By Linda Kor
With state budget cuts over the past seven years, state and local law enforcement agencies have had to look to other avenues to maintain and expand their agencies’ programs, purchase equipment and maintain salaries. One of those methods is to use funds obtained under the state’s civil asset forfeiture law.
Pinal County has come under fire in a lawsuit filed last week by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that brings into question methods used by the Pinal County Sheriff’s Department to obtain those funds, and how that office and the Pinal County Attorney’s Office use those funds.
Each county in the state receives state and federal Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) funds that are collected through the sale of confiscated items used in crimes that can include vehicles, other personal property and cash.
Navajo County Sheriff KC Clark explained how his department and others in the county disperse the funds allocated to them.
“To begin with, from what I understand, in Pinal the county attorney takes a percentage of the forfeiture funds, like 20 or 30 percent, with the remaining amount handed over to the sheriff for him to determine how to spend it. We don’t operate like that here,” he said.
According to Clark, the county has what is called a Major Crimes Apprehension Team (MCAT) RICO Board that determines how those funds are dispersed. Included on the board are police chiefs from the Holbrook, Winslow, Pinetop-Lakeside, Show Low and Snowflake/Taylor police departments, as well as representatives of the sheriff’s office, the Department of Public Safety and the Navajo County Attorney’s Office. Each qualifying agency receives $10,000 when it’s available, but any purchase made with those funds has to go through the county attorney’s office for approval before those funds are released.
“The funds are used to pay for K-9s, overtime, cars, utilities and training. I believe I also gave $100 to grad night and another $100 to the Little League,” recalled Clark, who emphasized that no funds are garnered for personal use. He said the funds are also used to pay matching grant funds and undercover drug informants.
“Each agency is allocated $10,000 as it comes available, which is usually around every 12 to 38 months,” explained County Attorney Brad Carlyon. “Every purchase has to have final approval by the county attorney’s office to ensure it falls within the proper guidelines for use of those funds. If we get a request to use funds to paint a police chief’s office, then, no, that won’t be approved, but if it’s to purchase new tasers for their officers, then, yes, that falls within the guidelines.”
Carlyon added that the funds received by his office go to pay for an attorney who specifically handles the drug-related cases.
The remaining money is held in a fund that is used to purchase items that benefit MCAT as a whole. “Outside of the individual agency allocations are purchases for one agency that can benefit all other law enforcement agencies in the county. For example, Snowflake PD purchased a drug analyzer machine that can be used by every other agency. It doesn’t make sense for each agency to have every tool in the box when we can help each other,” stated Carlyon.
The ACLU lawsuit involving Pinal County alleges that the sheriff’s office sold a vehicle belonging to a woman who was unaware that the parts on the vehicle were stolen. Although her son was charged with the crime, the vehicle could only be retrieved if she was willing to pay a $304 fee. She was also allegedly told that if the judge ruled that she could not have the car back, she would be liable for all legal fees associated with the process.
“We don’t handle business like that,” explained Clark. “I’ll give you an example. If you loan your car to your daughter knowing she has a license and she gets pulled over and it turns out her license is suspended, we’ll call you to come get your vehicle. We don’t impound the vehicle for 30 days or charge you court fees. Now, if you let her drive it a second time, it gets impounded because now you know better. We also never threaten people with legal fees to dissuade them if they are trying to retrieve their property.”
The Arizona Criminal Justice Commission website lists the quarterly balance available for each county, with the available cash balance at the end of March at $717,349 for all eight agencies participating in Navajo County. The expenses for that quarter included $30,178 to match grants, $2,350 for gang and drug prevention education, $48,474 for administrative expenses, $1,103 for professional outside services, $2,313 for travel, and $10,813 for other operating expenses for a total of $95,231.
The total fund allocation for the entire state at the end of March was $87 million, including $75 million in state funds and $12 million in federal funds.