Forfeiture money a boon for local police
The U.S. Justice Department’s asset forfeiture program continued to provide hefty sums of money to some area law enforcement agencies in fiscal year 2014.
A major undercover investigation that ended four years ago and involved the sale and transport of $33 million in contraband cigarettes returned $266,215 to the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office, the largest sum area law enforcement agencies received from the asset forfeiture program.
In past years, the federal government has awarded some of the largest amounts of asset forfeiture money in the state to the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office. The county’s total for last year was $97,392, down significantly from the $855,911 awarded in fiscal year 2013.
The totals for other area sheriff’s offices were $136,225 for Page County and $95 each for Warren and Frederick counties. The Strasburg Police Department was awarded $174 and Front Royal received $95.
The federal government’s asset forfeiture program is a product of cash and property seized by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies as a result of investigations into crimes such as drug dealing and illegal cigarette smuggling across state lines.
Law enforcement officials connect the cash and items seized to violations of federal law and send them on to the Justice Department for disposal, a process that includes public auctions that raise large sums of money. The Justice Department then takes the money raised from the auctions and distributes it among state and local agencies that participated in federal investigations that led to the seizures.
The U.S. Marshals Service, which oversees the disposal of seized assets, lists several Arabian horses, a mid-size corporate jet, a 60-foot houseboat and 415 pallets of bulk perfume among the goods being offered through online auctions in 2015.
Clarke County Sheriff Tony Roper said the $266,215 awarded to his agency originated with its participation in an investigation that led to the prosecution of three Berryville residents who ran the 340 Quick Mart at 304 N. Buckmarsh St.
It can take years for the federal government to raise and distribute money from the asset forfeiture program, and the amounts of money an agency receives varies widely from year to year.
In Clarke County’s case, the convenience store owners were indicted by a federal grand jury in 2011, but the Sheriff’s Office saw little or no money from the asset forfeiture program until this year.
Carter said he has already spent the “vast majority” of the money on training, “a bunch of automobiles” and other equipment.
“Training is very expensive,” Roper said. “It’s one of the first items in my budget that has been reduced over the years.”
Roper said his department entered the investigation, which spanned Pennsylvania, New York, South Carolina and Virginia, near the end. His agency joined the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and other federal agencies that had targeted the convenience store operators for violating cigarette trafficking laws.
“Some of the folks were using banking facilities here in Clarke County, and we assisted the ATF with some of that stuff,” Roper said, adding that surveillance and the execution of search warrants were among his department’s contributions.
The Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office was also deeply involved in the same investigation and, in a pending court case, has asserted it continues to conduct and participate in undercover investigations of cigarette smuggling.
Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy C. Carter said he didn’t know the exact sources of the $97,392 his department received from the Justice Department or when the investigations were conducted.
“Sometimes in my experience I have seen where the case is adjudicated, and the money is disbursed within 120 days,” Carter said. “I have seen other cases where the case is disposed, and the award doesn’t occur for close to five years.”
Over the last 10 years, Shenandoah County’s asset forfeiture awards have ranged from as little as $716 to $3.576 million in 2011. The 2011 amount is the main reason why Shenandoah County has collected more than $4 million in asset forfeiture funds over the last 10 years, far more than any other local law enforcement agency.
Page County was runner up to Clarke County in asset forfeiture money among area law enforcement agencies in 2014.
Sheriff Jim Thomas refused to specify the nature of the investigation that contributed to the $136,225 received by Page County. But he described it as a multi-jurisdictional, multi-state, long-term operation sprawling “up and down the East Coast.”
“Two of my agents were sworn through the ATF because of other cases we worked on with them,” Thomas said, adding, “It was not a Page County case. It was not a Virginia case necessarily, although it ran through Virginia.”
Thomas said he is using the extra money to buy vehicles and bolster animal control efforts.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or email@example.com
At A Glance
The following shows annual distribution of federal asset forefeiture monies to area law enforcement agencies from 2004 to 2014 as well as a sum total since 2004 for each sheriff’s office.