Dirty Money: Where Does It All Go?

After a law enforcement officer makes a currency bust – where do those bundles of cash go?

It’s not burnt or buried. In fact, much of the cash comes right back to the very law enforcement agency that seized it.

Some critics oppose this, arguing some law enforcement officers are pushed to make cash and asset seizures rather than concentrating on more serious crimes.

“Instead of putting police officers on the street to deal with crimes like rape and robbery and burglary and car theft, [supervisors] put officers on the street to seek out assets,” said former Los Angeles Police Department assistant chief Steve Downing.

Up to 70 percent of seized cash and assets come back to a local agency after they make a bust. The remaining 30 percent stays with the district attorney’s office.

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If a federal agency makes a seizure, the funds stay at the federal level.

We're able to buy these things earlier than have to wait for the whole process of raising funds to buy the equipment.

— Laura Garcia, manager of administrative services for the El Paso Police Department

The cash, as well as money from seized assets, are deposited into an asset forfeiture fund at the Department of Justice or the Department of Treasury, depending on the agency making the bust.

The Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI, and other agencies turn funds over to the DOJ.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Secret Service, and other Department of Homeland Security agencies turn funds to the Department of Treasury.

If a local agency assists with a bust, they can apply for a portion of the funds to return to their department through an equitable sharing program.

The El Paso Police Department has used the confiscated funds to buy new computers, vehicles, cameras, narcotic K9’s, and additional trainings for officers. The city council approves all purchases.

“We're able to buy these things earlier than have to wait for the whole process of raising funds to buy the equipment,” said Laura Garcia, manager of administrative services for the El Paso Police Department.

For 2012, between local and federal forfeiture funds, the El Paso Police Department received $1.7 million.

However some local law enforcement agencies have made some extravagant purchases using money from confiscated money.

In Camden County in Georgia, the sheriff’s department bought a $90,000 Dodge Viper to promote their D.A.R.E program. In fact, in 2002 it was named D.A.R.E car of the year.

A former Montgomery County district attorney in east Texas spent seized money on a margarita machine for their county fair.

During fiscal year 2011, the Department of Treasury forfeiture fund had accumulated revenue of $929 million. 80 percent of those funds came from currency busts.

The Department of Justice received $1.6 billion from participating agencies during fiscal year 2011. At the end of the year, a whopping balance of over $1 billion was still in the bank. Not all cash, or valued assets seized by agencies under the DOJ are immediately put in the asset forfeiture fund. In fact, agencies under the DOJ seized over $3.8 billion during 2011.

Law enforcement officers said access to seized funds helps keeps taxes low and thus they are better able to serve communities with the extra resources.

Yet despite the advancements to departments, Downing is a big opponent of the forfeiture funds.

“If you’re going to take somebody’s property, that property should be taken at a burden of proof level that is beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said. “Right now [it is] a preponderance of evidence.”

He said 80 percent of all seizures by law enforcement agencies don’t result in a criminal prosecution.  He added that in many cases, the cash and assets are never returned the owner.

El Paso Assistant Police Chief Jerome Johnson said knowing that currency busts may result in more cash coming back to the department doesn’t change the way they do their jobs. They aren’t changing their roles to target heavy cash or asset seizures.

“We have dedicated officers who do their job diligently. It doesn’t matter if we’re going to get proceeds from any type of seizures or anything to add to our confiscated funds budget.”