Cash, cars and other assets seized in drug investigations make a small but important difference for law enforcement agencies trying to stretch their local budgets, officials say.
Local and state agencies nationwide have seized more than $3 billion in cash and property since 2008 under the U.S. Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program. The program started as part of the 1980s’ War on Drugs.
It allows federal agencies to “adopt” the assets that local and state agencies seize while investigating or prosecuting crimes. The U.S. Marshals Service then distributes up to 80 percent of the seized asset proceeds among the departments and drug task forces that were involved in the case.
The federal government keeps the rest and requires participating agencies to report each year how much money was seized and how it was spent. The money cannot replace local funding.
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Carrboro, Chapel Hill and the Orange County Sheriff’s Office – Hillsborough is not in the program – have received roughly $900,000 since 2009 to help fund training, equipment and other costs, reports show.
The Equitable Sharing Program has been criticized in some parts of the country, however, because some agencies around the country have used the law to practice “civil forfeiture.” In those cases, officers can seize cash and property without pressing charges, and the person from whom the assets were seized must prove that the cash or property was legally acquired to get it back.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder halted the practice in January, after a Washington Post investigation found nearly $2.5 billion in cash had been seized nationwide without search warrants or indictments since 2001.
The Post also found proceeds being spent with little oversight, sometimes on luxury cars, military-grade equipment and high-powered weapons.
Holder’s decision isn’t expected to affect criminal asset seizures or many North Carolina agencies, since state law already prohibits civil forfeiture.
The Sheriff’s Office gets the most money from the program in Orange County. Deputy Jamie Sykes said that’s primarily from drug investigations.
While a 2014 report was not available, the agency reported receiving $33,183 and spending $33,614 in 2013. That was the lowest amount since 2009, when the agency didn’t receive any money.
The sheriff’s office received much more in the intervening years: $91,158 in 2010; $235,656 in 2011; and $90,381 in 2012.
Chapel Hill and Carrboro police reported getting their biggest check ever from the program in 2014. Chapel Hill received $209,726 and Carrboro received $153,712 after wrapping up a lengthy, multi-agency drug investigation, officials said.
Chapel Hill used some proceeds to buy sport-utility vehicles for its four-dog K-9 unit and equip them with temperature control, kennels and other supplies, police Chief Chris Blue said. They also paid $39,400 to buy 40 Sig Sauer M400 .223 caliber rifles, enough to put one in every patrol car.
While Chapel Hill officers qualified to use the rifles can “check out” one, there aren’t enough for everyone, Blue said. That limits an officer’s response, potentially putting more people at risk, he said. A handgun is a poor match against a suspect armed with a rifle, because it has less range and accuracy.
UNC law student Wendell Williamson’s 1995 shooting rampage in downtown Chapel Hill is a good example of how a situation can escalate when officers lack the right equipment, he said. While they haven’t faced that type of situation since Williamson, Blue said, the potential is always there.
“Our officers encounter guns all the time, often legally carried guns, but there are guns in this community,” Blue said.
“You face one of those situations, you’re glad to have as much firepower as you might need, and just hope you don’t ever face it,” he said. “That’s really the way we feel about these purchases.”
Officers attended a three-day school on how to operate, clean and maintain their new rifles. The Community Policing Advisory Committee is planning to review related policies, Blue said, which now limit rifle use to situations involving a threat of deadly force, hostages, barricaded suspects and special operations.
Carrboro police could use their money to buy more Tasers and in-car cameras, Chief Walter Horton said. He also wants to buy an in-house firearms training simulator, he said, but at $90,000, that would take most of the money.
“It’s the stuff you kind of want,” Horton said, “but we want to look out for the needs of the town, as well as ours.”
Carrboro did not report any shared funds from 2011 to 2013. In 2010, the department received $28,408 and spent $23,714, including $9,658 on firearms and weapons and $14,056 on electronic surveillance equipment. Chapel Hill has received between $5,000 and $30,000 annually since 2010.
Local agencies also turn over money seized from drug investigations to the N.C. Department of Revenue to pay controlled substance excise taxes. Once a court disposes of those assets, the money either goes to the local school system or to the law enforcement agency to help pay investigation expenses.
The tax program has contributed nearly $1.8 million to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools in the last five years.
Rules of engagement
Chapel Hill Police officers are required to attend a three-day school before adding a rifle to their arsenal, Chief Chris Blue said, and only use them when:
▪ There is an imminent threat of deadly force by an armed person
▪ Someone has been taken hostage or is barricaded
▪ An officer reasonably believes a suspect poses an imminent threat of harm and is wearing body armor
▪ The Special Emergency Response Team is called to a scene or a supervisor directs officers to use their rifles
An officer who points or discharges a weapon also must file a report with a supervisor and the police chief, and submit to an internal investigation.