BETHLEHEM Whether it's cash, cars, guns or dope, it's easy rewards that invariably draw many criminals to their crimes.
But when the law catches up to them, it is often these ill-gotten gains that end up giving law enforcement another tool to use against other wrongdoers. Thanks to a 40-year-old law, police can hit criminals where it really hurts—their wallets.
It's called asset forfeiture, and in the Town of Bethlehem's Police Department it's paid for two recent crime-fighting purchases. Earlier this year, police bought two bicycles for $2,200 to start a new two-wheeled patrol, and late last month about $6,500 was spent to purchase new pistols. In both cases, criminals are footing the bill through money or property used in the commission of or as a profit of a crime.
The town's asset forfeiture funds stands at about $23,000 right now, a figure that accounts for the recent purchases. Police Chief Louis Corsi said this year is the first time the fund has been tapped during his eight years heading the force, so the account isn't what you'd call a massive pool of money.
But it's a valuable one all the same, Corsi said, because it offers flexibility that isn't always available from the general fund.
“I can't afford to be at 75 percent, either with equipment or with training or anything, because at 75 percent people get hurt,” Corsi said. “I don't have the luxury of waiting until 2012.”
The law requires that forfeitures have to be applied to law enforcement activities, so they can't be shifted back into normal town finances. While federal authorities have the power, in certain cases, to conduct civil seizures without going through the courts, for local agencies asset forfeitures are generally ordered by a court through the prosecution of a crime.
In Bethlehem, such seizures occur on a sporadic basis. Probably the most common instance local police agencies encounter would be drug-related arrests, such as when a suspect is found with a stash of drugs and cash. In such cases, police can attempt to seize the suspect's money, the vehicle the drugs were transported in and any weapons in the person's possession.