Of all the contraband seized by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Ventura County Sheriff's Department, the island in the Florida Keys sparks the most daydreams.
One detective suggests jokingly that Ventura County build a sheriff's summer camp there. Another envisions jetting off to Florida for a working vacation.
The reality is less exotic: The "island" is actually a 45-acre plot on a trailer-studded atoll called Big Koppit Key that no one in the department has ever seen. A 20-minute hop from Key West, the plot was seized two years ago under a federal law that allows local agencies to keep as much as 90% of the assets taken from suspected drug traffickers, but it remains locked in litigation because its owners are contesting the forfeiture.
So far, Ventura County has recovered only about $160,000 under the 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act, said Lt. Paul Anderson, who heads the sheriff's narcotics squad.
But that's all changing. Spurred by increased drug dealing and gang activity, local law enforcement agencies and the FBI two months ago mounted a more aggressive effort to identify and seize the assets of suspected drug traffickers in Ventura County. While no more treasure islands have surfaced, the booty does include cars, cash and houses, including a Santa Paula residence worth about $280,000 that federal marshals seized last Friday.
All told, the Sheriff's Department now stands to collect as much as $700,000 in forfeited assets, Anderson said.
And it is upping the ante weekly with additional seizures.
"If you want to sell drugs from a residence in Ventura County, be prepared to live in a tent," said Gary Auer, the Ventura County supervisor for the FBI, which is helping county law enforcement agencies shepherd seizures through the complex federal system.
While the public favors coming down hard on drug dealers, the seizure program is not universally embraced. The American Civil Liberties Union has denounced the practice, partly because the government is allowed to acquire properties regardless of whether their owners have been convicted on drug charges.
"We're opposed to the whole concept," said Joel Maliniak, an ACLU spokesman. "By confiscating a person's belongings before guilt has been determined, you are running the American system in reverse."
Gaining legal title to seized assets can take six months to three years, depending on whether the suspected dealer fights the forfeiture process. Problems mushroom if the defendant transfers ownership to a friend or relative before authorities obtain a court order to seize the property.
Then there's divvying up the spoils. Under federal statute, the DEA gets 10% of the seized assets, and the balance is divided among participating agencies, based on the amount of work each does on the case. Those agencies may include the U.S. Attorney's Office, the Sheriff's Department and local police departments.
Many Competing Claims
"If we make a $20,000 seizure, everyone's going to put a claim on the money," Anderson said.
Some law enforcement agencies in other counties have been known to squabble over the proceeds, but Anderson said he settles for whatever share the FBI or DEA doles out.
Anderson said the Sheriff's Department, working with the FBI, has seized more than $1 million in cash, four houses--including a $500,000 house in Bell Canyon--two dozen cars, a cabin cruiser, a twin-engine airplane, a motorcycle and some stereo equipment and furniture.
The Oxnard Police Department helped seize a house in Newbury Park and "we're planning on seizing some others," said Oxnard Police Sgt. Jess Velasquez, who declined to be more specific.
The Ventura Police Department was involved in the recent seizure of an El Rio house, $83,000 in cash, a 1986 Corvette and a 1984 Jaguar, "which is gorgeous," Ventura Police Sgt. Steve Bowman said.
Santa Paula and Simi Valley have also seized assets of suspected drug dealers.
Of course, that's a drop in the bucket compared to the booty recovered by some law enforcement agencies. Police in Southern California have recovered more than $30 million in cash and property since the 1984 forfeiture law was passed, DEA spokesman Dwight McKinney said.
Glendale's five-person drug enforcement bureau has been so successful that it paid its $330,000 annual budget two years into the future with forfeited funds, for example. Its officers have arrested 245 suspected drug smugglers and seized $8.5 million in cash. They travel routinely from San Diego to Santa Barbara to pursue cases.
Santa Barbara County's Sheriff Department, on the other hand, has seized "$100,000 at tops," Sheriff's Lt. Bill Lenzik said.
Police in drug trafficking hubs such as Los Angeles obviously reap greater benefits from the federal forfeiture law than those in areas such as Santa Barbara and Ventura County, where the problem is not as widespread.
Still, Anderson said, "You start seizing people's houses, and in this county, with what they're worth, the potential is enormous."