Drug bust assets dwindle

"Believe it or not, two decades of tough drug laws have made drug dealers smarter.When Island County Sheriff's Deputy Dan Todd and vice detectives seized 117 marijuana plants and arrested a 44-year-old man Wednesday evening at the East Harbor Road house he rents, they knew there would be few assets they could seize to help fund their drug prevention program. The suspect went to jail and was released on his own recognizance. But because he had no cash on hand, nor did he own a home, he lost little of value in the raid, besides the marijuana plants.Since America's drug war started in the early 1980s, state and federal laws have allowed law enforcement agencies to seize cash, cars, homes, and other assets from drug dealers that were paid for with drug money. Those assets could then be used to fund more drug enforcement efforts.But new legislation before the Washington House of Representatives could soon change how the Island County Sheriff and other law enforcement agencies deal with the ill-gotten gains of the drug trade. If passed, House Bill 1995 would only allow law enforcement to seize assets from drug dealers after they are convicted. Currently, assets can be taken at the time the suspect is arrest.One year during the early 1990s, said Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley, the Sheriff's Office bagged more than $150,000 in cash and other assets that it and the county Prosecutor's Office could use for more drug crimes investigation. By last year, it was clear that the high flying drug scene of Miami Vice was over. The Sheriff's Office netted barely $10,000 in drug assets in 2000. Hawley said drug dealers know what they will lose if they are caught, so they no longer drive expensive cars or keep piles of cash around the house.Not all criminals are dummies, Hawley said.Now criminals arrested for drug crimes could be getting help from the legislature's proposed bill. Hawley, who budgeted just $12,000 for 2001 drug asset seizures, said he would welcome the legal change. Making seizures prior to a conviction is something he has never much liked.I've always been troubled by it, he said. There are a lot of legal and ethical questions to ponder.Greg Banks, Island County's prosecuting attorney, said a law change on the assets issue will have little financial effect on his office. Technically, his office has split drug crime asset seizures with the Sheriff's Office in past years, but most of the money stays with the Sheriff's Office. Last year, much of the money was used to purchase digital cameras for sheriff's personnel.Larger agencies, however, could be hamstrung by the law. Banks said waiting for a conviction gives criminal organizations time to hide the paper trails between drug assets and those arrested for crimes. Some large agencies employ attorneys to follow the money trail to establish links between criminals on trial, their assets, and other people who might be involved in the drug trade. This is something the prosecutor's office would do, if it had more money and a larger staff.We don't always have the resources to figure that out, he said.Drug-crime property seizure have brought in $43.5 million to state law enforcement and anti-drug programs during the past eight years. The new legislation, which is supported by both Democrats and Republicans, is up for consideration in both the House and Senate. Patterned after a new Oregon law, the legislation would send any future, post-conviction asset seizures to drug treatment programs, not to law enforcement. "

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