Confiscated: The trail from evidence to disposal
City police respond to the scene of a shooting in a suspected drug house. Victims are hurried to the hospital and suspects are taken into custody.
Money that police believe is from drug proceeds is confiscated, and any weapons used in the crime as well as any drugs in the vicinity are taken as evidence.
Over the years, Lycoming County law enforcement have confiscated everything from a sports car to a bowling ball and the state police barracks in Montoursville continues to hold shovels, vacuums and floor sections from homicides.
So what happens to seized items once the court process is exhausted?
When a defendant is proven guilty and the appeals process is complete, evidence is either destroyed, forfeited or returned to the owner or their family if the evidence isn’t proven to have been used illegally, according to Chief County Detective William Weber, of the district attorney’s office.
In 2017, about $51,560 in cash and three vehicles were forfeited by defendants and given to the Lycoming County District Attorney’s office after the office was able to prove that the evidence was used illegally, Patty Walters, a paralegal with the office, said.
If evidence cannot be given to a family member and the district attorney’s office doesn’t file for forfeiture, a police department can destroy a piece of evidence after a destruction order, written by the department, is approved by a county judge.
Throughout the county, departments follow the same protocol. Drugs are disposed of through pickups by the National Guard or by incineration. The county does not keep track of the amount or type of drugs confiscated in a year.
Guns are cut in half and made into scrap metal by the county if they cannot be given to a family member who can legally own the weapon or if it was illegally owned to begin with.
“If we can’t find an owner, we may dispose of the firearm,” said Chief County Detective William Weber, of the district attorney’s office. “(Or) if we can’t return it because they may not be permitted to own it.”
The procedures that the county department follows closely mirror state police procedures.
“We will keep it for evidence if it’s a crime,” said Angela Bieber, community services officer with the state police. “When they no longer have value, they are taken by the National Guard, which has its own location.”
For crimes such as homicide, evidence can be kept for a maximum of 75 years, or until the defendant dies.
“People appeal stuff all the time but, typically, after 13 months, they lose their appeals,” Weber said. “(Evidence seized in) homicide cases and major cases is kept much longer.”
When that time is up, money and vehicles may be filed for forfeiture by the district attorney’s office.
The office files a petition for forfeiture when evidence such as money can be proven to have been acquired unlawfully.
“It’s our job to prove that the money was used for drug proceeds,” Walters said. “Should they respond with the answer to the petition, I send them a request for a production of documents.”
The defendant then must provide information that can prove that they earned or received the money legitimately. If the defendant responds with an answer, in order for the county to receive the confiscated goods, the office will take the case to a civil trial.
In most cases, according to Walters, the county is able to prove that the money was used illegally. A final order from a judge goes to the police agency involved, and the funds eventually are added to the district attorney’s drug forfeiture fund.
The forfeiture fund distributes money for equipment and training costs for the county’s police departments, as well as for a number of non-profit groups.
“Non-profits we’ve given money to include Camp Cadet, Big Brothers Big Sisters, the youth development task force and a lot of in-school drug prevention programs,” said Sara Fogleman, a paralegal with the district attorney’s office. “We also pay for the canines to become drug dogs and for police training.”
While the District Attorney’s office was able to explain where forfeiture money has been distributed in the past, guidelines set by the state’s Attorney General say that funds currently used in aiding law enforcement aren’t public information.
In the past, possessions were confiscated by police if officers felt they could prove the items were purchased with drug proceeds.
“Years ago, they used to take that stuff, but we haven’t done it for years,” Weber said. “We don’t take TVs or PlayStations anymore. You know it’s all through drug profits, but you can’t just take it.”
If the forfeited item is a vehicle, the county will auction it off, with a portion of the sales going to the auctioneer and the rest going to the district attorney’s office.
“Vehicles are kept in a secure area and locked behind a fence,” Weber said, adding that security has only improved over time.
“There have been a lot more layers added on.”