WHEELING - Ohio County officials are transforming the property of criminal offenders into tools in the fight against drug trafficking.
If a vehicle is believed to be involved in drug trafficking, law enforcement can ask the Ohio County Prosecutor's Office to initiate the forfeiture process. The prosecutor's office will then file a petition of forfeiture with the court. The vehicle's owner can challenge that action in court, in which case a hearing will be held to prove the vehicle was involved in drug trafficking with the owner's knowledge.
The Wheeling Police Department has utilized the forfeiture process to obtain numerous vehicles that have been introduced into the department's fleet, said Deputy Police Chief Martin Kimball. The process also sends a message to other potential drug traffickers.
Photo by Tyler Reynard
The Wheeling Police Department transformed a Lincoln Navigator into a DARE vehicle after the SUV was forfeited by its former drug-trafficking owner.
"We are absolutely interested in taking a vehicle we can put to use," Kimball said. "It's a part of the deterrent process. Knowing that you stand to lose a great deal can sometimes serve as a great deterrent."
One of the department's DARE, or Drug Abuse Resistance Education. vehicles was transformed after it was forfeited by its former drug trafficking owner. The black Lincoln Navigator now travels to Ohio County schools to advise students of the dangers of drug use.
Police are not keeping anything secret when it comes to the vehicle's previous owner either, as the rear bumper states: "Donated by your local drug dealer."
Ohio County Prosecutor Scott Smith said, however, officials are only interested in obtaining vehicles that can be put to practical use, and there sometime are hurdles in the forfeiture process. One of those hurdles can be an agency with an active lien against the vehicle, such as a bank. Any party with a lien on a vehicle sought to be forfeited also has a right to stake its claim during a court hearing, Smith added.
The forfeiture process can also be used for other property involved in drug trafficking, such as an offender's home. Smith said the item most frequently sought, however, is money. That money is divided among law enforcement agencies and the prosecutor's office.
The salaries of officers from the local drug task force are paid with funds seized from drug trafficking, allowing law enforcement to continue to battle trafficking.