Drug money well spent
Police use portion of seized funds to combat trafficking

LAWRENCEVILLE - In May 2008, Gwinnett police arrested 20-year-old Edgar Rodriguez-Alejandro at a Hamilton Road residence after responding to a kidnapping call.

Before the night was over, they had uncovered 12 kilograms of cocaine and nearly $8 million in cash from his residence next door.

Earlier this month, federal and local agents of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force seized 350 pounds of methamphetamine, a kilo of cocaine and an "undisclosed amount" of cash from two Duluth homes being used as "stash houses" by a Mexican crime syndicate.

U.S. officials believe metro Atlanta has become a major operational hub for Mexican drug cartels to distribute cocaine, marijuana and other drugs. Because of its location and proximity to major roadways, drugs can be brought into the metro area and quickly distributed to cities such as Miami, Detroit, Washington and New York.

If Gwinnett drug dealers contribute anything to society, ironically, it usually comes after they have been removed from society. That contribution comes in the form of seized drug money that helps provide law enforcement with the tools and training necessary to combat these traffickers.

"One benefit to being a drug hub is the forfeitures we receive," Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway said. "With budgets like they are, this enhances our ability to do what we need to do ... it keeps us in the latest technology."

Law enforcement agencies involved in drug busts are allowed by law to keep a percentage of the dirty money they recover. As a general rule - whether it's a federal asset seizure or state seizure - the money is divided equally among the participating agencies, Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter said.

While federal and state laws vary slightly, the funds are typically only to be used for financing police efforts such as training and equipment for drug enforcement or for "buy" money or paying informants.

Porter said his office is entitled, in federal cases, to a share of the forfeiture if an assistant district attorney prepares warrants or tries the case. Under Georgia law, he is entitled to 10 percent of all state forfeitures but said he rarely accepts those monies.

"I think the money is better going directly to the law enforcement folks," Porter said.

Porter said he is normally able to address his office's needs within his budget, but was able to use drug forfeiture funds last year to pay for 13 state-employed office members facing furloughs.

"It kept people working, kept lawyers in the courtrooms," he said.

Norcross police Capt. Brian Harr said his department isn't allowed to pay officers' salaries with drug money, but that the technology it helps finance - such as a Computer Aided Dispatch system and automatic ticket writers - allows officers to spend more time on patrol and gets them to calls quicker.

"It's tremendous," Harr said. "It improves our services to the city and effectively reduces the burden on taxpayers because we can utilize this that would otherwise come from our general fund and budget."

Conway figures his department would be a decade behind the times if not for the money made available by the very people authorities are trying to get off the streets.

"It is kind of ironic having the drug dealers pay for the war on drugs," Conway said. "That makes it appealing."

The sheriff said his department's account sits at more than $1 million. He has used dealers' illegal profits and ill-gotten gains to purchase a $268,500, state-of-the-art mobile command center, a $45,000 Chevy Tahoe used for training, and a $24,000 conversion for a county vehicle turned SWAT truck. Every patrol car has been equipped with AR-15 assault rifles.

"It's a shame we have to have that kind of firepower, but we come up against more," Conway said.

Other purchases include a K9 officer, Tasers, navigational systems for cruisers and "riot-type weaponry" for the jail.

Conway said he is looking at purchasing a shooting simulator and a $140,000 surveillance aircraft he said operates at a fraction of the cost of a helicopter.

Fighting crime costs money, so the funds taken from drug traffickers conducting their lethal trade is truly the silver lining in a cloud of illegal activities.

"It's great help from the bad guys," he said.

Harr agrees.

"It's sort of nice to say, 'Hey, a drug dealer paid for this.'"