For 2 years, Sgt. Mike Messina drove one of the hottest police cars anywhere.
After his Brea Police Department seized a new red Corvette from a Colombian cocaine trafficker in 1984, Messina used it to cruise Southern California while posing as a high-rolling drug dealer. The car helped Messina and a partner make dozens of drug busts as far away as Santa Barbara, resulting in substantial seizures of cash and property.
“Everybody thought it was a cool car,” Messina said. “It was great for me.” Soon after, Brea officials doubled the size of the roving drug task force on which Messina served.
About the same time, other small and mid-size police departments in Los Angeles and Orange counties were also finding that such drug squads make sense--and dollars.
Spawned by federal legislation that allows local law enforcement agencies to claim assets they seize from suspects, nearly a dozen departments have used those assets to help finance squads of up to eight officers who specialize in high-stakes drug investigations, often well beyond their communities’ boundaries.
Along with sports cars, they have seized big-rig trucks, homes, jewelry, electronic recording equipment and millions of dollars in cash. Such hauls, in turn, have helped create some of the best-equipped police departments around, financing helicopters, computers, night-vision goggles and other high-tech crime-fighting gear.
“Whenever we narcs got together, we used to talk about how much dope we seized,” said Sgt. Joe Klein, head of the Fullerton Police Department’s drug detail. “Now, it’s how much car did you get? What kind of money? Did you get a phone?”
The Fullerton and Brea police departments are among those in Southern California that have used seized cash and property to beef up special narcotics squads that pursue big-time dealers.
In addition, most Orange County police departments have joined with the Sheriff’s Department and federal law enforcement officials in forming a roaming regional anti-drug task force. Since the squad was formed in December of 1986, it has seized more than $25 million in cash alone. Much of that will eventually be funneled back to local police agencies that participate in the program. For example, the Tustin Police Department expects to receive about $535,000 for loaning one officer to the countywide anti-drug unit for 22 months.
The countywide unit’s biggest score came in March, when officers made one of the largest cash hauls in state history during a narcotics investigation, seizing more than $5.2 million and 18 pounds of heroin from two residences in South Gate and Riverside.
While some critics say the practice is turning police officers into bounty hunters, most law enforcement officials say they are merely evening the score by taking advantage of the drug dealers’ most powerful tool--money.
“It does tend to amaze you how much money is out there and how much money is generated by cocaine,” said Capt. Tim Simon, program manager for Orange County’s new regional drug investigations unit. But he added, “I don’t think it’s to a point that we’re more interested in money than we are in arresting people and seizing drugs.”
The squads are an outgrowth of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, which allows local agencies to claim as much as 90% of the assets they seize through criminal investigations. The law not only put up for grabs property used directly in a crime, such as cars that transported cocaine, but also any assets bought with illegal proceeds, such as homes or yachts.
Under the new rules, police need merely show in federal court that the
seized cash or property was derived from crime--with a standard of proof that can be met even in the absence of an arrest.
Although California adopted an asset forfeiture statute in 1983, it allowed local police to keep only 65% of the value of the seized assets and prohibited them from keeping vehicles. As a result, most police departments have arranged for their seizures to be processed under the federal law by getting the federal Drug Enforcement Administration to “adopt” their cases.
Just last month, however, Gov. George Deukmejian signed a strengthened version of the state law that allows police departments to keep up to 76.5% of seized assets and includes other incentives for them to process forfeitures through state courts.
Before such laws, the Franchise Tax Board was the sole state agency able to claim seized property--and then only for unpaid taxes. Police could hold cash or property for use as evidence in court, but then had to return it to the owners.
The asset forfeiture laws were designed primarily to punish drug dealers by hitting them in their pocketbooks. A side effect, however, was encouragement of a new mission for some police departments whose anti-drug efforts traditionally focused on street dealers within their municipal borders. Suddenly, mid-size cities were undertaking investigations normally associated with federal task forces or huge police agencies such as the Los Angeles Police Department.
Federal authorities were unprepared for the flood of claims that the 1984 law brought in, according to Brad Cates, director of the Department of Justice’s Asset Forfeiture Office in Washington. The backlog grew so quickly that it was soon taking the office 250 days merely to begin processing a claim.
“It’s taken us awhile to gear up,” Cates said.
Today, with the help of a new computer system, the federal office has reduced to 150 days the time it takes to consider a claim, Cates said. But it still takes an average of 18 months for local police agencies to receive the money and property they confiscate.
The Simi Valley Police Department is still awaiting a $400,000 claim from a drug bust in Orange County and the San Gabriel Valley more than 2 years ago, according to Sgt. Fred James.
In that case, Simi Valley’s four narcotics officers joined forces with two federal drug agents and six LAPD officers to investigate suspected Colombian cocaine traffickers in La Puente and several surrounding cities.
For three months in early 1986, the Simi Valley officers worked 12- to 14-hour shifts, watching the suspects’ houses from parked cars, then followed the drug dealers to what later turned out to be drug “stash pads.”
The payoff came when the team raided rented houses in La Puente, El Toro, Anaheim Hills and an apartment in Hacienda Heights. They arrested five suspects and found duffel bags stuffed with $1.7 million in cash and cardboard boxes containing 370 pounds of cocaine.
Despite the potential profit, such investigations have little appeal to many police departments.
Pasadena’s four-officer drug squad, for instance, focuses exclusively on cases within its community.
