The Harford County Narcotics Task Force stands to retain nearly $325,000 of the more than $400,000 seized in December from a suspected Baltimore City heroin dealer, the task force commander said this week.
The December seizure was the second largest to date for the task force, which in the last three years has seized nearly $1.5 million, nearly 200 weapons and nearly $5.5 million worth of drugs off the streets, Capt. Lee Dunbar said.
The source of the cash is obvious, but where that money goes after it’s seized, how it’s accounted for and how it’s ultimately spent are other, less-heralded parts of the drug interdiction process.
Dunbar is commander of the task force, created in 1998, which seized the money as part of its investigation into two non-fatal heroin overdoses in Harford County and four elsewhere in Maryland that led police to Karon Peoples of Baltimore City, who was indicted in U.S District Court on heroin possession charges as part of the investigation.
Task force members also seized jewelry, a car and equipment associated with drug dealing, Dunbar said.
“The main function of seizing those assets and getting them forfeited is to take that money that’s driving the [drug trafficking] organization away from them. That’s one of the biggest tools we have and [it’s] a very big blow to [an] organization when we can take their cash ... cars and any property that they might own,” Dunbar said. “A positive is, once it’s forfeited we can turn it around for law enforcement purposes to continue our investigations.”
None of the money seized from case connected to Peoples will be available, however, until the case is considered closed. That would be after Peoples has entered a plea or gone to trial, has been sentenced, a judge has forfeited the money, and any appeals are exhausted, Dunbar said.
On Dec. 7, under statewide blanketed jurisdiction granted by Maryland State Police, members of Harford County’s task force arrested Peoples during a traffic stop in Baltimore City, Dunbar said.
After searching Peoples and his car Dec. 7, task force members searched two homes in Baltimore City with which Peoples was associated, Dunbar said.
“The superintendent of Maryland State Police has the authority to issue statewide jurisdiction,” Dunbar said. “I think it’s important to note that that’s a very effective tool in fighting this opioid epidemic to be able to have blanketed statewide authority so we can move at a moment’s notice and get these drug dealers off the streets, especially drug dealers we’ve identified that are killing our citizens. And to add any layer of bureaucracy only hinders us in that fight.”
Phone calls to Maryland State Police seeking comment on jurisdiction were not returned by Thursday afternoon.
During the searches, the task forced seized a combined $405,000 cash, 970 grams of heroin with a street value of $110,000, two watches with an estimated value of $90,000, a 2017 Honda Accord and other drug-related paraphernalia.
Peoples was indicted Jan. 4 in U.S. District Court of Maryland for possession with intent to distribute more than 100 grams of heroin. During a detention hearing Jan. 12, he was ordered held without bail, according to court records.
Peoples’ lawyer, listed in federal court records as Kobie Flowers, of the firm Brown, Goldstein & Levy in Baltimore, could not be reached for comment Thursday.
When the Sheriff’s Office does obtain the money that would be forfeited, if Peoples is convicted or found guilty, it will be directed back to the task force, and must be used for law enforcement purposes, Dunbar said.
As of Tuesday, the money was in the Harford County Sheriff’s Office’s possession as evidence, but will be turned over to the federal government, per its formal request, as it prosecutes the case against Peoples, he said.
The task force’s forfeited money is held by Harford County government in its bank account, Cindy Mumby, spokesperson for the county government, said, adding it’s not part of the county budget.
“We do not go out and collect that money. However, that money is deposited into our bank account,” Mumby said. “The money is in cash, it’s deposited, brought to the treasury window and deposited in our account. We act like a bank.”
The Sheriff’s Office administers the money, she said, and the county dispenses it at their discretion. If the task force has an expense more than $25,000, the request must go before and be approved by the Harford County Board of Estimates, like anything else in county government, she said.
The county maintains records of the monies that are received and spent, Mumby said, and could provide a report of that activity for a given time period.
Federal funds are required to be audited, which is done by county report as well as an independent audit by the county’s auditing firm of Clifton Larsen Allen.
The county has no control over how the funds are spent, Mumby said.
