WILTON — Police Chief Heidi Wilcox is ramping up her efforts to secure more drug money and other assets seized from criminals to help stretch the small town’s police department budget.

Her efforts highlight how some area law enforcement agencies rely on asset forfeiture laws to offset funding gaps.

A local court recently ordered that about $835 in drug money, seized during an arrest made by Wilton police officers last year, will be handed over to the department. Police plan to use that cash and apply for state grants to buy three bulletproof vests, Wilcox said.

Wilcox, who took over as chief about six months ago, said it marked the first asset forfeiture case during her tenure. She plans to keep pursuing seized cash and assets from criminals through the adjudication process.

She described the criminal forfeiture laws as a vital law enforcement tool, especially for small town police forces struggling to keep up with rising costs amid residents’ demands for budget cuts.

Three other area law enforcement agencies — town police departments in Farmington and Fairfield and the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office — have benefited from thousands of dollars seized from convicted criminals over the years, according to agency officials.

They’ve had courts order that criminals forfeit everything from drug money and all-terrain vehicles to expensive cars and houses. The seized assets go toward a variety of programs, ranging from buying new equipment to building up reserve funds to train officers to combat drug crimes, officials said.

Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty said the explosion of opiate addiction in central Maine has placed more demands on his agency — and more costs. The sheriff’s office has three detectives assigned to three levels of the drug problem: working with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration; with state drug agents in Augusta; and with local agents.

“There’s a big financial burden to investigating these crimes and we do rely on drug forfeitures,” Liberty said. “When you have a search warrant, you may have 10 deputies, all on overtime and at high risk.”

Liberty said seized drug assets — sometimes totaling in the tens of thousands — have been critical to his department in investigating drug crimes, as well as buying protective vests, weapons, training, and pay for overtime.

Financial constraints

Fairfield Police Chief John Emery recently had a court order that $10,000 in cash seized during a drug bust will be handed over to the town police department. He noted getting the seized cash back, which requires court approval based on the certain legal guidelines, allows the department to keep targeting drug crimes without significantly increasing the town’s financial burden.

“It benefits both the taxpayers and the department, and it takes the money out of the drug dealers’ hands,” he said of asset forfeitures.

When Wilcox, a 20-year veteran law enforcement officer, became police chief in Wilton last fall, she was aware of the financial and logistical problems facing small rural police departments.

She was replacing a chief, E. Page Reynolds, who resigned after less than five months in the position. He had said in interviews that he feared the police force would be disbanded because of budget constraints, and that was a primary reason he left.

Reynolds unexpectedly submitted his resignation shortly after residents at town meeting had debated whether they needed a local police agency. The residents’ complaints had prompted town officials to look into contracting with Maine State Police or county sheriff’s deputies for public safety, an option used by some other small towns statewide.

Town officials and residents decided against disbanding the town police department and hired Wilcox as chief for the town of about 4,100 residents in Franklin County.

Among her goals after taking the job, Wilcox pledged in interviews to find ways to address residents concerns about paying for the police department. To achieve this would take finding ways to put more patrols on the street, she said.

Wilcox said her plan to aggressively go after assets seized from criminals ensures officers are better equipped while allowing the department to spend its own money on more patrols and other costs.

Taking money from criminals to pay for public safety funding brings law enforcement planning full circle, she said.

Stopping the crime

In Fairfield, a town with about 6,700 residents, the police department faces similar budget concerns, according to Emery. He added that criminal forfeitures have made a big difference in providing money to pay for equipment and costs associated with solving drug-related crimes.

For example, it cost the department about $800 to get drugs tested in the recent bath salts case. The $10,000 in seized drug money returned to the department helps to alleviate those costs and fund future investigations, according to Emery, who has been chief for 11 years.

He couldn’t say this past week how much money the department has received from assets seized from criminals.

“It certainly helps offset the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on drug investigations,” he said.

But while Emery and Wilcox each promoted law enforcement efforts to go after seized criminal assets, they both also emphasized their top priority will always remain preventing and solving crimes.

“Our No. 1 goal is to make the arrest first and then think about anything else,” Emery said.

In general, the state’s asset forfeiture laws allow cash, property and other assets to be seized and handed over to law enforcement based on guidelines tied to proving the asset was used in connection with a crime. In most instances, the laws refer directly to drug-related crimes as the cause for asset forfeiture.

Deputy Chief Shane Cote in Farmington recalled a case from 1998 in which a man left a car full of drugs and cash behind after running from police. Cote said he made the arrest and the court approved a request to turn over $10,000 in seized drug money and the man’s car to the police department.

A seized vehicle or other assets will typically be sold by the police department at auction. Because smaller police departments don’t frequently see forfeiture cases, they are spared some of the problems larger law enforcement agencies encounter, Cote said.

Larger agencies, for instance, try to avoid paying officers to handle auctions and contract with outside businesses, which cuts into the profits from sales, Cote said. He added smaller agencies can go through a sealed bidding process to sell a single item, instead of holding the live auctions necessary to unload multiple items at once.

In Farmington, with about 7,600 residents, there have been a few criminal forfeiture cases over the years. The town’s police department puts the money in a reserve account and plans to spend it on anti-drug educational programs, officer training and to buy equipment, Cote said. He was unable to say this week how much is currently in the fund.

Detective Lt. Carl Gottardi II of the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office said about $200,000 worth of assets seized from criminals has benefited his agency over the past 30 years.

Unlike in several other states, Maine laws prohibit agencies from using criminal forfeiture assets to pay for officer salaries, Gottardi said. He added that the laws allow agencies to use these funds to pay for overtime costs tied to drug enforcement patrols.

Instead of selling all the seized items, agencies also will some times keep and utilize select items, including firearms and vehicles, he said.

Seizing drug money and assets, however, are always an afterthought, he said.

“We don’t do drug investigations to get the criminal forfeiture, because the goal is always to stop the crime.”

David F. Robinson — 861-9287

[email protected]