Civil Forfeiture: Part One

Medford, Ore. — Police agencies across Southern Oregon have many tools to use to combat crime, but asset forfeiture is one that most people aren’t familiar with. The law allows police to seize cash or property that officers believe could be tied to crime. For the most part, Medford Police Deputy Chief Brett Johnson says it’s used for one thing.

“It’s a tool to disrupt drug trafficking organizations,” Johnson said.

There are four types of asset forfeiture: federal, state, criminal, and civil. The most common type in Southern Oregon is civil forfeiture, which is directly related drugs or sex trafficking. Cash is the most common asset seized, but law enforcement can also take cars and houses that they believe may be connected to illegal activity.

Deputy Chief Johnson says the percentage of Medford Area Drug and Gang Enforcement cases that include civil forfeiture is very high — around 80 to 90-percent. According to Johnson, many of the department’s most recent seizures are related to black market marijuana.

“I think we have more marijuana than tomatoes,” Johnson said. “A lot of people are staying within the lines, but a lot of people are growing to excess.”

Johnson noted local prices have recently plummeted. He says to make more money, some growers are sending the marijuana East, where it’s in high demand. Then the cash is sent back.

“There’s times we’ll get $30,000 or $40,000 in a package and what they do is, it’s all hundreds,” Johnson said. “And they’ll have 10 time magazines, and they’re stuffing hundreds in the magazines.”

In the last two years, Medford police have seized more than $200,000 — that includes both cash and the value of items seized. While that may seem like a lot, it hardly stands up to statewide numbers.

Between 2015 and 2016, nearly $4 million was seized in Oregon. Local agencies made up about 6-percent of those seizures each year.

In the last two years, Medford police have seized more than $200,000 — that includes both cash and the value of items seized. While that may seem like a lot, it hardly stands up to statewide numbers.

Between 2015 and 2016, nearly $4 million was seized in Oregon. Local agencies made up about 6-percent of those seizures each year.

According to police, cash, typically over a thousand dollars, is taken more than anything else.

“Usually it’s bulk cash,” Johnson said. “You can forfeit cars if they’re used in criminal enterprises, years ago we forfeited a house, where it was a long term methamphetamine dealer that had paid for a house through methamphetamine sales.”

The process typically starts at a crime scene. After the cash or property is found, the civil forfeiture process begins.

“It’s quite a cumbersome process, which, it should be,” Johnson said.

Whether the cash is found with drugs, or a K9 alerts officers of drug particles on the money, police say they look for evidence that the two are connected. If the money is taken, it’s video recorded from that moment on.

“We seize these, we open them under video surveillance, we keep them in a car with video, we have a supervisor there when we open them under video surveillance,” Johnson said. “Because you know, people say, ‘it wasn’t $20,000, it was $25,000,’ and so we’ll do multiple counts, and then we’ll bring it back and we’ll have administrative staff do multiple counts before we take it to the bank and make sure we get it right.”

From there, the money sits in an account while the case moves forward.

Each state has their own laws on civil forfeiture. Jackson County Deputy District Attorney Marco Boccato says in Oregon, law enforcement can only keep the seized asset if they’re able to get a conviction.

“If they never file a claim, they never claim the money, the money is forfeited,” Boccato said.

If the suspect is cleared or it can be proven the money isn’t tied to crime, it’s returned. If not, nearly 40-percent is given to various state level funds that support law enforcement and youth. The rest stays with the arresting agency.

“It’s really not something you can use for a budget, to supplant your budget,” Johnson said.

Agencies have to follow strict guidelines. The money has to be spent to buy things law enforcement agencies typically wouldn’t have, that would help officers do their jobs.

“We bought a FARO System, the board was presented with this FARO System, and was able to get it,” Johnson said. “It’s a high resolution 3-D imaging system that is able to re-create a crime scene in a much better manner, in fact it takes measurements you don’t even know it’s taking.”

Johnson estimated the cost was around $80,000. He says drug trafficking proceeds paid for it.

“We’re seeing large scale currency smuggling, and it’s just, it’s the way they do business, so it’s the way we’re going to attack their business to disrupt the drug trafficking organizations who are taking the program and using it to become drug dealers,” Johnson said.

Illegal activity and its proceeds are problems officers are expecting to deal with far into the future. Johnson says civil forfeiture is their chance to make a dent in it.

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