Drug war's 'dirty little secret'
Oversight scarce in Dallas County's interstate seizures of $1.75 million
Jesus Quinonez-Jimenez's first encounter with the Dallas County sheriff's department was bathed in flashing red lights as he drove along Interstate Highway 80 in March. His last came a short time later, after he denied ownership of the Illinois-registered 2000 Audi and more than $781,000 was found wrapped in plastic and hidden in secret compartments behind the car's rear wheels.
Quinonez, who gave deputies a California address, was allowed to leave - without the cash; without the car.
He also left state authorities with a slew of questions - about a packet of money that apparently disappeared while in the hands of Dallas County sheriff's deputies, and about whether Iowa needs more oversight of the way police agencies handle seized property and cash.
The Des Moines Sunday Register's three-month review of public documents and about 300 court files shows that Sheriff Brian Gilbert and his deputies seized $1.75 million in cash and vehicles over the past four years, much of it from black and Latino drivers who were stopped for traffic violations in vehicles with out-of-state plates.
The campaign, part of a five-year-old effort to reduce the flow of drugs through suburban Des Moines, has taken hundreds of pounds of cocaine and marijuana off the highway in what is described by lawyers and other police agencies as among the state's most aggressive drug interdiction efforts.
Success has come with little public oversight, however.
The Register's review also found that $1.3 million of the seized money came from cases like Quinonez's, in which suspects relinquished the cash and left town. No court files exist for $380,000 in seized cash, and there are no easily accessible records that document how the money was taken.
Iowa law requires that state authorities track all money and property taken from crime suspects via the courts - nearly $3 million in cash and 221 cars last year - but no one tracks the amount of cash police are handed by suspects who just want to get away.
State authorities say Dallas County's approach is rare but not innovative.
"We don't see very much unclaimed property at the county level that's walked away from," said Andy Nielsen, deputy auditor for the state. "Most of the noninterstate counties, I would bet you wouldn't have very much at all."
In Dallas County, the investigation involves one packet of money taken from Quinonez that disappeared before another 26 bundles were counted. Investigators won't comment on the case, which is now in the hands of Polk County prosecutors. Quinonez apparently is in no danger of criminal charges.
Gilbert, who took a two-month vacation while state agents and auditors searched his home and pored over the department's evidence records, defends his agency's pursuit of narcotics. He acknowledges that Dallas County deputies look for drugs and money every time they stop a driver along I-80. In fact, because traffic duties traditionally fall to state troopers, deputies seldom patrol the interstate unless they are searching for drugs.
"It allows us, we believe, to take ill-gotten proceeds off the street and put our small dent in the illegal drug trade," Gilbert said.
It also has allowed the department to buy laptop computers, stun guns, training classes and repairs to an oversized, inflatable deputy used to entertain children at community parades.
F. Montgomery Brown, a Dallas County lawyer who has both defended accused drug dealers and advised Gilbert during the state investigation, calls such seizures, in Dallas County and elsewhere, "the dirty little secret of the war on drugs."
Money seized and money lost
Law enforcement agencies have taken $2.4 million in cash and property from accused criminals in Dallas County over the past four years. Nearly 90 percent came from a 24-mile stretch of I-80. The total, which also includes seizures by the Iowa State Patrol and eight local police departments, might be higher, since many documents and details don't become public until the final stages of court proceedings.
One statistic is clear - about three-quarters of the take was by Gilbert's deputies.
The list includes:
• $197,690 found in the secret compartment of a Hummer driven by Eric Louis Powell. Powell, who claimed he had been paid $2,000 to drive it from Illinois to his home in California, was put on probation for money laundering.
• $98,190 found in a van driven by Stacy Alise Hill of Detroit. Hill denied any knowledge of the money and was released without charges.
• $74,955 found hidden in a Michigan woman's van driven by Ruben Delgado of Las Vegas. Delgado denied any knowledge of the money and was released without charges.
