Idaho Civil Forfeiture Regime Funds Intrusive Police Tactics, Militarization

The Coeur d'Alene Press recently published a three-part series on civil forfeiture in Idaho. The first part "Taking the profit out of crime" describes how law enforcement can force criminal defendants to defend themselves in both criminal and civil court through the use of civil forfeiture:

"The laws are set up that we can hurt those people two ways: you take them to jail and seize their drugs, which takes them out of business, or you can seize their assets," Wolfinger said. "We've done both fairly successfully and we continue to do that."

Under Idaho statute, law enforcement agencies have the ability to seize assets potentially used in drug trafficking or manufacture. These assets range from cash and vehicles to equipment used to cultivate and create the drugs themselves.

Once assets are seized, the case is forwarded to the civil division of the county prosecutor's office.

"We (then) file a civil complaint and get the interested parties served to give them an opportunity to contest the case if they want to," Kootenai County Prosecutor Barry McHugh said.

If the civil case is successful, both the investigating agency and the prosecutor's office receive portions of the assets seized.

Law enforcement agencies are able to use these funds for, according to Wolfinger, anything in the "drug enforcement nexus." This includes training, new equipment, banquets and contributions to organizations such as the Idaho Meth Foundation.

The prosecutor's office receives 15 percent of the proceeds in the event that funds are obtained as a result of the case.

"This is for, in some regard, the time and the work that went into the effort in the forfeiture action as a way to reimburse the county for the time spent by employees," McHugh said.

In the second part, "Drug seizure funds to purchase vehicle", reporter Keith Cousins notes the use of forfeiture proceeds to fund K-9 enforcement squads and purchases of military weaponry:

"There's no way we could spend over $300,000 for a SWAT vehicle; the budget certainly couldn't handle that," Wolfinger said. "But here's the opportunity to keep our team safe and the taxpayer doesn't deal with a nickel of it."

The sheriff's office is currently awaiting delivery of its own $335,000 BearCat, purchased with money from the county's drug forfeiture fund. The transaction was approved in March by the county's board of commissioners.

The armored truck is expected to arrive at the end of this month.

Since 2009, the Kootenai County Sheriff's Office has taken in nearly $2 million in drug forfeiture proceeds.

In 2013, the sheriff's office took in $271,230 in illegal drug proceeds. According to Lt. Stu Miller, the office has been awarded $39,136.55 of those proceeds. The rest of the funds are either part of pending court decisions, have been returned to defendants or given to the prosecutor's office.

"We use it (the funds) to send officers to schools to learn about how to find these drugs and take them off the street," Wolfinger said. "We buy equipment for the SWAT team and for the patrol guys. We've done some weapon enhancements for the patrol guys because they're dealing with these people every day, so there's certainly a drug nexus there."

This total does not include three vehicles that were seized and then used by sheriff's office detectives in the course of their work.

"That's a great opportunity for us to get a vehicle with no taxpayer dollars involved," Wolfinger said.

Smaller items, such as replacement siren speakers for sheriff's office vehicles and parts for weapons, have also been purchased using forfeiture funds.

Post Falls Police Chief Scot Haug said that, while his department has a much smaller drug forfeiture account when compared to the sheriff's office, the funds are all used "to reduce illegal drug activities in the community."

"So there is a variety of things that we've done with the money in the past such as provided training for our officers, drug reduction type programs and body armor for our SWAT officers," Haug said. "It's all one-time purchases, typically capital purchases."

Haug added that the department's K9 program was created using a significant amount of seizure money and the majority of the program is still funded with it.

The third part, "Burden of proof", features a defense of civil forfeiture by law enforcement:

Kootenai County Prosecutor Barry McHugh argues that it's in fact the prosecution that bears the burden of proof.

"In some cases, the claimants don't present any evidence but ultimately the court decides in their favor," McHugh said.

To support his argument, McHugh referenced a recent appellate court decision that could return property seized under the state's civil forfeiture law to its owner. The ruling states "the plaintiff must prove by preponderance of the evidence that the vehicle was used or intended to use ... " indicating, McHugh said, that his office bears the burden of proof.

According to Salzman, forfeiture can also create a "course of least resistance" for law enforcement agencies because "you just have to suspect the property of being involved in a crime" in order to seize it.

"I think it breeds a culture of seizure where it's easy for the law enforcement agencies to do it compared to the alternative which is charging people for a crime and making a case," Salzman said.

However, those in charge of local law enforcement agencies say they disagree with Salzman's assessment.

Kootenai County Sheriff Ben Wolfinger said the motivation behind any civil forfeitures his office makes is not the proceeds, but taking drugs off the street.

"We haven't really gone after the cash, we are going after the dope," Wolfinger said. "We're not making money taking dope off the street, but we are taking dope off the street."

Wolfinger added that individual officers do not get bonuses and do not have any additional incentive when it comes to drug cases that include forfeitures.

"We've been able to send some officers to training we wouldn't have been able to and that's good. We've been able to buy some equipment we wouldn't normally have been able to buy and that's good," Wolfinger said. "But we're taking a lot of dope dealers off of the street."

Post Falls Police Chief Scot Haug said he sees civil forfeiture as a mechanism that makes criminals pay for their crimes while taking the burden of funding law enforcement activities off taxpayers.

"What a better way to be able to help train some officers and help get them some equipment, to help start a K9 program, then to have the drug dealers pay for it," Haug said. "If we didn't have that drug seizure money, you and I would be paying for that. It's about time that the criminal chips in and pays for some of the equipment and training to fight this problem that we have."

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  • commented 2014-08-26 01:45:28 -0500
    this is not ok its wrong