Seized Assets Disappear As Prosecutors and Police Profiteer Off
- by Brenda Grantland, Esq., -- F.E.A.R. Chronicles, Vol 1.
No. 5, (November, 1992)
As federal and state forfeiture programs are brought under
increased scrutiny by the news media, more and more reporters have
discovered that police and prosecutors who manage the forfeited
assets are profiteering off them. No wonder the forfeiture program
is so popular with law enforcement! It's not just the boon to
their departments' budgets, but the ability to line their own
pockets, that makes them strenuously resist any talk of legislative
The problem of seized property disappearing from inventory, or
winding up used by a cop or purchased by some relative or friend of
someone connected with the forfeiture program, is coming to light
around the country. Judging from the frequency with which such
reports are popping up now, it seems that the foxes guarding the
henhouse have been eating chicken all along. Here are a few
Washington, D.C.: This spring, the Washington Post reported 40
guns missing from the D.C. police Property Clerk's office. That
discovery was made after two guns which had turned up as murder
weapons, showed up as having been previously impounded by police.
In the District, all guns are illegal, even guns legally registered
out of state. Only the police and specially licensed security
guards are permitted to have guns. By law, once a gun is taken
from someone in the District, it is forever removed from the gun
supply -- in theory.
Needless to say, the release of the report last spring made
heads roll at the Property Clerk's office. Most of the personnel
were reassigned to different divisions. The Property Clerk
conducted an internal audit. The results were shocking.
In late September, WRC-TV obtained a copy of the confidential audit
and discovered that as many as 2,864 confiscated guns were missing
from the D.C. Police Property Clerk's Office! WRC's report, aired
The audit listing of unaccounted guns contains every kind
of deadly weapon imaginable... Many are semi-automatic
handguns... The type of weapon favored by drug dealers...
There are 357 Magnums... sawed-off shotguns... 9
millimeter machine pistols... Colts... Rugers, Walthers
and Smith & Wessons.
How could this happen? The guns "were often left in unsealed
boxes for extended periods," the internal audit said. "Employees
who have access to guns also control the inventory records," WRC-TV
reported, and "the gun room doubled as a lunch room."
Theft and mismanagement of forfeited assets has been rampant
in D.C. since the asset forfeiture boom began. In 1989 several
Fourth District police were charged with money-skimming from
suspects, after numerous complaints that certain cops would
regularly shake down suspects and take their money, reporting only
a portion of it as seized. At least one officer pleaded guilty to
skimming. On May 18, 1992, USA Today reported that D.C. resident
Richard Price had $37 seized from him when police stopped him in a
black neighborhood, searched him, and finding no drugs, let him go.
The next day he went to the police station to try to get his money
back and found that it had not been reported as seized.1 On
September 25, 1992, in an unrelated incident, two D.C. officers
were arrested for shaking down suspects and pocketing their money.2
This type of profiteering is not limited to officers on the
street. In 1987 the Washington Post reported that Effie Barry,
wife of then Mayor Marion Barry, was driving a forfeited Lincoln
Town Car. The government argued that this was within the
definition of taking the forfeited property "into government
service" -- but the Mayor's wife was not a city employee, so why
should she have the use of her own city vehicle?
Somerset County, New Jersey: On 8/2/92 the New York Times reported
how Somerset County prosecutor Nicholas Bissell Jr.'s office made
a deal with a newly arrested suspect, James Guiffre, by threatening
him with felony charges carrying 10 years, and forfeiture of his
residence, unless he agreed to sign over the deeds to two vacant
lots that he had bought in 1988 for $174,000. Guiffre did so
within 26 hours of his arrest, without being allowed to consult
counsel. The lots were sold several months later, with Bissell's
approval, for $20,000 to a buyer who conveyed them to "two men with
at least a nodding acquaintance" to Bissell's chief detective,
Richard Thornburg, the Times reported. Thornburg was the officer
who had made the "deal" with Guiffre in the first place.
Somerset County, though 13th in the state of New Jersey in
population, ranked number one in the state for assets seized in
1991, with $1,029,341 in seized cash alone, not to mention
vehicles, real estate and other property seized. $300,000 from the
forfeiture fund controlled by Bissell was placed in a small bank
(total deposits $1.3 million) belonging to Bissell's "longtime
business associate," according to the Times.
Prosecutor Bissell, who maintains complete control over the
proceeds of forfeiture, spent $6000 out of the fund to buy
membership in a private tennis club for his prosecutors and
detectives, among other expenditures.3
Suffolk County, New York: October 2, 1992, the New York Times
reported that Suffolk County, New York, District Attorney James M.