• $40,015 bundled in three duct-taped packages found in the center console of a 1999 Ford Expedition driven by Hoscar Castillo-Rodriguez. Charges against Castillo, of Los Angeles, were dropped due to lack of evidence. But Dallas County kept the cash and the SUV.
Dallas County deputies took a per-stop average of $11,206 in the court files reviewed by the Register. That figure is nearly double the $5,766 average from cases in Polk County, where most of the drug raids were on addresses rather than automobiles.
Recent questions about the missing money began with a March 15 afternoon traffic stop by Deputy Scott Faiferlick, who spotted what he believed to be illegally tinted windows on Quinonez's car.
Faiferlick, according to court documents, found a discrepancy in information provided by the driver and a female passenger. He also smelled fresh paint and body putty near the rear of the car, which convinced him the Audi should be searched.
Faiferlick and Deputy Adam Infante took the car to a nearby Department of Transportation garage, where they removed the wheels and discovered the 27 packages of cash. Gilbert and two other officers arrived to take photographs of the money, which Quinonez and the woman said they knew nothing about.
The money was loaded up for a caravan trip to the sheriff's department, just down U.S. Highway 169 in Adel. Gilbert drove the vehicle with the cash.
According to court records, Gilbert later told investigators that he can see his home from the highway and noticed that his garage door was open. Gilbert said he was concerned that neighborhood dogs would get inside and create a mess, so he stopped at home to shut the door.
His was the last vehicle to arrive at the sheriff's department.
Documents say Faiferlick noted immediately that one of the bundles of cash appeared to be missing, but he didn't press the issue. The money was counted the following afternoon: $781,724.
While doing paperwork three days later, Faiferlick "started to think about different things that took place" after the traffic stop, according to court records. He reviewed photos taken at the garage, then compared them to photos taken the following afternoon.
Faiferlick and two other deputies approached Gilbert on March 21 and asked for an independent examination. Gilbert called the Dallas County attorney, then the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.
West Des Moines police were put in control of Dallas County's evidence room. Auditors came in. State agents went to Gilbert's house.
But after eight weeks passed without charges, Gilbert returned to work from his self-imposed vacation. He made the announcement at a news conference, surrounded by cheering supporters.
The state's evidence-room audit likely won't be finished for months.
Waivers keep seizures out of courts
Iowa law allows police agencies to seize property if it's been used in the commission of a crime or purchased with the profits from criminal activity. The law, routinely invoked in drug cases, requires court approval before authorities can legally take ownership of what they seize.
Court documents say some of the property seized in Dallas County - $320,000 in cash and cars - was returned, either because a judge ruled there was no connection to crime, or because authorities cut a deal to keep only a portion.
But records show that many of those involved in high-dollar seizures give up their property long before their cases make it to a courtroom.
In Dallas County, for example, more than $1.3 million became sheriff's department property over the four-year period because motorists such as Quinonez signed waivers and disavowed ownership. The waivers, printed in English and Spanish, allow county authorities to treat the money as abandoned property and bypass the court process.
Instead of a formal hearing, Dallas County deputies simply buy newspaper advertisements that urge people to come forward within a month if they want to claim an unspecified amount of money seized on a particular date. The ads, printed in an Adel paper, have yet to generate a serious inquiry, Gilbert said.
Dallas County officials initially refused to release copies of the waivers, calling them investigative documents. Gilbert subsequently provided them when he returned to duty.
Records show much of the $1.3 million ended up in court cases anyway, apparently as part of efforts to take vehicles when legal owners weren't present to sign the waivers. The Register's review found no court files to account for $380,000, only the waivers and the ads.
"I don't deal with unclaimed property files," Dallas County Attorney Wayne Reisetter said. "We get what we get, and if they don't bring us things, I don't know they exist."
Most of the waivers include no dollar amounts, except those added by Gilbert at the Register's request. Deputies, citing safety concerns, say the documents frequently are signed before the cash is counted.
"You can't expect a deputy to sit out at the side of the interstate counting money," Chief Deputy Kevin Frederick said.
