DOJ suspends seized asset funds

Tim Carter

The U.S. Department of Justice has ended, at least for now, a program that channeled millions of dollars to the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office and much smaller sums to other area law enforcement agencies in recent years.

The department blamed cuts in the recently passed federal spending bill for the decision to suspend payments to local enforcement agencies from DOJ’s asset forfeiture program.

In a letter sent to law enforcement agencies throughout the country, M. Kendall Day, head of the department’s asset forfeiture and money laundering section, held open the possibility that the program could be revived at an undetermined date.

“We will take all appropriate and necessary measures to minimize the impact of the rescission and reinstate sharing distributions as soon as practical and financially feasible,” Day wrote.

The asset forfeiture program has been controversial nationally and locally, where it has been the subject of an intense battle in Shenandoah County Circuit Court and aborted plans by Strasburg’s police chief to run for sheriff.

The Clarke County Sheriff’s Office was the biggest area beneficiary of the program in fiscal year 2014. The Sheriff’s Office received $266,215, the fruits of a multi-agency, multi-state investigation into violations of cigarette trafficking laws. The targets included three operators of a Berryville convenience store.

Asset forfeiture funds disbursed to other sheriff’s offices in fiscal year 2014 include $136,225 for Page County; $97,392 in Shenandoah; and $95 each in Frederick and Warren counties.

The Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office has reaped the largest overall sum of money since 2004 – more than $4.6 million, including $3.57 million in fiscal year 2011 alone.

The asset forfeiture program returns money to local law enforcement agencies that participate in investigations that lead to the seizure of property and cash that authorities link to violations of federal law. Local agencies send the suspected illicit items on to the Justice Department, which disposes of them. The disposal process includes auctions that raise large sums of money that are cycled back to those local enforcement agencies that participated in originating investigations.

Critics of the program have said it provides police with incentives to seize property for flimsy reasons, sometimes turning law enforcement operations into thinly disguised fundraising ventures.

Lee McGrath, legislative counsel for The Institute for Justice, a self-described libertarian public interest law firm in Arlington, hailed the suspension of the asset forfeiture program.

“Law enforcement revealed that its true interest in forfeiture is policing for profit – not public safety,” McGrath said in a written statement.

Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy C. Carter said he is still trying to gauge what impact, if any, the demise of the asset forfeiture program will have on his agency, which has used the funds to pay for school resource officers and equipment for patrol deputies. Existing funds are also expected to pay for a new Sheriff’s Office headquarters.

Carter said the Department of Justice announcement came as a surprise to him and his contacts in the federal government. He said his agency has exerted much time and effort over the years meeting federal requirements for claiming its share of asset forfeiture money. The Sheriff’s Office was recently the subject of two federal audits, both of which gave the agency a clean bill of health on its administration of asset forfeiture funds.

“It appears some entity, whether Congress or the Department of Justice or both are going to suspend the rules and change the rules in the middle of the game, and that’s what disappointing to me,” Carter said. “It was done without notice.”

Strasburg Police Chief Tim Sutherly began organizing a campaign for sheriff in 2014 based in part on his contention that Carter was diverting valuable resources to investigations into cigarette smuggling. Sutherly, who later canceled his plans to run, said those resources would be better used to combat the spread of heroin and other drugs in the county. Investigations into cigarette smuggling, along with illicit drug sales, have been the source of most or all of the money the Sheriff’s Office has obtained through the asset forfeiture program.

The program has also been the subject of a fierce court battle in which defense attorney David Downes, representing two defendants from New York City, has sought to learn the details of the Sheriff’s Office uncover investigations into cigarette smuggling. The investigation led to the arrest of Downes’ two clients. Downes contends they were lured from New York to Shenandoah County to buy untaxed cigarettes from law enforcement agents as part of an illegal entrapment scheme.

One of the defendants is scheduled to go on trial in April.

Carter has strenuously insisted that the only motive in the cigarette smuggling investigations has been to stop lawbreakers from taking untaxed cigarettes out of Virginia and selling them at an enormous profit in New York, which imposes a high tax on cigarettes.

Carter said all of the asset forfeiture money obtained by his agency has come from cases in which the defendants have been convicted of the crimes that led to their arrests.

The National Sheriff’s Association issued a written statement declaring itself “shocked and disappointed by the Department of Justice decision to suspend the equitable sharing of asset forfeiture program funds to state, local and tribal law enforcement. This is yet another blow to those who work every day to prevent terrorism and crime in our communities.”

Carter said the Department of Justice decision comes during a time when some people have criticized law enforcement agencies for acquiring too much military-style equipment that sends a hostile and intimidating message to their communities.

“All of this attention to law enforcement began with Ferguson,” Carter said. “It seems there’s been this pattern of disrupting law enforcement’s ability to have the tools they need to fight these new challenges.”

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