(DES MOINES, Iowa) -- Des Moines drug dealers are helping police go on a spending spree.
Seized money will go toward a $7.2 million upgrade of the fire and police dispatch center this year. The money will also send top command officers to Harvard University for a three-week course in police management.
Des Moines police have made $684,845 from seized money and property since early 1998, including $162,080 so far this year.
The department has also received up to $270,000 annually for the last few years from the U.S. Department of Justice by putting up $30,000 in seized money.
Chief William Moulder says money seized from accused criminals provides a small supplement to a department budget of nearly $35 million.
"Our budgets are typically subsistence budgets," Moulder said. "The money we are talking about allows us to buy computers, telephones, clothes for the bike patrol, the horse patrol."
Critics see abuses.
"The forfeiture laws are absolutely antiquated, very one-sided in favor of the police," said William Kutmus, a Des Moines defense lawyer. "The property ultimately goes into their pocket. They have incentive to run roughshod over the citizenry."
Property owners must prove that they legally obtained goods that are targeted for seizure.
"They have to go out and get a lawyer and go to court to fight for what they have," Kutmus said.
Moulder said commanders send a clear message to officers: They are after narcotics and criminals. "The money is serendipitous," he said.
"The truth is, if we went after the money, if that's why we were in business, then we might as well get a mask and a gun and start robbing banks," he said. "Because that's not why we are in business. We are in the business of getting drugs off the streets and putting bad guys in jail.
"The money is nice, too, but I never want them to get confused on that issue."
Moulder said federal rules on spending are precise. "You cannot use this money to fill potholes," he said.
Seized property goes through court and can be contested.
Photographs of shiny new cars on the walls of the narcotics section carry signs like: "Donated by the drug dealers of Des Moines."
This week, officers began using a computer seized from a man convicted of sexual exploitation of a minor.
Police also used drug money to send a lieutenant to Minneapolis to pick up tips on dealing with protests like those that rocked Seattle and Washington, D.C., this year.
Officers also have no problem finding money for rewards in difficult investigations.
"This is money that doesn't come from taxes," Lt. Ray Rexroat said.
The Iowa attorney general's office gets 10 percent of forfeited cash. The county attorney's office takes 15 percent of the remainder. Des Moines police get the rest, or split it if other law enforcement agencies are involved in the case.
Other money comes from unclaimed items found or seized. The property is sold at auction and the proceeds go into the city's general fund.
Police say they have safeguards to prevent theft of seized money and property.
Sgt. David Murillo said officers found $4,087 while searching apartments in a methamphetamine investigation a few weeks ago. "We counted the money about four times, put it on a property sheet and sent it forward. After that, someone else follows it through the system. Chances are I won't ever hear about it again," he said.
Why is there so much cash out there? "Drug dealers don't write checks," Rexroat said.
Reporter Tom Alex can be reached at (515) 284-8088 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Des Moines police choose an annual project on which to use federal block grant money, which is obtained with forfeiture cash. Here is how police have spent the money in recent years:
1996: An automated fingerprint identification system, $140,000.
1997: 10 squad cars for officers to take home, $203,000.
1998: A firearms training simulator, more than $100,000.
1999: Several items, including an automated telephone system, $50,000; and improvements to the Des Moines Regional Police Academy, $25,000.
2000: An upgrade in equipment in the dispatch and communications center, $300,000.
(iSyndicate; The Des Moines Register; Nov. 12, 2000). Terms and Conditions: Copyright(c) 2000 LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights Reserved.