The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

September 18, 2012

Clear up backlog of seized drug funds

Daily Item

---- — There is at least $140,000 in seized drug money sitting unused in Northumberland County police department. Some of that presumably illicit cash has been in police possession for a decade.

The Northumberland District Attorney's Office must act to access that money. Northumberland County District Attorney Anthony Rosini said that the money must remain frozen until after court proceedings are completed. Even then, prosecutors must convince a judge that the money was drug-related. Prosecutors must also locate convicted criminals to give them the opportunity to argue that their money was obtained lawfully.

Once those issues are resolved, the money is released to the district attorney. Rosini would then have the discretion to spend the money where he thinks it is most needed to fight the drug menace.

Those factors might explain why it would take some time to get the money released. Nothing in the process explains why the district attorney's office has allowed such a backlog to build up.

If staffing is the problem, Rosini ought to be able to convince the county to invest in the cost of an employee to clear up this cash backlog. The $140,000 that is sitting unused in police department evidence safes would provide more than adequare return-on-investment.

The Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office is responsible for auditing drug task forces to make sure that money seized as part of investigations is logged appropriately. Those audits and records about how task forces spend (or don't spend) their money are, by law, secret.

Lawmakers who provided this shroud of secrecy argue that it is intended to keep criminals from knowing what assets are held by drug task forces and what they intend to do with their money.

It is bad public policy to allow government to conduct business without transparent accountability. The shadowy use of drug task force seizures may raise questions about whether political expedience becomes a factor if and when the money is spent.

The district attorney's office has legal, financial and moral obligations to act on this seized money, as head of law enforcement in the county and as an officer of the court. At a minimum, the money is evidence that ought to be subject to more careful accounting. Honest citizens and public officials should support Prosecutor Rosini's efforts to clear up this backlog and put these funds to appropriate use. The Legislature ought to revise the law that created drug task forces to make this accounting more urgent and transparent.