Local and federal law enforcement agencies in Maryland sent $17.5 million last year to the Justice Department, to be used to pay for forfeiture actions, investigations and to compensate crime victims.
Investigators with the federal Department of Homeland Security are trying to use civil forfeiture to take a $600,000 Rockville house belonging to Diepreye Solomon Peter Alamieyeseigha, a former governor of the oil-rich Nigerian state of Bayelsa. They say the house was purchased with laundered money. They have won the right to seize some of Alamieyeseigha's assets in Massachusetts.
In another major case, the DEA is seeking more than $2 million that it believes is in the bank accounts of a California company that allegedly sold synthetic marijuana to head shops in Maryland.
After reports of civil forfeiture abuses, Congress passed new rules in 2000 that shifted the burden of proof from the property owner to the government and gave people more time to challenge the government action. Under the old system, it took the owner of a Florida house three years to prove that drug dealers had used its dock without his knowledge.
In criminal cases, prosecutors regularly use forfeiture to deny resources to drug organizations and cleave the convicted from their ill-gotten lifestyles.
Baltimore County businessman Rodney Hailey, convicted of defrauding an Environmental Protection Agency program of $9 million for selling credits for biodiesel fuel he was not actually producing, was stripped of a fleet of luxury cars that included a Lamborghini, three Ferraris and two Bentleys.
In civil forfeiture cases, the property itself is listed as the defendant. Anyone whose money is seized can file a claim to get it back and fight through the courts.
In some of the 2012 forfeiture cases that were not linked to a conviction, no one came forward to recover the property. Prosecutors say that about 80 percent of cases are handled administratively, without court cases, meaning that no one made a claim.
But some critics say that people are deterred from filing claims because the process is difficult to navigate and often means finding a lawyer with expertise in forfeiture cases. Other critics focus on the arrangements for sharing proceeds, which they say could lead police to go after money and other assets rather than pursue drugs or other objectives.
The libertarian Institute for Justice argues that the payouts can encourage police to focus on cases that will result in money being forfeited. In a 2010 study, the group concluded that local law enforcement is more likely to seek assistance from federal authorities in states where laws do not allow them to recover money for themselves.
"Our whole point is, people who work in law enforcement — like anyone else — respond to an incentive," said Dick Carpenter, the director of strategic research at the institute.
Police departments may receive up to 80 percent of the money they help federal agencies take. In fiscal 2012, police in Maryland received almost $6 million through federal seizures — with about $1 million going to Baltimore police, $750,000 to Baltimore County police and $650,000 to state police.
Police can also take assets through Maryland courts, but under state law the proceeds are funneled into general accounts, not back to police. The money paid out from the federal program cannot generally be used for salaries but it can pay for equipment.
Baltimore police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said the additional money is "absolutely vital." Much of it finances officer training and travel costs for wide-ranging investigations, he said. That way, it is "completely reinvested back into the community."
John L. Worrall, a criminology professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, said 60 percent of the law enforcement officials he surveyed described forfeiture proceeds as a "necessary" part of their budgets.
Guglielmi said the Baltimore Police Department's main focus is on gun violence and not cases that lead to big payouts.
Watches, jewelry and cars are seized regularly in Maryland. One traffic stop in 2011 turned up $60,000 in cash stuffed into a teddy bear, Canadian currency and 296 grams of gold, worth about $15,000, according to an affidavit filed in the case.
A review of recent federal forfeiture cases in Maryland showed many in which no charges were filed. In one example, Vincent Williams, 31, said he was in Western Maryland driving back from a car auction when state police pulled him over and said he was speeding. Officers searched his car and confiscated $5,240 Williams had in his pocket.
"The first one who stopped me said, 'We're going to take the money because basically we don't have anything else,'" Williams said.
State police spokeswoman Elena Russo said Williams could not clearly explain where he was going and could not account for the money, giving police cause to perform a search. No charges were filed, and Williams said he did not get a speeding ticket. He hired Robert W. Biddle, a Baltimore lawyer who specializes in forfeiture cases, and got his money back a few months later.