Clarke, Shenandoah top asset forfeiture counties

Money obtained from cash and the sale of personal property linked to criminal activity continued to flow into area police agencies in 2015, despite an interruption late in the year.

The asset forfeiture program overseen by the U.S. Justice Department has been a sometimes lucrative source of revenue for police agencies throughout the nation, sending amounts to some jurisdictions that can reach millions of dollars over several years.

The amounts received this year ranged from $164,797 for the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office to $10,613 each for police departments in Strasburg and Front Royal and the Warren County and Frederick County sheriff’s offices.

The Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office, which has consistently obtained some of the largest sums over the years, had the second highest total in the area in 2015 with $137,910, about the same amount as 2014.

The asset forfeiture program creates a revenue pipeline between the U.S. Justice Department and local police agencies that seize cash and personal property during investigations into suspected violations of federal law. The money and property is funneled from local jurisdictions to the federal government, which converts the seized items into large sums of money through auctions and other disposal methods. The money is then returned to local jurisdictions that were involved in the initial seizures.

The program has come under criticism for providing law enforcement officials around the nation with an incentive to launch investigations, some of questionable value or legality, with the goal of financing pet projects.

In late December, the Justice Department, citing budgetary troubles linked to cuts in two federal spending bills, suspended the program. It was revived in March with only a vague explanation from federal officials that it was now “financially feasible” to do so.

Most of the asset forfeiture money in area law enforcement agencies is the product of drug busts conducted with federal agents. Shenandoah County has also collected millions of dollars over the years by interdicting cigarette smuggling operations between New York and Virginia.

Local law enforcement officials whose agencies received the same sum – $10,613 in 2015 – were uncertain about its origins.

Sheriff Timothy C. Carter in Shenandoah County was relieved earlier this year at the restoration of the asset forfeiture program, which he is relying on to pay for architectural and engineering plans for a new Sheriff’s Office headquarters. Asset forfeiture money is also likely to pay for a considerable part of the building construction.

Carter said his agency’s $137,910 came from two cigarette smuggling investigations and four drug cases.

Carter said he was unsure if his agency lost out on any money that may have been on its way to Shenandoah County at the time the asset forfeiture program was suspended.

“There were some disbursements in the pipeline, but I haven’t heard anything more about what was in the cue,” Carter said.

He added: “I’m sure common sense would tell you it had some kind of disruption, but I wouldn’t be able to tell you the magnitude.”

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