HUNTERSVILLE – The Huntersville Police Department used $400,000 from seized assets – instead of taxpayer money – to buy digital police radios.

The U.S. Department of Justice Asset Forfeiture Program allows law enforcement officials to seize money, cars or other property during traffic stops if connected to illegal activity, such as drugs, firearms, fraud, alcohol and money laundering.

Law enforcement agencies can then use the seized money or proceeds from sold property to pay for new equipment and supplies.

Under federal law, the police are entitled to keep most of the money and property they seize. The federal or state government keeps the remaining portion to administer the asset program.

According to Town Manager Greg Ferguson, as of now, there is no available money in the civil asset forfeiture fund the police department can use. If the police department is in need of something in particular, a budget amendment can be prepared. 
"The radio purchase was to utilize as much of the fund as possible," Ferguson said. "There is not an annual appropriation from the fund because there is no way to project the amount of funds that would be received in any calendar year."

Chief of Police Cleveland Spruill said buying digital radios through the asset forfeiture program was necessary because the old police radios will not function with Charlotte Mecklenburg’s dispatch or other local dispatch centers that have gone digital.   

“In order to keep pace with advancing technologies, all mobile and in-car radios have to be upgraded,” Spruill said. “The analog radios are outdated, antiquated and will not work after 2017.”

If the police department had not received any funds from the asset forfeiture, Spruill says budget money would be the next option, which could result in a tax increase.

“We would have to buy it anyway,” he said. “We could have tried to get grant funding to buy the digital radios.”

Ferguson said the police radios have been the largest purchase so far from seized asset funds.

The federal government holds the seized money and a department can then request an amount for approval. But according to the law, seized asset funds can be used for law enforcement purposes only.    

If a car or home is seized after having been found in association with a crime, those items can be put up for auction. A percentage of the money from sold property goes to the federal or state government to pay administrative fees, while the rest belongs to the law enforcement agency involved in the seizing.

However, there are minor restrictions to the practice. When Spruill worked at the Alexandria Police Department in Virginia, staff wanted to build a new police memorial.

“We couldn’t buy the entire $500,000 memorial with seized assets,” Spruill said. “Only a modest contribution to the police memorial of about $100,000 could be put toward building the memorial." 

But Spruill said a lot can be done with seized money, whether it is to buy services or equipment.

He said the asset forfeiture program does not put our freedoms and property rights at risk. If anything, the money seized helps the police department fight crime more effectively and efficiently. 

“The asset seizure program allows law enforcement agencies to make a negative, financial impact on drug dealers and to buy equipment, technologies and supplies needed to fight and win the war on drugs,” Spruill said.

Go to www.justice.gov/jmd/afp/index.html to learn more about the Asset Forfeiture Program.