Law enforcement agencies depend on it. It saves the taxpayers money. Whether in the form of cash or property, cashing in on proceeds from crimes allows most agencies to adequately fund the needs in their departments.
Local police departments agree that confiscations and seizures from crimes, typically drug-related, helps balance their budgets.
“A lot of what we seize helps offset our budget,” said Troup County's Sheriff James Woodruff. “If I can buy uniforms out of seized money then I don't have to ask for a lot of money in our budget from the county commissioners, thus asking the tax payers to pay.”
According to Investigator Casey Fuller of the West Point Police Department, anything that can be related back to being proceeds from drugs, items purchased with drug proceeds, or property used to facilitate drug transactions can be seized.
These can range from electronics, vehicles, weapons, homes or buildings.
Fuller said after an eight month investigation, the department seized a rap studio in June 2013, located in the industrial park on OG Skinner Drive in West Point.
“They were basically using it as a front and cover up to further their drug business by rapping about it,” he said.
Vehicles can be seized if they are also used in a burglary often to transport items, said LaGrange Police Department's Lt. Dale Strickland, as well as proceeds from illegal dog fighting, though he said majority of the city's seizures stem from drug investigations.
By law, officers have to gain consent from the driver or have probable cause of criminal activity to search a vehicle. Probable cause could entail seeing or smelling drugs within the vehicle, evidence from an investigation or receiving information from a confidential informant of illegal activity, said Captain William Grizzard of the Troup County Sheriff's Office. Homes or building searches require the same procedures.
Generally, homes or vehicles that are being rented are not of much benefit to the seizing agency due to having to pay money to the lien holder in order to take gain ownership. However, the seizing agency can take ownership of its contents being that the items have no lien.
Nowadays, said Grizzard, many of the the seized cars are rarely used by law enforcement.
“People are using older, undependable cars,” he said. “The days of people using brand new vehicles to haul or sale drugs, they don't really do that anymore.”
Some seized vehicles are used by law enforcement agencies.
“We use them from time to time in undercover capacities like entering auto investigations or a burglary detail to do surveillance out of them,” said Strickland.
Since 2013, the sheriff's office seized nine vehicles and three of them are currently in law enforcement use according to Grizzard. The others were sold for nearly $42,000.
Property seized but not being used can be sold for cash value. The most commonly used site amongst the agencies is www.govdeals.com, a site that allows buyers to bid on the seized or surplus items from government agencies.
All cash and property will not be turned over to the agency until the agency has won the case in court. The accused, however has 30 days to dispute.
According to Linda Tipton, Operations Manager for the Coweta Judicial Circuit, in 2013, 60 forfeiture cases were filed with the Troup County office and seven of those cases were dismissed by the office and property was returned.
“It's very few times that they -the accused- do win because we have to go through investigation because we don't want to put ourselves in that situation for nothing,” said Grizzard.
Fuller agreed that thorough investigations are crucial to the condemnation process.
“I'd rather lose a case and let someone walk free than put the wrong person in jailor take someone's stuff,” he said. “I have to think 'would I want someone to do that to me?”
Most agencies keep 90 percent of the funds from cases won on a state level, while 10 percent goes to the district attorney's office.
Tipton also reports that in the past three-to-four years, the circuit has seen a dramatic decrease of 61.8 percent in forfeitures since 2011, a heavy hit being that the money that the circuit receives through the court process from law enforcement agencies accounts for 38 percent of the entire circuit operating budget.
Last year WPPD deposited over $33,000 in their state forfeiture account, while LPD reported just under $31,000. These numbers do not include the amount after funds were dispersed to the DA's office. The Hogansville Police Department reported $10, 717 for their 2013 fiscal year. TCSO reported over $6,700 in cash state forfeitures for the agency.
Lt. Mark Mitchell of the Criminal Interdiction Unit(CIU) at Georgia State Patrol in LaGrange reports much higher numbers for his agency. He reports that $1,489,000 in cash and two vehicles valued at $21,000 was seized in Troup County during 2013, majority from roadside stops or multi-agency investigations.
“GSP's CIU initiates roadside investigations after recognizing signs of criminal activity while conducting normal traffic enforcement on the highways of this state,” said Mitchell. “GSP CIU routinely assists the DEA, FBI, ICE and state and local drug task forces with large scale drug investigations.”
All these agencies use their forfeiture funds for equipment and training for personnel within the agency. Funds can be used to purchase vehicles, cameras, uniforms, weapons and anything related to law enforcement.
Last month, retired police chief of Hogansville, Moses Ector received approval from the city to purchase a Code Enforcement truck for $26,921 and a new drug interdiction vehicle for $26,631 that would be paid for using drug forfeiture funds.
Strickland said recently the LPD purchased a new canine for about $9,000 after the former canine died unexpectedly three months ago. The training for the canine and the canine handler is about $6,000.
“When we run into things like that that happen unexpectedly, we have to take it out of that account,” Strickland said. “It's not a budgeted item. It's not something that the city has to fund. It comes straight from drug condemnation.”
With the now scanty budget that was nearly cleared out prior to Woodruff's term, Woodruff said the agency is in need of three new vehicles and would soon like to update vehicle cameras and supply new tasers.
“We don't have a lot of money and we try to be careful on how we spend it because we don't know when we'll get another seizure,” said Woodruff. “It could be six months. We try to be frugal but that money has to come from somewhere. We're thankful that if we can take some illegally gained money and put it to good use and save the citizens some tax dollars, it's a win win.”