Tight governmental budgets, compounded by a struggling economy, often call for county departments to do one of two things — cut line items or find the cash to fund necessities. Through the federal Asset Forfeiture Program, the Sampson County Sheriff’s Office has consistently tried to do the latter, simply by busting criminals.
“We’ve been fortunate to get a lot (of money),” said Sampson County Sheriff Jimmy Thornton. “I don’t mean hundreds of thousands of dollars every couple months, but we’ve been very fortunate.”
The asset forfeiture program, which operates under the U.S. Department of Justice, compensates law enforcement agencies that participate in criminal investigations where any number of items, be it cash, vehicles, weapons, etc., were seized.
Thornton said that, from roughly September 2004 up through the end of January 2009, the Sheriff’s Office has actually received $453,549 from the federal government by way of seized criminal assets, a large chunk of which came during 2008 following the close of several large, long-running cases.
On top of that, there is another $397,131 that the Sheriff’s Office has been projected to receive “if everything works out,” Thornton pointed out this week. The projected numbers are from cases that date back to 2006 and extend into the beginning of this year. Other necessary documents have been filled out and turned into the feds on other recent cases in hopes of getting similar projections back.
Both individuals and their assets are now the targets of criminal investigations. And, it can be a waiting game for both cases.
Alleged offenders, during a hearing process separate from a trial, are given the opportunity to prove the assets were not used in an illegal operation. If that proof is not substantiated, investigating agencies can eventually see a large chunk of the value of the seized assets, or the assets themselves, come back their way.
“The assets get their own trial,” noted Chief Deputy John Conerly.
Thornton said the federal government takes 20 percent off the top and an investigating agency, if it was the sole investigator in a case, can receive up to the remaining 80 percent.
The percentage of seized assets’ value any agency gets back is dependent on several factors, including whether it was a joint operation with other departments, how many personnel were assigned on the case and how much time was spent in the investigation. The federal government weighs those variables and designates a certain percentage to each department that worked the case.
“They assess the asset value and (seized asset money received back) varies percentage-wise from 5 percent to 80 percent,” said Thornton. “Once individuals are adjudicated or (the feds) feel no problem in releasing the money, they direct deposit allotment into our account.”
It might be $10,000 this month and $15,000 the next, sheriff’s officials said.
During a 12-month span from late-September 2007 to September 2008, $383,459 in seized assets was used to purchase vehicles, uniforms, bulletproof vests, computers and department supplies, as well as pay for compensation times and overtime salaries.
Thornton anticipates receiving about that same amount —the federally-projected amount of $397,131 — in the future. However, it is never known when the cases may be closed.
Seizing assets can cripple an otherwise-thriving criminal enterprise, officials said.
Speaking to the over 150 federal, state and local law enforcement officials at an Asset Forfeiture and Financial Investigation Training Conference in Hickory last week, U.S. Attorney George E.B. Holding, who presides over the eastern district including Sampson, urged those in attendance to seize assets and leave criminals nothing to come back to.
“The law enforcement world has changed,” Holding stated. “We can’t lock all the criminals up, and the ones we do lock up, we can’t keep locked up forever. We can, however, strip them of their criminal infrastructure, making it very difficult for them to easily return to their illegal businesses.”
Officials at the conference said it has become critical that federal, state and local law enforcement agencies work together in order to not only take a criminal off the street, but to possibly see a tangible reward for their department — a reward that might help Joe Taxpayer.
Thornton said $474,140 in seized asset money has been spent since 2003, on a number of patrol and unmarked vehicles, overtime pay, equipment, computers, supplies and other needed expenditures. The money does not supplant the budget, but allows expenses to be funded without requests that might dig into citizens’ pockets.
The $474,140 amount, the sheriff said, “equates to one and a half cent on the tax rate.”
“That’s one and a half cent of tax dollars the county taxpayer didn’t have to foot the bill for, that we didn’t have to ask the commissioners for in the budget,” Thornton implored. “We’ll continue to use these monies to offset any request, particularly during this economic downturn, to provide good law enforcement around the county.”
“The forfeiture laws are a powerful weapon in law enforcement’s arsenal,” stated Anna Mills Wagoner, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina. “In these troubled economic times, it is more important than ever that we use forfeiture to disrupt and dismantle criminal activity and enterprise, to divest criminals of the proceeds of their unlawful activity, and to recover assets for the victims of financial crimes.”
Statewide last year, joint law enforcement efforts yielded forfeitures of $32.5 million dollars, with over half of that going back to more than 170 state and local law enforcement agencies, according to statistics provided by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“Go deep,” Holding urged officials at last week’s conference. “Don’t leave assets on the table. Identify, seize and forfeit all the instrumentalities and proceeds of crime. Take the profit out of crime.”
Thornton echoed Holding’s sentiments.
“It’s a good program, I just hope they keep it going,” stated Thornton. “It’s the thugs, the criminals helping law enforcement financially.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137, ext. 121, or by email at email@example.com.