Locals see little impact from rules

Local law enforcement officials said Wednesday they foresee little impact on their departments from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement last week that he was ending part of the U.S. Justice Department’s asset forfeiture program.

Holder announced that local and state police organizations would no longer receive money derived from certain investigations involving the seizure of property or cash identified as the products of criminal activity. But some analysts and experts in subsequent days found less to Holder’s decision than many commentators had first indicated.

Much of the asset forfeiture program will remain intact, despite complaints from some law enforcement officials elsewhere about the effect it will have on their investigations into drug dealing.

The asset forfeiture program allows law enforcement officials to seize someone’s property even if no charges have been filed or convictions obtained. People targeted by such seizures usually must go to court to have any chance of regaining their property. The person contesting the seizure must meet a standard of proof much stricter and more favorable to law enforcement than the rules governing criminal trials.

Rob Poggenklass, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, called the system “ripe for abuse” by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.

“There is not a lot of transparency when it comes to asset forfeiture,” Poggenklass said. “We don’t know how the program is operating.

“There is no reporting requirement when law enforcement seizes property. No report showing whether there was a criminal conviction and how much property was taken. The average person can’t find that information.”

Warren County Sheriff Daniel T. McEathron said asset forfeitures are a fund separate from his regular budget. The amount received ebbs and flows according to the progress and completion of various investigations. The money can be used to buy equipment and, under limited circumstances, for new hires and overtime pay.

The amount of asset forfeiture money for McEathron’s department stood at $51,216 in June 2013, a small part of the total amount available to the department through the county and other revenue sources.

“We don’t count on that money,” McEathron said of asset forfeiture funds. “We can only count on the money that we have.”

Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy C. Carter has seen his department obtain millions of dollars through the asset forfeiture program, most or all of it the fruits of undercover investigations into drug dealing and illegal cigarette smuggling.

Holder’s order on asset forfeitures applies to independent investigations conducted by state or local law enforcement agencies. Those agencies then send their seized assets to the federal government under a process known as “adoption.” The federal government returns most of the money to the state and local agencies where they can use it for purposes specified under program rules.

Much of the asset forfeiture money taken in by the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office was obtained through joint operations with the federal government, which are not covered by Holder’s order.

“I don’t think in the grand scheme of things it’s going to change much of what we’re doing at this time,” Carter said. “If we’re working alongside the federal government, and there’s a federal seizure, that’s not an adoption.”

Nevertheless, Carter said Holder’s decision signals a new cautiousness by the federal government toward the asset forfeiture program.

“There was a time when the federal government would encourage [local] agencies to get seizures adopted,” Carter said. “There was actually training on how to make those things happen and how to use that tool for enforcement. It sounds to me like that avenue has been shut down.”

Strasburg Police Chief Tim Sutherly said his own department receives only small amounts of money from asset forfeitures.

“By the sound of it, it won’t really affect how we do business, as far as seizures go,” Sutherly said, adding, “We don’t target people based on their assets or anything like that. We arrest drug dealers, and the seizure aspect is something entirely different.”

A bill that would require law enforcement officials to obtain a conviction before seizing someone’s property passed a sub-committee of the Courts of Justice panel in the House of Delegates in Richmond on Wednesday. Nevertheless, the bill had to overcome opposition from several law enforcement agencies.

Poggenklass said a similar bill in the Senate was withdrawn Wednesday when the sponsor saw it was running into opposition.

“We’re hoping the rest of the General Assembly will think the way the House court subcommittee did,” Poggenklass said. “It’s a problem when you’re taking people’s property, and you can’t prove they committed a crime.”

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com