“You’ve got to remember what our primary role is--to get the dope dealers off our street in our city,” explained Lt. Jerry Schultze, head of the unit. “If I’ve got all these people calling me up complaining about dope dealers and my crew is 20 miles away on a case that has nothing to do with Pasadena, how am I going to explain that? It’s just a different philosophy.”
Other law enforcement officials, however, see their long-distance work as part of their local fight against drugs.
“The problem in Santa Ana affects Fullerton,” Klein said of the Fullerton Police Department. “The problem in Newport Beach affects Fullerton. The problem in Fullerton affects every other city in the county.”
From the adoption of the federal law through last year, California law enforcement agencies received $57.3 million in criminally generated assets, more than a third of the national total, said Tim Virtue, management analyst for the U.S. Marshal’s Office in McLean, Va.
The statistics do not distinguish drug cases from others, but Virtue said that almost all of the seized cash and property comes from drug cases. Most of the California claims come from the Los Angeles area, where the Colombian and Mexican cocaine cartels are well-entrenched.
After paying their details’ annual operating costs, California police departments have gone after various items on their wish lists, buying high-tech equipment for their drug details and boosting crime-fighting capabilities in ways never before affordable.
In Fullerton, for example, the Police Department’s special detail has used confiscated money to purchase sophisticated surveillance equipment, as well as to pay informants and buy drugs for undercover operations.
Seizures by Glendale’s 3-year-old detail have bought the 182-officer department infrared night-vision goggles for helicopter pilots as well as a high-tech laser device that can read nearly invisible fingerprints, Lt. Mike Post said.
The Burbank Police Department bought its first helicopter thanks to drug dealers.
Other departments have spent their cash on drug-sniffing dogs, bulletproof vests and cellular telephones.
But the great rewards of the forfeiture process trouble some legal scholars.
“What concerns me is the injection of a profit motive into our system of justice in which the enforcers have an interest in the outcome,” said Gerold F. Uelman, dean of the Santa Clara University School of Law. “It’s like converting all of our police officers into bounty hunters.”
Although he supports the gist of the forfeiture law, Uelman says the seized money should go to the U.S. Treasury.
“Then, if it were returned to the department, it would be indirectly and we’d have less of a problem than with the direct profit motive,” he said. “The courts have generally prohibited arrangements where undercover informants are paid on a contingent basis, because that creates a motive to exaggerate or falsify testimony.”
Attorneys for people who have had property seized argue that the law erodes basic rights.
“In effect, you’re punishing the person first and having the trial afterward,” said Joel Maliniak, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
Under the federal law, confiscated property is held by federal marshals while the U.S. attorney’s office notifies potential claimants of the seizure and places public notices in newspapers. If the property or cash is worth less than $100,000 and no one claims it, it can be distributed to the seizing agency without a hearing.
But a hearing in U.S. District Court is required when the property is worth more than $100,000, whenever real estate is involved or when someone claims legitimate ownership.
In practice, most drug suspects decide not to go through the rigorous and sometimes self-incriminating hearing process. Only about 10% of all forfeitures are contested, Cates said; these account for about half of the property seized.
To keep the property, police must merely show the drug link by “a preponderance of evidence,” a lower standard of proof than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” required for a criminal conviction.
Some police agencies, however, report that suspects are beginning to adjust to the rules of the game in an attempt to make seizures more difficult.
“Rental cars and lease cars are becoming the big things,” Brea’s Messina said. “The crooks are getting smarter.”
Staff writer Laura Kurtzman contributed to this story.
ROVING DRUG SQUADS
Listed below are some of the Los Angeles and Orange County-area police agencies that have specialized squads of officers who concentrate on investigations of high-level dealers, often going beyond their cities’ borders to make arrests and seize drugs.
Year No. of Money Additional Police Drug Unit Officers Received Claims Department Formed in Unit From Seizures Pending Brea 1984 4 $250,000 $400,000 Burbank 1985 6 $1.3 million $2.3 million Fullerton 1986 5 $200,000 $900,000 Glendale 1985 5 $1.3 million $7.2 million Montebello 1984 4 $689,000 $1 million + Orange County * 1986 36 ** $25 million n/a Simi Valley 1984 4 $915,000 $2 million Torrance 1985 7 $400,000 $5 million West Covina 1986 8 $2.6 million $3.4 million
Police Annual Cost Department of Unit Brea $300,000 Burbank $380,270 Fullerton $500,000 Glendale $330,000 Montebello $186,000 Orange County * n/a Simi Valley $400,000 Torrance $533,000 West Covina $500,000
* Orange County Narcotics Task Force is a multi-agency squad that includes most county police departments, sheriff’s department and federal agents.
** Total cash seized; does not include value of cars, property, etc.
Source: Police departments named
DRUG SEIZURES--THE LEADING STATES
Here are the five states that have received the greatest amounts of cash and property seized in raids and returned to local police departments under a 1984 federal law administered by the U.S. Marshal’s Office. The totals cover cash and property disbursed through Dec. 31, 1987.
State Cash Received Value of Property Total California $39.9 million $7.5 million $47.4 million Texas $8.7 million $1.9 million $10.6 million New York $8.9 million $1.9 million $10.8 million North Carolina $2.8 million $3.2 million $6.0 million Florida* $1.7 million $1.9 million $3.6 million
* Figures for all states cover only cash and property returned to police departments under the federal asset forfeiture law. In Florida, most seizures by police departments are processed under a state law and are not counted here.