Sergio Ordaz dumped bundles of cash from two plastic bags on the kitchen table of a west Phoenix home.
The 29-year-old Phoenix man had just brokered the purchase of 477 pounds of marijuana Oct. 29, but the sellers were undercover Chandler detectives, according to police reports.
Police placed Ordaz and three others in handcuffs and then searched the house, finding $201,000 in cash, a rifle and semi-automatic handgun that would soon become city property under Arizona's forfeiture laws.
Chandler has reaped more than $5 million in cash since 2001 in forfeitures involving drug busts, all of which stays with the police since city attorneys rather than county or state prosecutors do the legal work of taking the money and property from the crooks, said Mike McNeff, assistant city attorney.
All other East Valley cities turn over the litigation of the civil forfeiture cases to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office or the Arizona Attorney General's Office, which get up to 20 percent of the proceeds. The rest of the money is returned to the police department that made the bust.
"We've saved the city a good deal of money by doing it ourselves," McNeff said.
Police departments have a variety of reasons for turning the cases over to higher-level prosecutors.
For example, Gilbert wants to ease caseloads for town prosecutors, police spokesman Sgt. Mark Marino said.
Scottsdale spokesman Sgt. Mark Clark said his city relies on the high expertise of the county attorney and attorney general because they do forfeiture cases daily.
McNeff said state law permits the city prosecutor to do forfeitures on only narcotics cases. State law allows for civil forfeiture for a long list of crimes that include money laundering, extortion, theft and drug offenses.
When narcotics officers in Arizona make an arrest, there are often two cases that go forward: the criminal case to determine the defendant's guilt and the civil case in which police take money and property that was used and generated in the crime. The government isn't required to file criminal charges to go forward in the forfeiture case, however.
The standard of proof in the civil cases is low and defendants rarely contest them, allowing police to amass millions of dollars annually that then can be spent on capital improvements and equipment.
Forfeited property can be sold at auction or placed into service for police work.
That system can create greed in the officers who might abuse their power by policing for profit, said Michael Piccarreta, a Tucson attorney whose practice includes defending civil forfeitures.
"I've seen instances where greed of the law enforcement meets or exceeds the greed of any criminal," Piccarreta said.
Chandler's practice of using city attorneys to take the cases to court rather than turning them over to an independent prosecutor increases the danger of abuse, Piccarreta said.
The litigation should be done by someone not beholden to the police agency getting the money, he said.
The Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank, wrote in a 2004 policy report that Arizona's forfeiture laws threatened the impartiality of the justice system.
The report stated that from 2000 to 2003, civil forfeitures generated $64.5 million in revenue for police agencies statewide.
In 2008, Chandler has raked in $276,608 in cash in 23 forfeiture cases, according to court records. Criminal charges were filed in almost all of those cases.
"As far as Chandler is concerned, I do have a problem with people who complain that we're taking the money away from the bad guys," McNeff said. "I'm sure there's been abuses of that somewhere, but certainly not here because I wouldn't file a case if I thought there was an abuse. And second of all we don't spend the money for any other purpose than what's set forth in the forfeiture laws."
None of Chandler's cases filed in 2008 have been contested, court files show, and McNeff said he can remember only five to seven cases that were contested over the years.
Piccarreta said that's because the cost of a lawyer to defend a forfeiture case either meets or exceeds the money the defendant wants returned.
He said that makes the system ripe for abuse because there is no "proper legal or judicial scrutiny" of the case.
McNeff said he believes the cases go uncontested because they are "rock solid."
"Well I guess they kind of figure that they gave us the money telling us they want to buy dope, they're not going to fare to well in court, especially since they were probably recorded and there were many witnesses to the transaction," McNeff said.
Most forfeitures aren't as substantial as the one involving Ordaz, who was sentenced March 28 to three years in prison on charges stemming from his arrest by Chandler police.
In cases filed this year in Maricopa County Superior Court, two were in the five figures, six were for less than $1,000 and the rest ranged from $1,100 to $7,200.
One case involving $121,000 has been filed but it is pending a judge's order and McNeff said he is in the early stages of a $600,000 forfeiture.
"We do forfeitures because we don't believe that people who commit crimes should keep the benefit of their criminal activities, that's the bottom line," McNeff said. "The fact that it comes back to law enforcement is just a benefit that adds to the fact that we're taking that money away from the criminals."