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Last August, a Middlesex County (VA) grand jury returned 25 felony indictments against disgraced Sheriff Guy Abbott over use of his asset forfeiture fund. The indictments included:

Indictments handed down last week by a Middlesex special grand jury allege Sheriff Guy Abbott procured an inflatable boat, two other boats and a vehicle, obtained undisclosed sums of money in an asset forfeiture fund and misused county credit cards, all of which he accessed by virtue of his position as the top law enforcement officer in the county, according to the indictments…

Between 2003 and 2008, Abbott is also accused of using his office to obtain a 1985 Volvo, a Boston Whaler boat, a 1982 Privateer boat and a 1993 Nova Marine inflatable boat, according to the indictments.

Other counts accuse him of misusing various public funds and Visa and Mastercard credit cards over an eight-year period dating back to his first year in office, according to the indictments. Some of the money was in an account in which assets seized for forfeiture are held.

Abbott’s trial on these allegations concluded on August 15th in front of Middlesex Circuit Court Judge Paul Sheridan. However, Sheridan only convicted Abbott on two charges of bribing his employees; three charges were dropped by prosecutors, and the other twenty charges were thrown out by Judge Sheridan. It appears that Judge Sheridan gave Abbott substantial leeway in determining whether or not the dismissed charges indicated criminal activity; in throwing out some of the charges, Judge Sheridan indicated “…the money spent by Abbott out of an asset forfeiture fund could be viewed as related to law enforcement purposes.” Indeed, there was some testimony from both Abbott and state officials to that purpose:
Debra Turck, who coordinated the asset forfeiture program for the Virginia’s Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) for 8.5 years, testified that those funds are to be used “strictly for law enforcement purposes.”
Prosecutor Dion argued that Abbott had the asset forfeiture fund pay for numerous meals that were not related to law enforcement.
Under questioning by Dion, Turck gave an example of where food and beverages expenditures were permitted, such as if they were part of a comprehensive package at a hotel that was hosting law enforcement training. “We want it to be official training” as opposed to a meeting, she said.
Turck said food bought at a meeting where law enforcement operations were discussed was not a permitted expense. “The bottom line is, it has to be for law enforcement purposes.”
Turck said “memorials” that are not “extravagant,” and award plaques were permitted expenditures.
In 2009 Middlesex Treasurer Betty Bray, who controls dispersement of money from the asset forfeiture account, sought advice from DCJS on Abbott’s request to use asset forfeiture funds for a Christmas party. “They are not for social events,” Turck testified.
After that, Abbott ceased meal purchases, said Abbott’s attorney, Craig Cooley.
Under cross examination by Cooley, Turck said the asset forfeiture “guidelines were general in nature. We rely on localities to use their best judgment.”
Turck said that food bought at a multi-jurisdictional drug task force meeting at an Urbanna restaurant to discuss law enforcement plans was “one of those gray areas” where asset forfeiture funds could possibly be spent.
There were other “gray areas,” Turck said, including food purchased when it was related to a stakeout or while serving in a disaster emergency, or as part of graduation ceremony from a law enforcement academy, among other situations.
Under questioning by Cooley, Turck admitted that DCJS did not notify Abbott of incorrect expenditures.
Cooley argued that the legislature did not establish the guidelines, but directed that a board set up an audit procedure to ensure compliance.
Abbott testified that all items purchased through the asset forfeiture account and through his office were related to law enforcement. Regarding a $1,389 Visa credit card bill from 2002 that was paid from the asset forfeiture account, Abbott said, “It was for law enforcement purposes, because I’d have marked it otherwise if it wasn’t.”
Whether or not Judge Sheridan’s decision was legally “correct”, Virginians should be very troubled that the laws regulating asset forfeiture funds are “general in nature” and do not contain any sensible restrictions or oversight. Indeed, the idea of providing law enforcement with salary, bonuses, and entertainment out of funds that do not emanate from legislative appropriation or have robust civilian oversight is anathema to the notion of democratic accountability. Indeed, the Institute for Justice has rated Virginia’s forfeiture laws “D-”:

Virginia’s civil forfeiture laws utterly fail to protect property owners. The government must prove, only by a preponderance of the evidence, that property is related to a crime and subject to forfeiture. In turn, property owners bear the burden of proof for innocent owner claims, effectively making them guilty until proven innocent. Moreover, law enforcement enjoys 100 percent of the proceeds from civil forfeiture. Initially, 90 percent of the receipts go directly to law enforcement agencies that participated in a forfeiture. Thereafter, 10 percent goes to the Department of Criminal Justice Services to be used to promote law enforcement activities. Virginia’s broad laws have enabled the commonwealth to receive, on average, more than $7.2 million per year in forfeiture revenue between 1996 and 2007.

Some readers might remember Sheriff Abbott’s tenure as a drug warrior in Middlesex included several instances where innocent civilians were victimized by Abbott’s SWAT team:

The Middlesex County prosecutor has asked Sheriff Guy L. Abbott to explain a drug bust that went awry when armed deputies burst into the wrong home and ordered a 50-year-old woman to the floor.

“We moved out of Richmond to get away from this stuff,” said Estelle Newcomb as she described the Oct. 26 incident that has left her shaken and dismayed.

“I can understand them trying to clean up” the county of drug traffickers, she said, “but, my God, leave innocent people alone!”

The Sheriff’s Department drug unit rebounded from its misstep the next night and raided its intended target, a trailer about 200 yards from Newcomb’s mobile home.

The police made two arrests there and confiscated a half pound of marijuana they valued at $2,800.

But, by last week, the mistake had become the talk of the county, which was no small feat considering many residents were preoccuppied with preparations for the 40,000 people expected at the Urbanna Oyster Festival, which ended yesterday.

“I’ve heard a lot of grumbling about it,” said Fred Crittenden, a long-time member of the Board of Supervisors.

Worse yet for Abbott, it didn’t take a very long memory to recall a similar snafu in July. That time, the local drug task force made headlines when authorities in a helicopter thought they had landed in a Middlesex County marijuana patch only to find tomato plants and one very frightened gardener.

“The National Guard pilot called that, but I’ll take the blame for it,” Abbot said of the summer miscue.

According to Virginia’s online court records system, Guy Abbott is named as the defendant in a civil suit over the Newcomb raid, which is pending.

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