Paying for the crime

Seized items aid law enforcement

Posted: Sunday, September 04, 2011

Property and cash taken from criminals in Columbia County often is used to seek justice.

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"We average about $50,000 a year that we seize in money," said Columbia County sheriff's Lt. Buddy Wimmer, who oversees the Special Operations Division.

That division includes the Vice and Narcotics, Crime Suppression, Traffic, Bike Patrol, Canine and Warrants units.

Just about anything can be seized if sheriff's office personnel can show it was used in the facilitation of a crime or purchased with the benefits of that crime, Wimmer said.

"We seize cars," said sheriff's Staff Sgt. Frank Dodson, who supervises the property crimes in the Criminal Investigations Division. "If you get caught doing a burglary in Columbia County, or an armed robbery, we'll seize the vehicle."

Seized cash goes into an account that Wimmer oversees. Cars, computers, cameras and anything else, including illegal drugs, go to Deputy Teresa Lee, the sheriff's office evidence specialist.

"I handle all the property," Lee said. "It stays with me until the case is disposed of."

Once the criminal case is done and all appeals are exhausted, Lee sends a court order to be signed by a Superior Court judge requesting instructions on how to dispose of the property.

Drugs are destroyed. Some property, especially recovered stolen property, can be returned to the rightful owner.

"That's what we strive for," Dodson said.

Any property awarded to the sheriff's office can be used by the agency, sold as surplus or donated. Often, seized vehicles are kept and used as undercover cars for narcotics officers. On average, the narcotics unit seizes about a car per month, Wimmer said.

Found property that the sheriff's office doesn't have a use for, such as bicycles, are often donated to charity organizations.

"The bicycles, ... every November, we donate (them) through Pontiac Master and give them away to children for Christmas," Lee said.

Seized money goes through a similar process. A judge must order what is done with it after the case is complete.

If it is awarded to law enforcement, the money from a case is split between the agencies involved in the investigation, Wimmer said. Any agency's costs are taken out before the split. Also, a legal advertisement must be run advising anyone with claim to the money to come forward.

Any federal agency, including the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or the Drug Enforcement Administration, gets 20 percent of the seized funds. The rest is split among the contributing agencies, with consideration taken for the resources and manpower involved, Wimmer said.

If the District Attorney's Office prosecutes the case, which it usually does, that office gets 10 percent of the seized cash.

Wimmer said he expects a much larger amount of seized cash this year. A $118,000 seizure was conducted earlier this year in a cocaine case, and he expects the final disposition and awarding of the cash to come soon.

"This year we had one big seizure, but that's not the norm," Wimmer said.

The money definitely supplements budgets, but there are strict rules on how seized money can be spent.

"It is mandated by the federal government that we can only use it for training and for equipment," Wimmer said.

The sheriff's office uses it to buy surveillance, training and investigation equipment, narcotic vehicles and speciality equipment like trailers needed to transport some sheriff's office motorcycles to Atlanta for service.

Sheriff Clay Whittle requested a decal on the back of the trailers that said, "Purchased with seized drug funds," Wimmer said.

"That trailer was bought from that (seized money), so it didn't affect anyone's budget," Wimmer said. "We've purchased the drug canines out of that fund as well."

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