Press-Republican

February 4, 2013

Asset-seizure funds decline

By DENISE A. RAYMO
Press-Republican

---- — MALONE — Franklin County District Attorney Derek Champagne says three recent trends have dried up the drug-forfeiture money that local law-enforcement agencies covet.

For years, cash seized from drug dealers has been used to buy equipment for local police agencies and to fund investigations, computer upgrades, building renovations and camera purchases.

But the shutting down of large-scale marijuana networks and improved law-enforcement efforts on the Canadian side of the border broke up Hell’s Angels and Rock Machine smuggling operations in Quebec, he said in his annual report to the County Legislature.

Also, the way pot purchases are made has been altered, he said. Instead of smuggling large sums of cash from a sale back into Canada, the money is being shipped to the West Coast of the United States and used to buy cocaine, which is then smuggled into Canada and sold at a large profit.

“These three factors have led to almost a complete stop of any significant cash seizures,” the DA said.

LOST INVESTIGATOR

That money was used to fund Franklin County’s Narcotics and Border Task Force.

The decline in funding also means Champagne’s senior investigator has been temporarily assigned to the federal Border Enforcement Security Team (BEST) so Franklin County can share in any

assets seized in busts made by that unit.

If there is not enough BEST funding to sustain his participation, the investigator can be reassigned to civil forfeitures of cases involving possession or sale of controlled substances, he said.

RENTALS

Another local DA is also feeling the pinch of a lost revenue stream.

“We are all seeing an impact on our seizures,” said Essex County District Attorney Kristy Sprague. “Dealers are using rental cars or cars that are not worth very much, so we are not being able to seize cars anymore.”

She said Essex and Franklin counties were in two different ball parks as far as seizures.

“Derek used to get huge amounts,” she said. “The money that we saw was more limited. We are seeing some trickle in here and there, but only in small amounts.”

BUDGET IMPACT

“I am very frugal in how our monies get spent,” Sprague said.

“I do not want to have to turn our back on law enforcement when they need equipment, but it takes quite the balancing act to keep track of what we know is coming in and what we can afford to pay out.”

Sprague said she has had to turn down requests from local police departments needing equipment or cash.

“Right now, we are being strict with any requests being made to me. But, overall, I think we are all being impacted, and I don’t see much relief coming our way.”

STEADY IN CLINTON

Clinton County hasn’t been impacted as much as its neighbors on asset-seizure funds, said District Attorney Andrew Wylie.

“We’ve actually seen a steady level,” he said. “We haven’t seen a huge decrease over the past three years, and we’re able to stay active with our investigations because we’re in a different environment than Franklin County is or Essex County.”

There is a higher volume of prosecutions because of the larger population base in Clinton County, he said. And his office maintains close involvement with the Adirondack Drug Task Force.

That, the DA said, “means our asset-seizure funds have been unchanged. We’re still able to use our resources for local agencies.”

However, the way some drug dealers make their exchanges now is different, which provides an extra challenge, Wylie said, echoing Sprague.

“They’re using rental cars instead of their personal vehicles so it’s almost impossible to get asset-seizure money from that,” he said.

In the past, cars, trucks, boats and other crafts used to transport drugs could be seized and sold off at auction, with the proceeds returning to the community where the deals were made.

“But now when they pay cash or however they get a rental car, they know if they get taken off, they won’t be losing their own vehicle,” the DA said.

Email Denise A. Raymo: draymo@pressrepublican.com