SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Justin Lucas gathered up $50,000 in cash in 2011 to bail his brother out of jail on a drug charge.
But when Lucas brought the money to the Otsego County jail in a brown paper bag, sheriff's deputies seized the cash without releasing his brother. They told him the money was the subject of a drug investigation.
Lucas' brother eventually pleaded guilty to a felony marijuana possession charge. But even with the case over, Lucas couldn't get his money back. The sheriff's office had already used a federal law to force him to forfeit the money to the government.
Investigators cited the fact that their drug-sniffing dog picked up the scent of marijuana on the cash, and Lucas' admission that $10,000 of it had come from his brother's co-defendant.
The federal civil asset forfeiture law allows local police to get up to 80 percent of money or property seized, with the rest going to the federal government for their role in the investigations and for administering the program.
Lucas' case was among 117 in the 32-county Northern District of New York over the past five years in which the federal government used the law to seize $43 million in assets without having to charge the owners with a crime.
The Justice Department announced last month that it was shutting down the program, at least temporarily, under which the seized assets are shared among the police agencies involved in investigations. Federal officials cited budget constraints.
New York state seized more assets per capita under the civil asset forfeiture law than all but one other state in 2014. Police have been criticized for abusing the law to get quick access to money that they spend on new equipment, training and other expenses. They're not allowed to use the money to pay salaries.
A Syracuse lawyer who specializes in fighting civil asset forfeitures says prosecutors in the Northern District of New York use the law fairly.
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