Catterson, like prosecutor Bissell in New Jersey, has asserted
complete control over the assets his office confiscates through its
forfeiture program. Until Long Island's Newsday brought it to
their attention, Suffolk County officials knew nothing about
Catterson's handling of the forfeited assets. Catterton drives
a BMW 735i that was seized from a drug dealer. He spent $3,412
from the forfeiture fund for mechanical and body work on the BMW,
including $75 for pin striping.
Also, from the fund, he bought a $300 watch for a retiring
secretary, and spent $3,999 for chairs, among other things.
Catterton told the Times: "By my view, I really don't have to ask
anyone else's permission to spend monies that come to me." The
county has not audited Catterton's office since 1981.4
Pine Lawn, Missouri: May 1, 1991, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
reported that in the tiny community of Pine Lawn one detective,
Marvin Shannon, was charged with stealing money from the police and
another officer wound up with a television set seized in a raid.
Detective Shannon also wound up with a Camaro Z28-IROC sports car
which he seized from a drug suspect who didn't own it. At the
forfeiture auction, the detective bought it for far less than what
it was worth. In one case seized cash and jewelry valued at
$13,000 was missing. Pine Lawn's mayor, Pelton Jackson, called in
the FBI to investigate the missing property, as well as reports
that police were allowing drug dealers to go free in exchange for
Los Angeles, California: January 31, 1992, six L.A. narcotics
officers were tried on charges of "stealing hundreds of thousands
of dollars in cash and property during drug raids, beating
suspects, planting narcotics and falsifying police reports,"
according to the Los Angeles Times.
1992, the Los Angeles Times reporting on another trial involving
two L.A. narcs charged with money-skimming, described the testimony
of former L.A. County sheriff's deputy Eufrasio G. Cortez:
Cortez. . . said that a money-skimming scandal that has
shaken the Sheriff's Department began with narcotics
officers taking "a few dollars off the top" to buy law
enforcement equipment or dinner after a successful drug
raid -- but quickly spiraled out of control.
Narcotics officers also began stealing seized property,
including television sets, stereos and jewelry that had been
confiscated during raids, he said. Before long, officers also were
skimming hundreds of dollars, then thousands, in cash.7
L.A. Times reporter Victor Merina told FEAR that ten of the
L.A. county officers have been convicted, and that the trials of
five officers ended in mistrials and acquittals on some counts. One
has been reindicted on state charges, and the others are awaiting
a decision as to whether they will be retried.
Boise Idaho: In Boise this year, an informant who has worked for
the DEA since the sixties, was caught, along with the local
Sheriff, burglarizing a suspect's home. At their joint trial, the
Sheriff raised the "you have to bend the rules to catch the scumbag
drug dealers" defense, and, in a rare demonstration of jury
nullification, he was acquitted. The informant, however, was
convicted, but not before spilling his guts about DEA corruption at
the trial. He has since contacted F.E.A.R. and told of massive
corruption in the DEA asset seizure program. His claims include
reports of police steering drug transactions to valuable assets so
they could seize them, and assets, including automobiles, being
seized and not reported. His most outrageous allegations, however,
are of officers taking kickbacks from informants for having
arranged a reward to them. He was recently incarcerated in the
federal prison system, and fears for his life. He has been told
from two sources, he says, that his life expectancy would be about
two weeks after he is locked up. We have not heard from him since.
If anyone has any more information about similar corruption
anywhere in the country, please let us know.
1. "'Robbery With A Badge' In The Nation's Capital," by Gary
Fields, USA Today 5-18-92 page 1.
2. "Three Accuse D.C. Officers of Robbery," by Brian Mooar and
Michael York, Washington Post p. D1, 9-25-92.
3. "Seizure of Assets by an Aggressive Drug Fighter Raises
Eyebrows," by Jon Nordheimer, New York Times Metro Report 8-2-92,
4. "Asset Seizure Is Questioned in Suffolk," by John T. McQuiston,
New York Times, 10-2-92 page B1.
5. "Pine Lawn Seizures Stir Turmoil: Money, Jewelry, Other
Property Reported Missing From Custody" and "Officer Seizes Sports
Car, Ends Up As Its New Owner", by Louis J. Rose and Tim Poor, from
the series "Hooked On The Drug War" St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 5-1-91
6. "Attorneys Close With a Flurry; Trial: In Final Arguments In
Drug Case, They Accuse Federal Prosecutors of Using 'Scum of the
Earth' To Testify Against Their Clients", by Victor Merina, New
York Times, 1-31-92 page B3.
7. "Widespread Corruption In Narcotics Squads Told," by Victor
Merina, New York Times, 3-19-92 page B3.