Clay counties every year from seizures and auctions of property forfeited by criminals who get caught. In turn, agencies tap those funds to upgrade equipment, boost enforcement efforts and buy the occasional luxury item.

The Clay County Attorney’s Office alone received more than $137,000 in seizure and forfeiture funds from 2007 to 2011. Its counterpart across the Red River, the Cass County State’s Attorney’s Office, took in about $138,000 in funds from forfeitable property during the same time period.

And prosecutor’s offices don’t receive the bulk of the spoils – typically 30 percent in Minnesota and 20 percent in North Dakota, with the rest in most cases being distributed to law enforcement agencies.

In Minnesota, where the budget situation isn’t as rosy as in oil-rich North Dakota, seizure and forfeiture funds have become increasingly valuable, especially with the constant need to upgrade laptops, cameras and other patrol-car technology that now costs more than the car itself, Clay County Chief Deputy Matt Siiro said.

“Without these forfeitures … we wouldn’t be able to upgrade things, and we would just be stuck with whatever the budget is,” Siiro said. “And the county budget isn’t growing.”

Michelle Lawson, Clay County’s chief assistant county attorney for civil cases, is quick to point out that the state has strict guidelines for how the money may be spent, and that it’s meant only to supplement the operating budget, not supplant it.

“Our forfeiture money is kind of our reserves,” she said.

‘Much more flexibility’

Police and prosecutors say that while they don’t bank on seized assets and forfeitures to support operations, they fill a valuable need.

As of late July, the Fargo Police Department had about $120,000 in funds from state seizures and $15,000 in federally seized assets, some of which were already earmarked for a new K-9 unit, said Lt. Steve Lynk, who tracks the funds for the department.

The Moorhead Police Department had about $251,000 in state seized funds, $41,200 in federally seized funds and more than $112,000 in DWI forfeiture funds as of June, according to city records.

Neither police department had readily available statistics for how much they have received in seizure funds yearly. Unlike the departments’ budgeted funds, discretionary funds from seizures and forfeitures in both states are allowed to roll over from year to year.

“It gives us much more flexibility than any of our budget sources,” Lynk said.

The Fargo department spent $141,834 in seizure money for its own uses from 2007 through July of this year, not counting the money it used in controlled drug buys and the shares that went to the state’s attorney’s office and assisting agencies, Lynk said.

The hodgepodge of purchases included $2,156 for lapel microphones and earpieces for officers, $2,114 for body armor, $4,870 for Tasers and about $9,000 for bicycles.

Water bottles with an anti-drug message to give to local youths were purchased through Scheels for $1,928. About $3,000 was spent on new cameras for crime scene investigators.

In June, the department spent about $1,000 on 21 digital voice recorders so officers can record more interviews with victims in domestic violence cases. Lynk said the only item bought with seized asset funds in recent years that he would consider a luxury item is a display cabinet in the department’s media room, also nicknamed the “pride room.” The cabinet, which cost $4,799, contains awards and memorabilia from the department’s past.

“I kind of like the idea of using seized assets for that instead of taxpayer money,” Lynk said. “I think it’s more palatable to the public, too.”

Police can’t predict which cases will produce seized assets, and there’s no pressure on officers to conduct seizures to keep the money flowing, Lynk said. The department does not have year-to-year comparisons readily available for forfeiture and seizure funds because administration doesn’t track them that way, he said.

“The finances of it really shouldn’t drive how we do business,” Lynk said.

Removing tools of crime

Forfeitures are a civil court process, typically filed in conjunction with criminal cases. They’re meant to remove the proceeds and instruments of crime and aren’t intended to be punitive – that’s what criminal punishment is for, Lawson said.

Drivers convicted of first- or second-degree DWI usually must give up their vehicle for an administrative forfeiture. The arresting officer serves the forfeiture notice on the driver, and he or she has 60 days to challenge it in court, which Lawson said happens more often when the owner is a third party, such as a parent of someone arrested for DWI.

If the vehicle is forfeited, it may be sold at a public auction in April or September or returned to the bank if there’s a lien on the vehicle. The arresting agency also may keep the vehicle for official use.

In drug cases, police can seize cash and precious stones and metals that are in proximity to controlled substances, within reason.

“If some gal’s got pot in her pocket, we’re not going to take her wedding ring,” Lawson said.

Authorities also can seize vehicles used to transport drugs and use them for law enforcement purposes, though the potential for reliability issues often make the vehicles less desirable.

For example, Fargo police used a seized SUV in narcotics investigations, but because it wasn’t part of the city’s official fleet, central garage wouldn’t maintain it, Lynk said. When the transmission needed repair, the police department had to spend $1,941 from its seizure fund, he said.

In Minnesota drug cases, the prosecuting agency receives 20 percent of the seized property and 10 percent goes to the state’s general fund. As in DWI cases, defendants have 60 days to challenge forfeitures in civil court. Even if they’re acquitted of the criminal charge, unless they challenge the forfeiture they lose the property – except in DWI cases, which require a conviction.

Joe Parise, managing attorney in the Clay County Public Defender’s Office, said the 60-day window creates a “they snooze, they lose” situation for defendants. State law does include the protection that if the defendants object to the forfeiture, it won’t be acted upon until there’s been a decision in the criminal case.

Parise said he’s not going to criticize prosecutors for seeking forfeitures because they’re following state laws.

“I know that many of my clients probably feel that, although technically it’s not double jeopardy, they sure feel like they’re getting wham-bammed, having to answer to the criminal proceeding and looking at loss of property,” he said. “But that’s already been ruled on, and it’s not.”

Minnesota also has judicial forfeitures, which are used less often and initiated by the county attorney’s office via a summons and complaint against the property owner. The owner has 20 days to respond or the state gets the property by a default judgment.

About 90 percent of forfeitures pertain to DWI vehicles and cash seized during drug investigations, Lawson said.

North Dakota’s forfeiture laws are less broad in scope than Minnesota’s, and there are differences. For example, unlike in Minnesota, if multiple owners have financial interest in a vehicle forfeited for DUI in North Dakota, the innocent owner can try to buy the forfeited interest in the car to get it back.

“That can get tricky and difficult to deal with,” Assistant Cass County State’s Attorney Reid Brady said.

Lawson said criminal prosecution takes priority over the civil forfeiture process, and county attorney offices develop their own culture in deciding when to seek forfeitures.

“The statutes are much broader than what we actively pursue,” she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528

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