It's two o'clock in the morning, and everyone is ready and dressed in all the gear they need to enter. After all, the suspects are armed and dangerous drug dealers who will go to any lengths to protect their bosses and stash, or so the police think. Due to the high-risk warrant situation, the SWAT team is allowed to conduct a no-knock raid.
After the team signals they are ready, they burst through the door, screaming police at the top of their lungs. None of the criminals inside the house put up a fight, and after they are taken away, the police begin a search of the home. Not long after, they find piles of drugs, guns, and evidence to put these guys away for a long time. While the police will take all of this into evidence, what do they do with the piles of cash they also found?
Officers in this scenario, or any other where they suspect the accused used the money for illicit activity, mainly drugs, have two options. The first option they have is called civil forfeiture. This law allows police agencies to seize cash and property they suspect is being used for illicit activity. The main difference here is that they must first take the money and then file a claim for it in court without pressing criminal charges against the accused.
The other way that police can seize assets is through criminal forfeiture. After the conclusion of the criminal case against the accused, if convicted, the police agencies involved can immediately file a claim for the money. In this case, that would be the more likely option since money seized like this provides excellent evidence for prosecutors to lock away criminals. But once the police agencies win the money in court, whether through civil or criminal forfeiture, what happens then?
Here, it gets a little complicated. Federal law states that if federal agencies and local agencies were involved in the seizure, the Feds could keep up to 20% while the remaining 80% is divided up amongst the other participating agencies. If only state and local agencies participated in the bust, then they would decide who keeps what share, which is dictated by state law.
In California, for example, the Kern County sheriff's office seized almost one million dollars in drug money. In accordance with state law, the district attorney's office automatically got ten percent of the take, while Kern County gave the state treasury a quarter of the haul. A small percentage was earmarked towards providing further training and education on civil and criminal forfeiture statewide, with the Kern County sheriff's office being allowed to keep the rest.
In a rural Kentucky county, a similar situation played out when the Paducah police seized about $120,000 worth of drug money back in 2020. The arresting agency got to keep 85% of the take while the state attorney’s office got the remaining 15% of it.
But what exactly do police agencies buy with the drug money once they legally retain it? Well, it depends on where they are but pretty much anything you could imagine. Because seized drug funds become the agency's sole discretion, they can use the money to buy whatever they want. While most states require audits after a purchase with this kind of money, it is allowed as long as it has a valid law enforcement purpose.
For example, the Boston police department used their illicit drug funds to purchase a stingray system. These devices act as a faux cell tower to record conversations of suspected criminals. Boston is not the only city to use a criminal's money to aid the prosecution of others further. In Chicago, the department's two helicopters require millions of dollars worth of maintenance to stay in the air. Criminals all over Chicago can thank their compatriots for providing the budget to keep those birds flying.
The Kern County sheriff uses the money to hire more corrections officers at the county jail, buy complex recording systems for its officers, and be used as payments for information in criminal investigations. They've also used it before to purchase police dogs, fund outreach programs, and put money towards a new SWAT vehicle.
However, some jurisdictions with incredible amounts of cash from cartels bank on drug money to supplement their yearly budgets. According to an NPR report, some Texas agencies have up to 25% of their budget coming from illicit cartel cash, with numerous drug task forces being funded solely from the funds awarded in forfeiture cases.
So as you can see, from the time that an officer seizes money to the time that it is spent is a long and arduous process. Depending on the length of the court case, it could be months or years before arresting agencies see a penny of that money. But when they do, there are practically no constraints on what agencies can spend it on.