Lee County proud of aggressive tactics.
By MacKenzie Elmer, The Hawk Eye
FORT MADISON — Under new leadership, the Lee County Narcotics Task Force has cracked down on drug dealers and manufacturers in the southern tail of the state, but officers also are taking advantage of a state law that permits police to seize and sell property to cushion its budget.
“When I took over, I instructed officers to investigate everything to combat the meth epidemic,” said task force commander Stacy Weber. “We threw a large net out and arrested everyone from smurfers to manufacturers. The sheriff is on the control board and knows I’m aggressive. The jail filled up pretty fast.”
Nabbing drug criminals has a big bonus because Iowa’s forfeiture law, chapter 809A of Iowa code, makes selling property seized during drug busts easy.
“I have to pay for day-to-day expenses by forfeitures of seizures and selling them on eBay,” Weber said.
Within eight months of his promotion to commander of the task force, Weber created an eBay account to expedite the sale of forfeited property seized by his task force.
“We have to sell it by auction, and eBay is the biggest auction in the world,” he said.
Weber posts photos of the items and links to the eBay bid page on the Lee County Sheriff’s Facebook page, too.
Between last August and November, Weber sold $4,099.95 worth of property through bids he monitors personally, money which goes back into the task force budget to pay for officer overtime, cell phone bills and equipment.
Though Weber may be taking a step across a digital divide unprecedented for most police forces, these forfeited goods represent a steal.
A 52-inch flat-screen TV, worth about $2,000, for instance, sold for only $130.49.
But, Weber isn’t proactive on the Internet alone.
During his short tenure, he also sold two former drug houses forfeited in Fort Madison and Keokuk totaling $10,100.
The cost-cutting commander even took a team of jail inmates to clean up the dank dwellings. The prisoners ripped out moldy carpets, gathered trash and moved furniture.
“I like to know that taxpayers don’t foot the bill,” Weber said.
Inmates also wash the growing fleet of seized vehicles kept behind the county jail and the commander’s car.
“I think outside of the box on everything,” Weber said.
Weber’s aggressive exercise of forfeiture law in drug cases relieves the county of undesirable properties, but the task force is struggling to stay afloat financially.
After a state audit in May of last year revealed $90,098 was missing from what police officials called a bookkeeping error, the county budget office took control of the records.
“We thought we were solvent, but we weren’t,” former Keokuk Police Chief Tom Crew said in June following the audit’s release. “This has nothing to do with any wrongdoing. Our accounting procedure was flawed, and we’re making it right.”
Crew also attributed the deficit to the federal government trimming the main funding source, called the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant.
Lee County’s grant dwindled to just $90,000 for fiscal year 2012.
As the task force scrambled to pay the large amount of overtime their officers accrued in 2012, its board predicts this year’s $68,400 of JAG money will be exhausted by March.
“We’re cops. We’re not going to stop working,” Weber said.
One revenue-generating avenue is sellling forfeited property, but Iowa’s enigmatic law seems to provide little avenue for the accused to get their property back once the task force has taken it, regardless of their innocence.
Iowa’s murky law
The Institute for Justice, a nonprofit civil liberties law firm, conducted a nationwide study to gauge whether state forfeiture laws encouraged police to take property to boost their budget.
Iowa’s law received a D-minus.
“Iowa has some of the worst laws in the nation for encouraging abuse,” the institute said in 2010.
The state’s forfeiture law has been in use since the 1990s. Originally, only federal courts took forfeiture cases. In Iowa, asset forfeiture cases are resolved in civil court separate from criminal court, where offenders are tried.
“Unlike criminal asset forfeiture, however, with civil forfeiture, a property owner need not be found guilty of a crime — or even charged — to permanently lose her cash, car, home or other property,” reads the Institute’s report.
Mike Short, Lee County attorney for 36 years, said his office is working on a couple dozen forfeitures at any given time.
“The vast majority of which go unanswered, meaning nobody makes a claim (for their property),” Short said.
Property owners are delivered a notice and list of their seized property, but if they don’t claim it within 30 days, it becomes task force property.
“Defendants are in a very difficult position to make that claim. It can still be used (against you) in a criminal case,” Short said.
And public defenders usually only represent their client in criminal court, not during civil forfeiture cases.
“It’s pretty difficult to fight forfeiture because (defendants) don’t have facts and truth is, it’s proceeds of criminal activity,” said Corwin Ritchie, executive director of the Iowa County Attorney’s Association.
He works in the state Attorney General’s Office, which keeps track of the 10 percent state cut from cash forfeitures.
Law enforcement agencies are not required to report any other types of forfeitures to the state.
How property is seized
After police have obtained a warrant and searched a drug house, they collect evidence to incriminate dealers and users like meth pots, baggies and weapons.
But officers also are authorized to take property that looks like it has been bought with drug proceeds.
This is where forfeiture law gets murky.
Under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, officers can seize items not listed on a warrant but still are in plain view and immediately determine it is contraband.
It’s up to the discretion of the officers to interpret what is “immediately apparent.”
“We take things that are proceeds of the drug trade like cars, houses and TVs,” Weber said. “A lot of these people never had a job, so you can tell what comes from drug proceeds.”
Short referenced one case against Anthony Laveal Moody, charged last May for dealing cocaine and maintaining a drug house.
When officers raided his home, they seized three flat-screen televisions, a digital camera, a copier and printer, video game consoles and controllers, a suitcase with tattoo equipment and $10,000 cash.
In another case, officers seized flat-bill hats and multiple pairs of shoes from a suspect who, according to his Facebook page, fled to Mexico.
Short said the property seizure affidavit was published in the local papers.
“Our papers have limited publication in Mexico,” he said, laughing.
Weber sold the lot on eBay for $244.50.
But individuals facing drug charges often find themselves in a Catch-22. If they file a claim for their property, it can be used as proof against them in criminal court.
“For Mr. Moody, claiming that money was more detrimental to him than kissing it goodbye,” Short said.
The Lee County Narcotics Task Force regularly seizes property not listed on a warrant but categorized as financial assets.
Moody’s case was an exceptionally lucrative forfeiture since money made from dealing meth, the most popular drug in Lee County, gets recycled into the addiction.
“Marijuana is also a moneymaker,” Short said.
And it’s during a pot bust where the task force tends to seize more profitable items.
Lee County aggression
County task forces in southeastern Iowa are competitive over how many successful forfeitures they accrue.
“Des Moines County, they’re not as aggressive as us. … Mike Short is just a better attorney than Des Moines County’s. He’s more aggressive about this,” Weber said.
He and Short write up search warrants together.
“I can call him at 3 a.m. on a Sunday morning and get a warrant,” said Weber.
Amy Beavers, senior assistant Des Moines county attorney, said she gets only a handful of forfeiture cases from time to time.
Beavers errs on the side of caution with 809A. Instead of using the loopholes of the law to her advantage, she takes steps to ensure a property seizure is tied to a criminal conviction.
“I like to wait until a criminal case runs its course so I don’t have civil and criminal cases running at the same time,” Beavers said. “It has to be connected. We can’t just go around doing forfeitures on whatever law enforcement wants.”
What may be a tricky law still helps the Lee County Narcotics Task Force chip away at debt.
“It seems like a little water on a big flame but if I keep doing this like I am, we can get by with very little money,” Weber said.
Published Jan. 6, 2013
(Feature photo by Brenna Norman, The Hawk Eye)