In May 2011, two plainclothes officers from the Canton Police Department arrived at the Ingersoll Airport with minutes to spare.
Their target was a twin-engine plane that was dropping off a suitcase with 13 pounds of cannabis en route from Oregon to North Carolina.
Another 65 pounds of marijuana was also found inside the plane with the help of a drug-sniffing dog, bringing the street value of the bust to more than $450,000, according to the Peoria Journal Star.
After the 2011 bust, the plane, cash and a cargo van were seized. As part of the Illinois Drug Asset Forfeiture Procedure Act, that property is sold off, and the funds are given to local agencies to aid in drug law enforcement.
Months later, the police department reaped the reward for its fast action — $72,000 in drug forfeiture money.
“The statute is designed as a ‘finders keepers’ statute, in such that the proceeds from seized property go to the seizing agency and the prosecuting agency,” said Craig Futterman, a clinical professor of law at the University of Chicago Law School. “So when you think about the financial crises that local government is facing, this is a boon.”
As part of the law enacted in 1990, 65 percent of the forfeited funds go to the agency that executed the seizure, while 12.5 percent goes to both the state’s attorney and the state appellate prosecutor. The remaining 10 percent is sent to the Illinois State Police.
“What (the law) has allowed drug enforcement to do is take that money to fund further drug enforcement,” said Kim Nuss, Peoria County State’s Attorney appellate prosecutor. “That was the intent.”
From police cars to parkas
Among the 38 agencies in 11 counties analyzed by newspapers in GateHouse Media’s Western Illinois Region, police and state’s attorney offices spent more than $161,413 of drug forfeiture funding over the past year.
Almost a quarter of the funds — $34,060 — was spent on technological equipment, ranging from a $424 button camera to $8,270-worth of squad car cameras and WiFi equipment.
Several agencies used their funds to buy cars, including the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office, Geneseo and Pontiac police departments and the Tazewell County State’s Attorney’s Office.
From folding chairs and law books to police dog grooming and parkas, the wide range of items purchased with drug forfeiture funds is attributed to the loose language in the act, which allows for anything related to drug law enforcement to be bought with the money.
The law regarding how drug forfeiture funding is spent is vague, merely noting that the funds must “have a significant beneficial effect in deterring the rising incidence of the abuse and trafficking” of controlled substances, cannabis and methamphetamine.
“There’s no ongoing judicial oversight as to how those funds are spent,” Futterman said. “The reality is that the law enforcement has a significant amount of discretion, because in terms of how they can be used, (the law) is written quite broadly.”
And since the funds don’t come from taxpayers, there isn’t a requirement to report how they are spent, said McDonough County State’s Attorney James Hoyle.
“I have full discretion on that, but three years ago, I started to put it into the budget each year so the public gets to see it,” Hoyle said. “I try to keep it as drug-related as possible.”
McDonough County leads region in spending
As part of the county with the highest spending in drug forfeiture funds over the past year, Hoyle’s office spent $3,800 on five new computers, $1,590 on paper and gave $2,000 to other drug enforcement agencies.
“We replaced the computers in the office because almost everyone touches drug cases at one point or another,” Hoyle said. “For drug prosecutions, typing charges on the computer, search warrants, preparing notices — everyone’s computer works with drug cases.”
The three law enforcement agencies in McDonough County — the sheriff’s office, state’s attorney and the Macomb Police Department — spent a total of $59,578 in drug forfeiture funds in the past year, accounting for almost one third of spending in the region.
Over the past year, Macomb police and the McDonough County Sheriff’s Office teamed up to create a Special Response Team to execute drug search warrants, which accounts for the high spending, said Macomb Police Chief Curt Barker.
Macomb Police Department, the agency that spent the most in drug forfeiture funds in the 11 counties, racked up $29,882 over the past year.
More than $5,000 was spent on drug busts, which includes repairing doors that are damaged during raids, so that landlords don’t have to pay to repair doors that are kicked in, Barker said.
The rest of MPD’s funds were spent on helmets, holsters and belts, office supplies and equipment like a GPS unit and electric headsets that were used to equip the SRT.
“There would be no way we could have built that SRT if that act wasn’t in place,” Barker said. “It’s very critical. If that money wasn’t earmarked and the statute wasn’t specific, we wouldn’t get that money.”
Report: Illinois Ranks 35th in forfeiture policies
While the act does provide an opportunity for law enforcement agencies to fund drug enforcement projects, there are some who criticize its loose wording and lack of regulation.
In March 2010, the Institute for Justice published a report on the abuse of civil asset forfeiture. In it, they grade each state’s policies regarding forfeiture laws. Illinois received a D.
“When we did those grades, we were looking at a few things,” said Larry Salzman, an attorney with the Institute for Justice. “What incentive does forfeiture law give to state law enforcement agencies to seize funds? How much of a financial stake do they get in it? If the forfeiture results in money going directly to the agency, there could be inappropriate incentive.”
Because agencies in Illinois merely need to show probable cause to seize and forfeit property and local law enforcement agencies get to keep 90 percent of the proceeds, the report ranks Illinois 35th in the country.
“It takes the American system of innocent until proven guilty and turns it on its head,” Salzman said. “They take the property first and have the trial second.”
However, seizing property before the subject in question is proven guilty is no different than arresting those charged with crimes, Nuss said.
“We arrest people and sometimes even hold them in jail based on the same type of info,” she said. “You’re innocent until proven guilty, but you can be held in jail until you get that hearing in court and can present your case in court.”