I-Team: Law enforcement agencies use 'asset forfeiture' to combat Maine's drug epidemic
STATEWIDE (WGME) -- Law enforcement agencies across the state are taking money from drug dealers and using it to combat one of Maine's biggest problems. They call "asset forfeiture" a powerful tool.
The town of Rockland is picturesque, but there's an ugly problem you can't always see.
In 2015, local authorities teamed up with Maine State Police and the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency to bust a major supplier of oxycodone. They also seized a pickup truck, two guns and more than $136,000.
According to state records, that cash was split among the investigating agencies, more than $40,000 each, including the small Rockland Police Department.
It's all thanks to a practice known as asset forfeiture, which can be done at the state and federal levels.
With a court's approval, it allows law enforcement agencies to keep some or all of the assets seized in an investigation they worked on.
"With the heroin epidemic, with more drug trafficking, are you seizing more than you used to?" I-Team Reporter Marissa Bodnar asked.
It's hard to say because you may go months with no seizure and then you may have a case where you see a sizable amount of money," Chief Michael Sauschuck, Portland Police Department, responded. "That's certainly not in our mindset when we do these investigations or make these arrests. This is stuff you run into along the way."
Over a recent 12 month period, the Portland Police Department was awarded $33,000 through the Department of Justice (DOJ) and nearly $8,500 through the state.
But it's no surprise the MDEA brings in the most, in 2015, $45,000 through the DOJ and more than $250,000 through the state.
MDEA Director Roy McKinney says it's often used when undercover agents go to buy drugs. "It goes right back into attacking other drug dealers and targeting them and developing cases," McKinney said.
There are strict rules about how the money can be spent.
"You can use it to fund officer overtime, but you can't use it to fund an officer's salary who is currently employed," Chief Bruce Boucher, Rockland Police Department, said.
Chief Boucher says it's allowed them to buy night vision goggles, which aid in investigations and Tasers, which have reduced the number of complaints about use of force. These are items they didn't have room for in the budget.
It's not just cash, sometimes property is put to use too.
Chief Sauschuck says police seized a scooter several years back that was being used to sell drugs here in the city's west end.
"Three, I believe three vehicles that have been seized we have used those as our unmarked vehicles," Chief Sauschuck said. "And it was forfeited to us and it was brand new so ultimately we gave it to a charity to raffle off."
Portland continues to use drug money to benefit the community. They are currently buying gear for a rape defense class and funding a new full-time substance abuse liaison, aimed at following up on overdoses to get help for addicts.
"And I must tell you, it makes me smile a little bit to think we're taking money from drug dealers, people bringing poison into our community, and spinning that around to really try to help people," Chief Sauschuck said.
With $40,000 sitting in the bank, Rockland is considering something similar.
Police say it's a satisfying way of turning the tables to tackle an ugly problem.