The budget for the task force is overseen by the Harford County Narcotics Task Force Advisory Board and Harford County Government. It is separate and distinct from the Sheriff’s Office budget. The forfeited assets line item for the task force is part of the overall Narcotics Task Force budget and is separate from the Sheriff’s Office operating budget, according to Cristie Kahler, director of media relations for the agency.
The task force executive board, which consists of the chiefs —or his or her designee— of the agencies represented on the task force: Sheriff’s Office, Maryland State Police, Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace Police Departments, Harford County State’s Attorney’s Office and Harford County Office on Drug Control Policy, Dunbar said.
The executive board, which meets quarterly, sets and approves the budget every year. As commander, Dunbar has authority to approve expenses up to $5,000. Anything more than that he takes to the executive board for approval, he said.
Task force seizures
How much the task force seizes each year fluctuates depending on its investigations, Dunbar said.
Over the last three years, the task force has seized $1,456,170 in cash — $376,075 in 2015, $262,468 in 2017 and $817,627 in 2017, Dunbar said.
Half of the 2017 amount — $405,000 — was seized in the case connected to Peoples.
In 2015, the task force seized 52 firearms, 50 in 2016 and 82 in 2017.
The jump in 2017 was not the result of a specific case, Dunbar said.
“It happens to be the drug dealers that we’re targeting,” he said. “We try to set a priority target list of those violent drug dealers and violent drug-trafficking organizations, then our hope is when we do arrest them and do a search warrant, we’re going to get more guns. So that is always a good thing when we see our numbers increase because we’re taking them off really bad guys.”
The street value of all the drugs (heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamines) seized by the task force in the last three years is $5,595,634: $1,147,662l in 2015; $957,494 in 2016; and $3,490,478 in 2017.
A significant part of the increase in 2017 was the result of a joint wiretap investigation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency into a group on Snake Lane in Churchville trafficking methamphetamines that were coming from an organization in Fresno, Calif., Dunbar said.
Once the Peoples case has gone through its legal channels, about 80 percent will be returned to Harford County as the arresting agency, Dunbar said.
The federal government withholds about 20 percent for processing, to cover any court costs, filings and other legal actions. The task force gets the remaining 80 percent, about $324,000 in the case connected to Peoples.
When the forfeited cash comes back to the county, it will go to the task force, because it’s a task force case, and the executive board that oversees the task force will decide if and how to spend that money, Dunbar said.
Basic task force operations are funded through the Harford County Sheriff’s Office. Its biggest expenses, as with most government agencies, are salaries and benefits, which are paid for by the investigators home agencies, Dunbar said.
The executive board sets and approves the budget every fiscal year, he said. It’s structured so it’s not dependent on forfeited assets to keep it running.
Many of its activities, however, are funded through forfeited assets.
“It does save our taxpayers a lot of money. We can take forfeited drug funds and put them back into training, put them into security measures for our building,” Dunbar said. “It’s a big help to the taxpayers and we’re putting drug dealer money back into combating what they’re doing on the streets every day.”
How seized money is spent
Among the items purchased with forfeiting funds for the unit are the handguns investigators carry, which are different than their standard issue weapons that allows them to do their undercover work safely, Dunbar said.
Funds have been used to buy tactical vest carriers to hold investigators equipment, new “Drug Free School Zone” signs, an air filtration system to test heroin and fentanyl, and to help with the cost of Narcan carried by all deputies. It also contributes to the cost of outreach and anti-drug education pamphlets.
It also makes annual student awards.
Each year, the task force awards $500, funded with seized money, to one senior in each Harford high school, including Harford Christian and John Carroll, a student who has “exhibited and promoted an alcohol-free lifestyle,” Dunbar said.
The task force also helps fund expenses for drug-sniffing dogs from its partner agencies, up to five per agency, Dunbar said.
Expenses can include vet bills, GPS trackers for the dogs and training, for dogs and handlers.
“It’s a very important part of our jobs in narcotics work,” Dunbar said, adding one narcotics detection dog is assigned full-time to task force. “It’s saving taxpayers dollars, which is very important, and we’re getting drug dealers to do it.”