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Drug money pays for vehicles, more
Forsyth County Sheriff’s Capt. Mark Hoffman shows off a new armored vehicle Wednesday. - photo by Autumn McBride

The dark, ominous-looking vehicle turned off Hwy. 306 and slowly rumbled through the shopping center parking lot.

Its presence did not go unnoticed on that recent afternoon, as several bystanders stopped to gawk at the uncommon site.

While that may be a natural reaction to such an intense vehicle, it’s the cost — not just armor and size of the 2010 Lenco Bearcat 2639 recently purchased by the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office — that’s raising a few eyebrows.

According to information obtained by the Forsyth County News through an open records request, the sheriff’s office bought the Bearcat last week for $235,688.

A month earlier, the agency purchased a 2006 Meridian Mobile Command Center for $200,800.

The documents show that the vehicles were paid for through federal seizure funds, the result of drug enforcement work over the years.

“Both of these vehicles supplant our capabilities here and there’s absolutely no taxpayers’ dollars being used to provide either one of them,” Sheriff Ted Paxton said. “Drug dealers paid for them.”

Paxton explained that law enforcement agencies are allowed to use drug seizure money for various purposes, including equipment, training and supplies.

Agencies are not, however, permitted to use the funds to supplement their budgets, nor can they be used for salaries.

“Drug seizure money is to be used to provide and buy extra things,” Paxton said. “But for things that are regularly budgeted items, drug seizure money cannot be used to go buy things like that.

“It has to go for things that you would not necessarily be able to have, extra stuff, and that’s the law.”

He said in the past, the money has also been used for training and surveillance equipment.

Paxton said more than 60 of the vehicles in the agency’s fleet, which are used by various units on a regular basis, have been paid for with seizure funds. The vehicles range from patrol cars and trucks to the most recent purchases.

But the process is not as simple as it may sound.

The guidelines for spending the money, set by the U.S. Department of Justice, do not allow the sheriff to use the funds to replace the 22 to 23 patrol vehicles he has budgeted to replace in 2011.

While some local government leaders have suggested the county pay to replace about half of the vehicles and the remainder be paid for through seizure funds, Paxton said he “can’t use that money to supplant a budget.”

“It’s already been established that we have been approved to have ‘X’ number of cars,” Paxton said. “And it has been established that those cars are worn out according to the policies of the county’s fleet maintenance department.

“Well, you can’t just say we’re only going to fund ‘X’ number of dollars because you’ve got enough to buy the rest of them.”

Paxton said the money may also be used for maintenance and estimated that the agency’s seizure fund account currently has about $150,000 in it.

He has the final say in how the money is spent.

According to the department of justice’s guidelines, the money may be used to increase — but not replace — resources.

“(Funds) shall not be used to replace or supplant the appropriated resources of the recipient,” the guidelines show.

They go on to say that the law enforcement agency must directly benefit from the funds and that the justice department will examine the agency’s budget.

The funds may be used for any permissible purpose as long as they “increase the entire law enforcement budget.”

While there is no penalty for not spending the money, Paxton said there’s no point in having it if it isn’t going to be spent.

“What is the purpose of having it if you’re not going to use it?” he said. “If Congress did not intend for law enforcement to use it, then what was the purpose of giving it to them?”

Paxton explained that several local deputies are on task forces made up of members from neighboring jurisdictions.

If a task force makes a seizure that a federal court deems is lawful, the money is disbursed between the member agencies.

He said the process can take years and there is no guarantee when or if agencies will receive funds. The money is unpredictable and as uncommon as the large drug busts that bring it in.

For example, the funds for the most recent purchases came from a bust the agency participated in about four or five years ago, Paxton said.

In that case, drug traffickers were transporting cocaine in large trucks through several counties.

“In the course of that investigation we also intercepted a truck that was headed back to Mexico which they had loaded up with a little over $3 million in cash,” he said.

Paxton said Forsyth County generally gets about 5 percent of the seizure per case.

He explained that when the agency makes a seizure in the county without the help of outside law enforcement, the money is handled through the State Court. Under such a scenario, the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office would also receive a cut.

The Bearcat resembles a Hummer, though perhaps one better fit for combat than picking up the kids from soccer practice.

The mobile command center looks like a recreational vehicle that’s been modified for law enforcement instead of camping on the weekends.

Paxton said the mobile command center is a refurbished model that will replace one the agency bought about six years ago.

He said the agency has outgrown the older vehicle, which will be reconfigured and used by the special operations unit for purposes such as intoxication testing at safety checkpoints.

He said the Bearcat is “nothing more than an added level of safety as a tool for the people on the SWAT team.”

The automotive beast comes with a battering ram and top hatch. It weighs nearly nine tons.

“That vehicle is another tool for them that is totally and completely bullet-proof,” Paxton said. “They can be in and be out of harm’s way, so to speak, as they’re approaching an event.

“If it keeps one deputy from being injured, it’s money well spent.”