State authorities say the Dallas County investigation has sparked talk among government auditors and lawyers of new statewide rules to require court oversight in every case. Authorities say they have no way to know how many other law enforcement agencies use waivers to pocket seized money.
A spokesman for the Iowa attorney general's office said any proposal will wait for the outcome of the Dallas County probe. But Nielsen, the deputy state auditor, conceded that "it probably makes sense to have essentially the same kind of controls in place" for both types of seizures.
For Dallas County, it also makes sense to have waiver forms available in two languages.
The Register's review found that most drivers stopped along I-80 were in out-of-state vehicles. More than half were black or Latino.
"That's been going on for years," Polk County Public Defender John Wellman said. "At one point, I was willing to bet that if you took a black or Hispanic guy and put him in a rental car ... he wouldn't make it through Dallas County."
County authorities argue that metropolitan Des Moines is at a major crossroads for the cross-country shipment of drugs and cash, so it's logical that many of the seizures involve vehicles from outside Iowa. Gilbert and his deputies dismiss any suggestion that drivers are targeted by race.
"You get dark-tinted windows on a car, you can't tell if they're white, black, green, brown or red," Frederick said.
"I wouldn't say one way or the other" whether racial profiling is at work, said Des Moines attorney Alfredo Parrish, who represented Powell. "We just don't know how many of these people, they don't find anything, and they just keep going."
Dallas County statistics show nonwhites received 14.5 percent of the 1,703 traffic citations and written warnings issued on I-80 in 2004. For 2005, the number was 15.8 percent of 1,490 citations and warnings.
Gilbert estimates that seizures result from 1 in every 100 traffic stops.
Forfeited money used for equipment
State auditors say they raised questions for at least four years about how Dallas County handles forfeited drug money. In 2003, then-Sheriff Art Johnson agreed to move the cash into a publicly controlled account instead of a private checkbook maintained at the sheriff's department.
Gilbert says a department checkbook is still used, but only as a temporary means to transfer money to the county treasury.
Nielsen called the arrangement unusual and described transferring the money via checkbook as "an extra step that probably shouldn't have been taken. It belongs in the county treasury."
However, state audit reports have voiced no qualms about Dallas County's practices since 2003. Nor do they raise any doubts about how the money was spent.
Financial records show a long list of equipment purchases from the account: squad-car computers, video cameras for the sheriff's department, vehicle expenses, food for the county's two drug dogs, and maintenance on Deputy Dallas, an inflatable mascot that apparently sprang several leaks over the past few years.
Cases reviewed by the Register also show that nearly four of five people suspected of drug trafficking on I-80 eventually face criminal charges, although most see charges reduced. Fewer than one in four of those cases have ended with motorists behind bars for any substantial amount of time.
Drug forfeiture laws have created problems for law enforcement agencies throughout history, said Cecil Greek, an associate professor at the University of South Florida College of Criminology and Criminal Justice. The problem comes, he said, when police start to depend on seized cash.
"You go after the money instead of the criminals ... because people start putting line items in their budgets," Greek said.
Gilbert contends that grabbing the cash is sometimes the only thing authorities can do. In cases where deputies find money but no drugs, there can be scant evidence on which to base a charge.
"We have to investigate with whatever tools we've got," he said. "Oftentimes, we're left with little or nothing at all."
Gilbert said he welcomes any new oversight from the state. But Dallas County has no plans to back away from what he considers a valuable law enforcement tool.
"There are some areas that we probably could use some guidance on," Gilbert said. "But I will stand at the mountaintop and say that we've done the best we can with the situation that we've been given. Ultimately, our efforts are going toward doing the best we can to put a dent in the drug trade."
Repeated attempts by reporters to contact Quinonez and his relatives were unsuccessful. The registered owner of the Audi, Uriel Ochog of Chicago, also could not be reached.
In May, Dallas County authorities filed court papers to formally take ownership of the car and the $781,724. As of Friday, court records contained no indication that anyone had objected.