FORT EDWARD — In the past four years, Washington County has participated in seizing $515,581 from people who were not charged with a crime.
The program, called civil forfeiture, allows law enforcement to seize cash from people who are believed to be using the money illegally, even though there isn’t enough evidence to charge the person with a crime.
The procedure has been highly criticized after some high-profile cases in which law enforcement wrongly seized cash that had been earned legally. New Mexico banned the practice in 2015.
In Washington County, Hartford Supervisor Dana Haff began refusing this year to approve the monthly receipt of forfeiture money unless he was assured that it came only from criminal cases.
Washington County gets a share of the cash seized by the Capital Region Drug Enforcement task force, which generally seizes money that is believed to be used to buy and sell drugs. But task forces throughout the country have been under scrutiny in recent years for seizing cash from people who were never arrested. Those cases, called civil forfeiture, have been questioned by many politicians and activists.
Sheriff Jeff Murphy assured Haff that the office has never, during Murphy’s tenure, accepted money that was not tied to a criminal case. A spokeswoman for the Drug Enforcement Agency, which runs the task force that seizes cash for forfeiture cases, also said the DEA never engages in civil forfeitures.
But The Post-Star filed a Freedom of Information request with the federal government to get the details on every forfeiture for which some cash was shared with Washington County, from 2011 to 2014.
The Freedom of Information request showed that the county benefited financially from three civil forfeitures — in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Murphy did not return calls seeking comment on the news, and a DEA official could not explain how the civil forfeitures had happened despite a policy against it.
In total, Washington County received money from 34 forfeitures cases from 2011 to 2014. Washington County gets to keep only a tiny percentage of the total forfeited amount. In the three civil cases, out of the more than $500,000 seized, the county got to keep $5,242.21.
Haff was incensed by the information.
“This runs counter to what I was led to believe,” he said.
He is adamantly opposed to civil forfeiture, saying that every time law enforcement seizes property from someone, they should also charge that person with a crime.
Board of Supervisors Chairman and Argyle Supervisor Bob Henke defended the idea of civil forfeiture, which he used during his career as a state environmental conservation officer, mainly in cases of hunters shooting or trapping animals out of season. Civil forfeiture isn’t inherently wrong, he said, and can be used when it’s not clear who committed the crime.
“It isn’t necessarily indicative it was not criminal,” he said. “If you find a car full of heroin and cash, you’re not necessarily going to have a bad guy to arrest. But you’re not going to just leave it there.”
Henke is concerned by cases in other parts of the state, however, in which police seized cash after routine traffic stops, despite finding no evidence of drugs or other criminal acts.
The Post-Star has filed a new Freedom of Information request with the DEA to get court documents on each civil forfeiture.
The Freedom of Information request already fulfilled by the DEA also showed that very few of Washington County’s forfeitures came from criminal forfeiture.
The vast majority were administrative forfeitures, a lesser-known program that allows law enforcement to quickly get approval to keep cash and other property that was seized. The approval comes within weeks, long before the owner faces his or her charges in court.
Owners cannot use a public defender to argue against the forfeiture of their cash. They must hire their own attorney, because property does not have the same rights as a person. Among the many legal rights that do not apply is the right to representation.
According to the federal government, any forfeiture of funds less than $500,000 in a criminal case should be seized as an administrative forfeiture.
If the person is later acquitted or a district attorney decides not to prosecute, the person can go back to court to try to get their property back. But the person must still prove that the property was obtained through “legitimate means,” according to the DEA.