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Fla. police cash force shows forfeiture's growth

Friday - 5/10/2013, 3:05pm  ET

FILE -In this Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011 file photo, owner Russ Caswell stands outside his Motel Caswell in Tewksbury, Mass. Caswell is fighting to keep the federal government from taking his motel under a law that allows for forfeiture of properties connected to crimes. The government does not claim that Caswell committed any crimes, but claims there is drug-dealing among the motel's guests. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson, File)

AP Legal Affairs Writer

BAL HARBOUR, Fla. (AP) -- In this upscale seaside village of about 2,500 permanent residents, the main challenges for Bal Harbour's 30-member police force are thefts from its high-end shopping mall, speeders along Florida's famed A1A highway and vehicle break-ins. But the department managed to rake in millions of dollars in forfeited drug proceeds by leading a task force that conducted investigations across the country, many with little or no link to the South Florida town.

In fact, in 2011, Bal Harbour got more than $5 million through its money-laundering investigations from a U.S. Justice Department asset forfeiture sharing program, more than any Florida law enforcement agency that year. The Tri-County Task Force's agents worked out of a trailer in Bal Harbour and included deputies from a nearby county and a contract employee who worked at a federal immigration officer in California.

The money went for salaries, travel and confidential informant payments -- some of which have been questioned as improper by Justice Department investigators -- as well as a $100,000 police boat and a $225,000 surveillance truck.

While perhaps an extreme example, Bal Harbour's task force highlights the way many law enforcement agencies are using the expanding federal program along with permissive state forfeiture laws to seize cash, property and assets in criminal cases that sometimes didn't even happen in their jurisdictions. Under the federal program, state and local police agencies are rewarded for participating with federal authorities in joint investigations. The locals' contributions can range from providing leads to essentially running the investigation from start to finish.

Often, it's only a suspected link to crime that leads to a civil seizure, which can force people to prove they are innocent to get their cash or property back.

To many legal experts, that's a perversion of a U.S. justice system in which a person is supposed to be presumed innocent, tempting police to focus on cash instead of crime and diverting resources from more urgent safety threats.

"This is a country where we have a Bill of Rights to protect the people from the government," said Tamara Lave, a former public defender who is now a law professor at the University of Miami. "This is a way of giving the government greater power and it's an institutional way of undermining people's rights."

Prosecutors value forfeiture because it can hit criminals where it hurts -- in the wallet -- and deprives them of the fruits of crime.

"If there was no forfeiture, then it is conceivable that a defendant could serve their time and when he or she gets out, still have access to the funds the criminal enterprise produced," said David S. Weinstein, a former South Florida federal prosecutor now in private practice. "Punishment is about more than putting people in jail."

But, Weinstein added: "The more jaded viewpoint is that it is an easy way for an agency to get cash and property."

The biggest asset forfeiture program is the Justice Department's Equitable Sharing, which Bal Harbour's drug task force used. It has grown from $297.5 million in payouts in 2006 to almost $454 million in 2012, according to Justice Department records.

Separately, untold millions more are seized and kept by law enforcement agencies under state forfeiture laws.

Over the same period the federal payouts have increased, according to the FBI, overall rates of crime have been dropping, although police reported a slight uptick in 2012.

In Bal Harbour, there were 56 total arrests in 2010 and 53 in 2011, according to the Justice Department. Over the two years, 18 involved drug violations.

Drug cartels, money launderers, Mafia organizations and fraud rings are among those in criminal cases whose assets are seized and deposited into this program. Yet sometimes prosecutors use civil forfeiture laws -- which have a lower standard of proof than criminal cases -- to seize property that may be only loosely connected to potential criminal actions.

In Bal Harbour's case, tipsters were used to set up drug money-laundering pickups by undercover officers in at least 13 locations around the U.S. After the money changed hands, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration would arrest the suspects, and Bal Harbour would apply for its cut of the forfeited cash.

Another different kind of example involves the Motel Caswell on Main Street in Tewksbury, Mass. The family-owned business, operated by 69-year-old Russell Caswell, was targeted for seizure by federal prosecutors who contended it was being used to "facilitate" ongoing illegal drug activity. Caswell denied it and was never charged with a crime, but faced losing a business that his father had built in 1955.

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