In April, Sheriff Butch Conway of Gwinnett County, Georgia, bought a new car for his commute to work. The Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat is completely black and has tinted windows and black wheels. There’s no question: it looks super-cool. With a 707-horsepower engine, the Hellcat is said to be the fastest sedan ever to be made. It cost $69,258.
The problem? The sheriff purchased it through his office using proceeds from civil asset forfeiture.
Civil asset forfeiture is a legal procedure where law enforcement may seize property or cash from an individual without filing criminal charges against him or her. The process was designed to help law enforcement tackle organized crime and drug cartels by quickly removing their assets even before a court case.
However, civil asset forfeiture is often used against individuals who are not involved in any crime. In Georgia, the burden to prove innocence lies on the property owner and not law enforcement. Not only that, but up to 100 percent of the proceeds from civil asset forfeiture may go to law enforcement agencies. Because of this, it has been suggested by groups across the political spectrum that law enforcement agencies have an incentive to carry out civil asset forfeitures. This is known as “policing for profit.”
In the sheriff’s case, the money for his Hellcat came from an operation completed in conjunction with federal law enforcement using a process known as “equitable sharing.” Department of Justice (DOJ) guidelines do not allow “the use of equitably shared funds for extravagant expenditures.”
Although the DOJ initially approved the purchase of the Hellcat, it is now questioning it. According to a DOJ letter from July, “The vehicle in question is a high-performance vehicle not typically purchased as part of a traditional fleet of law enforcement vehicles.” The department is also concerned whether the vehicle is being used for its stated purpose.
However, the sheriff is defending his purchase. According to a statement issued by his office, “Sheriff Conway maintains that this vehicle is an appropriate purchase, especially for an agency with a $92 million budget and the opportunity this vehicle provides in making our roadways safer.”
The sheriff also claims he uses the vehicle “when he participates in field operations covert and otherwise” in addition to using it for his commute to and from work.
When asked about the sheriff’s explanation, William Perry, founder of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, replied saying “Bullfeathers. … In my eyes, the only way Butch Conway can save face is if he writes a personal check for that vehicle and apologizes to the taxpayers of Gwinnett County.”
This is not the first time civil asset forfeiture funds have been misused. In Camden County, Georgia, the sheriff purchased a $90,000 Dodge Viper and is alleged to have used funds to pay for building work on his weekend home. In Illinois, a law enforcement agency used $20,000 in funds to buy two motorcycles with aftermarket exhausts and heated handgrips.
The Tennessee Department of Homeland Security, between 2014 and 2016, spent over $100,000 in civil asset forfeiture funds on catering, banquet tickets, and luncheons. None of this is allowed according to DOJ guidelines.
Such funds should be “treated the same way as a dollar coming out of a taxpayer’s pocket,” says the founder of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs.
According to a DOJ letter, the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office will not be eligible to receive equitable sharing funds until the $70,000 for the Hellcat has been reimbursed in full.
Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
If your lawful property has been seized, then you should hire a lawyer. Contact us to set up a free initial consultation and work with one of Florida’s most experienced civil forfeiture defense attorneys.