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Asset forfeiture funds new Sonoma County chopper, future funds in doubt

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OLD BIRD  Henry-1, Sonoma County’s sole search-and-rescue helicopter, is nearing the end of its life. - Assets seized in drug busts are helping offset the $5 million for a replacement.
  • OLD BIRD Henry-1, Sonoma County‚Äôs sole search-and-rescue helicopter, is nearing the end of its life. Assets seized in drug busts are helping offset the $5 million for a replacement.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors signed off on a new sheriff's office helicopter purchase last week to replace Henry-1, the search-and-rescue chopper in service for 20 years, 10 of them in Sonoma County.

The new $5 million Bell helicopter will be purchased, in part, with $3 million amassed by former sheriff Steve Freitas through asset-forfeiture cases. Under the federal Equitable Sharing Program, those assets go directly back to the law-enforcement agency that seized them, and don't wind up in the county coffers—which is how the sheriff was able to squirrel away the funds for the new helicopter. The county is borrowing $2.5 million from Chase to make up the difference.

The Equitable Sharing Program, whose legacy dates back to the heyday of the War on Drugs in the 1980s, allows local law-enforcement agencies to seize assets—including cash and vehicles—from citizens, even in the absence of a criminal charge or conviction. The locality then transfers those assets to federal control, and then the feds send a percentage of the seized assets back to the local agency.

Critics from California Republican Congressman Darrell Issa to the American Civil Liberties Union have argued the program runs roughshod over due process rights of individuals who might never be convicted or even charged with a crime, but who nevertheless find their property seized by local law enforcement under the federal program.

Yet owing to recent changes to state law governing asset forfeitures, the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office (SCSO) might not be able to count on those monies in coming years, noted Supervisor David Rabbitt during the board's Aug. 22 meeting, which also saw the supervisors sign off on the appointment of Rob Giordano as interim sheriff.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane said she hoped the county could continue to rely on asset forfeiture dollars to offset mandatory repairs that come with the new helicopter, or even to pay off the debt to Chase before the note is due. The Bell helicopter is under warranty for its first three years of service but will hit a mandatory repair milestone in 2021–22 with costs that could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Most of the asset forfeitures in the Sonoma County are undertaken by the sheriff's narcotics unit, and most of what they seize is cash, according to the SCSO website.

Giordano agrees with Rabbitt that asset forfeiture "is a very unstable fund these days," given changes in state law, as he gave credit to the recently retired Freitas for putting aside the $3 million previously seized.

Last year, California passed a tough asset forfeiture law. The California reforms, in place since January, now require a "conviction in almost all cases prior to the permanent loss of property through civil asset forfeiture," according to a release from the Drug Policy Alliance, which supported the California reforms. Now California law enforcement agencies can no longer grab their share of forfeited property or assets "unless there is a conviction in an underlying case involving seized property that is up to $40,000 in cash or for cars or homes." That threshold was previously $25,000.

The Drug Policy Alliance released a study in 2015 that found local law enforcement agencies had for decades exploited a federal equitable sharing loophole which allowed for assets to be seized and repurposed even in the absence of a criminal conviction—or even criminal charges. That study found that California agencies' revenue from state forfeitures was stable over the course of a decade-long study—but that revenues from federal forfeitures almost tripled over that time.

Zane was keen on figuring out if there were ways to pay down the debt to Chase on the helicopter and asked the helicopter purchase panel, which included Giordano and Sonoma County financial manager Christel Querijero, how much would remain in the SCSO asset-forfeiture account once the $3 million had gone to Bell for the new helicopter.

About $1.1 million Querijero said, adding that some is earmarked for other projects.

"Well, if we get a big bust," Zane said to laughs, "yeah, if we get a big bust, paying down the debt—and that happens sometimes—all of a sudden your asset and forfeiture . . . balloons?"

A short silence ensued before Giordano responded.

"Yes, it does happen, but it takes years," Giordano said. "So we may work a case today and three years later that million dollars comes. But that's been the beauty of the program—take your time, work your way through it.

"The world has changed around asset forfeiture, the world has changed around narcotics cases," he added, "so I don't know how much of that is available in the future, especially in the current political climate—but as long as it's available, we're going to use it to do the best we can with it."

"Absolutely!" said Zane, who went on to note that when it comes to property and assets seized by the sheriff's office, "we don't want the state or federals taking it from us; we want to use it locally."

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