GREENFIELD — Local law enforcement follow the same procedures for selling criminals’ property that resulted in a lawsuit against Marion County officials earlier this month, but they deny officers are policing for profit.
A Greenfield couple filed a lawsuit that claims Indianapolis police and prosecutors have been unconstitutionally beefing up their budgets with proceeds from civil forfeitures — assets confiscated from suspects and sold.
But law enforcement officials here and in Marion County say their actions are protected by state statute, which allows police to reimburse their departments for law enforcement costs before turning the remained over to a state fund to support local schools.
As their counterparts in Marion County prepare to defend their forfeiture policies, Hancock County police and prosecutors say they conduct forfeitures sparingly, and those seizures don’t generate nearly the millions of dollars the lawsuit accuses Marion County of collecting.
Hancock County has had a contract since 2008 with Indianapolis attorney Greg Garrison to handle all forfeiture cases.
Court records show Garrison has asked a Hancock County judge to approve 11 forfeitures since Jan. 1, 2015. Of those cases, three have resulted in a total of $4,500 being awarded to county police departments; eight forfeiture cases are still pending with the court. Last month, a judge also OK’d the sale of a 2000 Ford Explorer, court records show.
Any time a judge rules law enforcement officers were justified in taking possession of a suspect’s property, police may use that property for police work or sell it, Garrison said.
Those sales are typically small amounts, Garrison said. By the time law enforcement has factored its costs — including a 30 percent legal fee for Garrison, according to police — there is no money left to go to the common schools fund, he said.
“Everybody thinks these are pots of gold, and they are actually pots of pennies,” Garrison said.
What falls under the umbrella of law enforcement costs is broad, including overtime accrued by officers and prosecutors working on a case, as well as fees associated with consulting specialists and storing large pieces of evidence, Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Maj. Brad Burkhart.
The lawsuit in Marion County claims officers with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department seized a Greenfield couple’s vehicles in 2013 after their son was pulled over, and police found marijuana in one of the cars.
Greenfield Police Chief John Jester said his department’s policy typically does not allow officers to seize property belonging to someone other than the accused. That rule varies from case to case, but Jester suspects his department would not have tried to seize cars under such a scenario.
County attorney Ray Richardson said he’ll be watching the lawsuit closely as it travels through the court system. The statute that allows law enforcement officials to deduct costs from seizures has some gray areas regarding whether the money should be placed in the county’s general fund or in the sheriff department’s budget, he said.
Clarification on that issue will be important for law enforcement agencies, statewide, he said.
Amid the accusations, the Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry said in a statement to the Daily Reporter he stands by his forfeiture practices.
“We welcome the opportunity to defend our procedures in this litigation,” he said. “Fundamentally, we believe profits gained by criminal activity are appropriately forfeited for the public benefit and use.”