Crime-fighting tool or legal robbery? NC law agencies rely on controversial program
Posted January 29, 2015
Updated January 30, 2015
Raleigh, N.C. — Every year, North Carolina law enforcement officers seize millions of dollars in cash, homes and other property from residents under a controversial program that allows officers to take the property even if the person hasn’t been charged with a crime.
North Carolina law doesn't allow police to take property unless it's part of a criminal case. To get around the law, many agencies turn to a federal program called equitable sharing.
In most cases, it starts with a traffic stop. If an officer finds a large amount of cash and thinks it's tied to drugs, for example, the officer takes the money and asks a federal agency to adopt the case. In nine out of 10 cases, if it's federally adopted, the driver will never see the cash again, with most of the money staying with local police.
Officers say the seizures are a valuable crime-fighting tool, but opponents say it's a system ripe for abuse.
Richard Oakley, owner of The Train Station, a bar and restaurant in Cary, was one of the people caught in the middle of the equitable sharing program. His restaurant was one of nearly 200 businesses targeted as part of an illegal gambling operation linked to video poker machines last spring.
A video showed state Alcohol Law Enforcement agents raid his business. They took machines and all of the money in the restaurant, about $7,000, in a process called civil forfeiture, which North Carolina law doesn’t allow.
“It crushed me that day. I didn’t even have change to give a customer,” Oakley said. “Eight guys walking around with guns and badges smashing, literally, a machine open in the middle of my dining room. It was insanity.”
Defense attorney Damon Chetson is a critic of civil forfeiture.
“It’s a roundabout way the government seeks to take money from folks to impoverish them and also to penalize them,” he said. “People don’t know about this system until it actually happens to them, and they’re asking themselves, ‘How do we live in America where the police can just come along and seize money, cars, assets from me without any definitive proof that I’m guilty of anything?’”
It's that sentiment that convinced U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to issue an order on Jan. 16 putting more restrictions on police seizing assets. But there is still plenty of gray area in the order.
One example is a case out of Harnett County. Deputies involved in a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency task force seized $130,000 from Kenneth Lamont Clark during two traffic stops on Feb. 26, 2013, and March 12, 2014. He said the money was from the strip club he manages.
Deputies say their K9's alerted to drugs, but they didn't charge Clark with any crimes. After more than a year, Clark got money back from one of the traffic stops but is still fighting for $98,699 taken in the other stop.
“Mr. Clark's case is a textbook example of innocent business owners with cash intensive businesses being deprived of their lawfully obtained property upon the pretext of violating the law without any credible evidence,” Clark’s attorney, Abdulhakim Saadiq, said in a statement.
Since the deputy involved in Clark’s traffic stop is also part of a DEA task force, the seizure was and still is legal.
“As any attorney will tell you, there’s no guarantee you’ll get that money back, even if you’re completely innocent,” Chetson said.
Federal agents also seized a house from a Durham woman in January 2014, even though her son was arrested and convicted of dealing drugs. Agents tried to take the house because the suspect, Mark Ford, admitted to selling drugs out of the house. After a lengthy process, Mary Ford was among the lucky ones. She got her home back because she proved she had no knowledge of her son’s actions.
Thomas Walker, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, acknowledges that forfeitures of criminal proceeds "tremendously benefit local law enforcement." But, he said, "this new policy further ensures that additional safeguards are in place to continue to use of this powerful tool."
However, the full effects of the policy change "are still being analyzed and yet to be determined," state Commissioner of Law Enforcement Greg Baker said in a statement.
"The most significant change appears to be when local law enforcement agencies seize assets in cases without any federal investigative involvement," Baker said. "This is a very important process by which legally seized, illicitly gained assets derived from criminal activity can be forfeited and returned to support law enforcement efforts across the nation."
Since equitable sharing began, North Carolina law enforcement has seized $130 million in assets, the fifth most of any state. Of that money, local agencies kept about 80 percent. Because it is civil forfeiture, the owner of the money must prove it's not tied to illegal activity.
WRAL Investigates requested equitable sharing annual reports from several local agencies. Last fiscal year, Raleigh police had more than $2 million in its equitable sharing funds account. Police spokesman Jim Sughrue says, unlike a lot of civil forfeiture cases, most of the agency's seized assets were part of criminal investigations, not simply police suspicions.
The agency spent nearly $900,000 on training, electronics, weapons and building improvements, ending the year with more than $1 million left over.
The North Carolina State Highway Patrol got $1 million from the justice department and spent most of it, about $609,000, on communications and computers.
Equitable sharing funds by agency
|Agency||Total equitable sharing funds||Equitable sharing funds spent||More info|
|Durham County Sheriff's Office||$42,607.07||$37,571.70||Full report as of 6/30/2014|
|NC Alcohol Law Enforcement||$1,192,844.15||$496,274.87||Full report as of 6/30/2014|
|NC State Highway Patrol||$1,348,050.38||$609,045.64||Full report as of 6/30/2014|
|Raleigh Police Department||$2,031,396.48||$887,488.00||Full report as of 6/30/2014|
|Cumberland County Sheriff's Office||$785,688.18||$231,420.17||Full report as of 6/30/2013|
|Durham Police Department||$1,315,066.26||$432,806.38||Full report as of 6/30/2013|
|Fayetteville Police Department||$416,827.83||$8,780.54||Full report as of 6/30/2013|
|Granville County Sheriff's Office||$1,348,820.01||$403,451.98||Full report as of 6/30/2013|
WRAL Investigates reached out to several local, state and federal agencies for interviews, but all declined.
Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel of the North Carolina Sheriffs' Association, says the program has several benefits – taking money away from people engaging in illegal activity, saving taxpayer money and helping the law protect people.
“In some agencies, they use the funding to pay for overtime for officers or to put extra officers on the street to buy equipment,” he said.
Durham police spent some of its money on the American Tobacco Trail Initiative after a series of attacks. The Granville sheriff spent $214,000 for new patrol vehicles.
Caldwell defends the program and says he doesn’t believe it lends itself to government overreach.
“The laws we’re talking about were enacted by Congress and not law enforcement,” he said. “Law enforcement is not out to seize assets from law-abiding citizens, but they are out to seize assets from criminals.”
Defense attorney Chetson says he believes most officers are trying to do the right thing, but he still has concerns about the program.
“Most officers are out there doing their jobs. They’re honest, acting in good faith, but even officers acting in good faith can get swept into this program because of the incentives behind it,” Chetson said. “While we all agree that criminals should be prosecuted, innocent people are getting caught up in this scheme.”
As in Oakley's case, because the raid was part of a joint investigation with federal agents, seizing his money was allowed.
“To me, they just legally robbed me,” Oakley said.
North Carolina is one of the only states in the country that doesn't allow civil forfeiture. With Attorney General Holder's changes to the federal program, law agencies are in danger of losing tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. The question is whether anyone will lobby lawmakers to get them to legalize civil forfeiture in the state.