Carrboro Police Department is ending its participation in the Federal Asset Forfeiture Program, which allows law enforcement to work alongside federal agencies to earn a share of proceeds gained through confiscated property.
Working with the federal government allowed Carrboro law enforcement to bypass state asset forfeiture regulations on the proceeds received by the department.
The Carrboro Town Council voted unanimously on Oct. 27 to end participation in the Federal Asset Forfeiture Program, despite the police department expressing concerns about losing the source of funding. They cited civil liberty issues and the recent lack of revenue from the program in Carrboro.
Carrboro Town Council member Sammy Slade said he has been questioning the police department’s participation in the program for years. He said, in the context of drug investigations, the program can dispossess people of their property with the claim that it has been acquired through the trafficking or selling of drugs.
“Generally speaking, it’s Black and brown people caught up in the war on drugs," Slade said.
Slade said this can lead to a disproportionate confiscation of property, both in terms of who's affected and the value of the assets taken.
Since June 2012, the Carrboro Police Department has received $156,341 from the Department of Justice through participating in the program. Cary McNallan, budget analyst with the Town of Carrboro, said these payments were received in two installments of about $3,000 in 2013 and $153,000 in 2014.
Captain Christ Atack, captain of administration at the Carrboro Police Department, said in an email that he couldn’t provide any details of the events surrounding the $3,000 installment because the narcotics investigator at that time is no longer with the agency.
Atack said the department received the $153,000 as a result of a joint operation between several local agencies and the Drug Enforcement Administration, in which over $1 million in cash was seized from a suspect charged with trafficking cocaine.
Council member Damon Seils said heightened conversation over the past few months about policing in the community brought greater attention to the issue from the council.
“The central civil liberties concern is that under the federal program, the legal standard is very low for allowing the government to take and keep civil assets as part of a criminal investigation,” Seils said.
Seils and Slade both said they also have problems with how the federal program allows law enforcement to bypass North Carolina law.
Slade said state law does not provide an incentive to police for profit, because proceeds from state asset forfeiture go to public schools. The federal program bypasses this and allows for police departments to profit without these limitations.
“We have a North Carolina statute, the intent of which is very clear, to remove that sort of perverse incentive from the practice of law enforcement,” Seils said. “To be able to circumvent that standard just by participating in a federal program seems to get us away from the values that we hold here locally.”
Despite the department not having received any funds from the program since 2016, Police Chief Walter Horton said in an Aug. 7 memo to Town Manager David Andrews that discontinuing participation in the program would be a disservice to the police department and the Town.
"Participation in this program has allowed the police department to purchase needed equipment such as body-worn cameras, Tasers, protective vests, in-car cameras, replacement firearms, interview recording system, as well as other equipment needs," he said in the memo.
Seils said the recent lack of revenue was a major factor in the Town Council’s decision to end participation in the program.
“It’s a policy that didn’t seem to reflect our community’s values, and we weren’t getting proceeds from it anymore anyway, so it seemed like it wouldn’t have been a big hit on the budget to end our participation,” Seils said.
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