Feds to look 'very seriously' at Hamlet vehicle-seizure case

acurliss@newsobserver.comDecember 5, 2013 

CRUSHEDCARS07-NE-112013-CCS

The yard at Quality Salvage in Hamlet is one location where some of the vehicles were compacted in a car confiscation scandal that has rocked this small Richmond County town.

CHRIS SEWARD — cseward@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

Ripley Rand, the top federal prosecutor for the middle part of North Carolina, said this week that his office is gathering information about vehicles seized from motorists in Hamlet who were charged unauthorized storage fees or had their cars and trucks scrapped by police.

The Police Department kept the money.

Rand said in an interview that he expects to discuss the situation with the FBI and that his office “will take very seriously” concerns by city leaders that motorists’ rights may have been violated. Rand has been the U.S. attorney since 2011 in the district that includes Hamlet, a city of about 6,000 roughly 100 miles southwest of Raleigh. He was formerly a state judge.

City leaders in Hamlet wrote to Rand last month and requested an inquiry, outlining a set of circumstances that City Manager Marchell Adams-David wrote has “unnerved our close-knit community.” The controversy includes at least 12 vehicles that were seized and scrapped after charges were dismissed in court.

One man, for example, was arrested without probable cause by a Hamlet police officer in a neighboring city, according to court records. Police drove off in his car, and he never got it back.

City officials have been unable to find proper documents detailing why at least seven other vehicles were sold for parts. A truck seized in a murder probe ended up at a detective’s home after an apparent exchange of cash at the junkyard.

The city’s letter to Rand was written after the State Bureau of Investigation closed what it called a “narrow” review that determined no criminal charges would be filed against the police chief and the detective who handled the transactions. Both had been fired and deny stealing money. They said it was mostly spent on various items for the good of the department.

The News & Observer detailed the situation in a report published Nov. 24. The coverage also raised questions about pre-signed, blank court orders that allowed some vehicles to be sold as scrap. Within days, the SBI announced it would open a new investigation, focusing on the blank court orders.

The request to Rand was made after a 4-1 vote by the Hamlet City Council, which expressed frustration with the SBI’s work on the case. Rand said the situation has his attention, and that he would seek any SBI documents about the matter as well as records from the city’s internal review.

“It’s not often that a municipality writes me or any other U.S. attorney a letter saying we’ve got this issue and we would ask you to look into it,” Rand said. “That kind of thing doesn’t happen very often anywhere, to my knowledge. So it’s something we definitely will take very seriously and make sure we look at everything that we can look at and take everything into account in figuring out what kind of involvement our office will have and how we can work with other federal agencies about dealing with whatever issues are at stake.”

Because federal prosecutors are not investigators, Rand said he would speak with the FBI, and possibly other agencies, about the matter.

“There are oftentimes more than one federal agency that could be involved in almost any kind of investigation,” Rand said. “There’s no sort of exclusive jurisdiction over things and so I wouldn’t want to limit – I wouldn’t want it to be viewed that we would only work with the FBI or any particular agency about this kind of thing given that there may be other issues at stake.”

Rand did not elaborate, other than to say he wants to “get all the information that is available at this time from Hamlet and from the SBI and have the opportunity to review that.”

After that, he said, the feds would “figure out what to do from there.”

Curliss: 919-829-4840; Twitter: @acurliss

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