Task force booty boosts local law enforcement coffers

May 03, 2006|by ROBERT SNYDER

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Cash, cars and big-screen TVs. Laptop computers, an all-terrain vehicle and even a house or two.

It adds up to more than $670,000 worth of assets seized as a result of the prosecution of drug-related crimes in Berkeley County in the last three years, said county Assistant Prosecutor Richard Stephens, who calls his work both an effort to fight the local trade in illegal drugs and help fund the local law enforcement agencies who combat it.

"It's fighting back at the drug dealers," Stephens said. "Where you are going to hurt a drug dealer is in his wallet."

And the money is well-used, said Berkeley County Sheriff Randy Smith, adding the recent sale of a confiscated house netted the sheriff's department about $100,000, which was used to purchase such items as accident reconstruction and forensics equipment, video and digital camera equipment, and computers.


"It's a way of making crime pay for itself," Smith said of the funds, which also are allocated to the Martinsburg City Police, the West Virginia State Police for their work with the Eastern Panhandle Drug and Violent Crimes Task Force.

The money used from seizures is one of the few funding sources law enforcement agencies have to purchase special equipment, Chief Deputy Kenneth Lemaster said.

"Most of the stuff we buy above the norm is purchased through these (seizures)," said Lemaster, adding equipment purchased with money and the sale of property seized through drug arrests serve as a means to improve the work of the department.

"Can we live without specialized fingerprinting equipment? Yes, but does it benefit us? Yes, a great deal," Lemaster said.

Distributed after the county prosecutor files a petition in Circuit Court to obtain the property confiscated from drug arrests, the seizures are authorized as a result of passage of the West Virginia Contraband Forfeiture Act in 1988. As many as 140 cases have been resolved, either through default or as a result of a plea agreement or bench trial, since early 2003 when Stephens joined the office.

Prosecuted as a civil case, sometimes alongside criminal complaints following drug arrests, the burden of proof for the prosecutor is less strict, usually resulting in judgments by the court against the accused or a willingness to reach a plea agreement.

"That's 51 to 49, if you put it in a mathematical equation," Stephens said.

"If it smells like a duck, quacks like a duck and looks like a duck, it's a duck," he said.

Stephens, who said the prosecutor's office receives 10 percent of the value of all property seized, giving that office about $67,000 in extra funding in three years, was quick to credit the law enforcement agencies who participate in the seizures.

"If they weren't doing their job, there's no way I could do mine," he said.

Already this year, 16 cases have been resolved and another 14 cases are pending, according to Stephens, who said drug activity in the Eastern Panhandle continues to increase.

Stephens said much of the activity originates from drug dealers coming into the region from Baltimore and Washington.

"The boom and takeoff in the area's drug trade is part of our growth problems," Stephens said. "We get people coming in here with bad habits."

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