News 8 Investigates: Follow The Drug Money

Millions of dollars are confiscated in drug busts every year in the United States.

In 2014, a report by the Office of National Drug Control Policy estimated that between 2000 and 2010, Americans spent about $100 billion every year on four major illegal drugs.

In 2015, the La Crosse Police Department arrested 53 people and seized more than $31,000 in drug money. Now, that may not look like anything compared to the billions of dollars being exchanged in the illegal drug market every year, but local law enforcement officials say it’s not about the money but about getting the drug dealers off the streets.

“We sit in an area that is a target environment for drug dealers,” said Tom Johnson, the investigative coordinator for the West Central MEG unit. “We are right between Minneapolis, St. Paul, Chicago and Milwaukee and the interstate flows right through here so it allows for them to be very very mobile.”

Johnson said La Crosse is no different than much of the nation when it comes to the drug problem.

“I don’t talk about the war anymore because there is no war on drugs. It’s just an everyday battle. You have to win battles every day,” said Johnson. “I am asked every day if it’s getting worse or the drugs are getting worse and my answer to both is yes,” said Johnson.

But those small battles in the drug world can take weeks, months, even years to execute.

Records from the La Crosse Police Department show between Jan. 1 and March 31 of this year, police have completed almost two dozen drug busts seizing more than $13,000 in drug money. That’s not including the most recent arrest of Kajua Vu, of La Crosse, last month where police found more than $20,000 in one bust.

“The Kajua Vu case is an example where there was a significant amount of cash present and a significant amount of product that they were selling,” said Capt. Jason Melby with the La Crosse Police Department.

If you combine the money already seized in just four months, it’s more than $33,000; compare that to the $31,577.82 confiscated in all of last year.

So what exactly happens to all that seized drug money?

“If we come in with a stack of money, that money would get counted with a witness,” said Melby. “Each package, as you can see, is packaged with our evidence tape and we make sure the edges are all sealed and taped up to preserve the integrity of the evidence inside.”

Once the money is packaged correctly, it gets logged into the system and stored away.

“Our officers will put it in our temporary evidence lockers out in the hallway. Then the evidence or property area will bring it in from those secured lockers and then have it permanently located within our evidence room, which is locked and secured,” said Melby.

The money remains in the evidence locker until the court case involving it is closed. With the money and drugs in hand, now it’s on to the courts.

“We have a conversation to determine, first, how much it is and if it would be beneficial to proceed with a civil forfeiture action to seize the money,” said Brian Barton, La Crosse County Deputy District Attorney.

Barton said, in Wisconsin, a civil forfeiture action allows the arresting agency to take assets, including money, from people who are involved in illegal activity, like drug dealing.

“I represent the state,” said Barton. “I have to file a complaint and a summons. We have to serve them on a defendant, which we try to do at the preliminary hearing because we have 30 days to file that and then it goes through the civil court proceedings at that point.”

Then Barton works on building his case against the alleged drug dealer. This is where Barton said the police department’s investigation can make or break the case

“A case is only as good as the facts and we rely heavily on law enforcement,” said Barton.

“The burden of proof is on us to prove the money was made by criminal activity or drug dealing,” said Johnson.

Melby said with every piece of evidence, the arresting officer has to write a report, detailing the evidence taken from the drug bust.

“If that person is found with large amount of money and they don’t have a job or any other income we were able to locate, we are going to deem all of those proceeds or cash contraband, or proceeds from illegal drug sales,” said Barton.

Barton said then it is up to the alleged drug dealer to prove that the money taken by police isn’t drug money.

“In my experience, in very few occasion have they been able to persuade a judge of that,” said Bartonl.

If the judge rules the money is drug money, the arresting police department, in this case La Crosse, turns the money over to the West Central MEG unit: a 17-agency drug enforcement task force.

“We take those funds and put them in our account and divide it out or use it appropriately for equipment, cars and day-to-day expenses to run the MEG Unit,” said Johnson.

But under state law, the MEG unit doesn’t get to keep 100 percent of the money deemed forfeited by the court.

“The Wisconsin Statute calls for the sharing of those funds,” said Johnson.

If the amount of money forfeited is over $2,000, 50 percent of it has to be given to the Wisconsin state school fund. Then the remaining 50 percent will go to the West Central MEG Unit.

Here’s how the money was distributed in 2015: the MEG unit spent about $5,000 dollars on drug test kits, more than $3,000 on electronic surveillance and between $10,000-$15,000 on vehicles and confidential drug buys. But that doesn’t mean the MEG Unit or police departments rely on or budget for forfeited drug money.

“There is no way to  truly plan this out to make sure you end up having a certain amount of money from drug arrests every year,” said Melby.

“If there is money there, there is money there, if not, so be it. We got a player or two off the street, either we see a bunch of money or drugs. If we can get that big chunk of drugs off the streets, is that not our goal too?” said Johnson.

There may never be a cease-fire when it comes to the war on drug dealers in the area.

“They are out there. They are hauling tons and tons of cash,” said Johnson.

And it may seem like law enforcement agencies are spending way too much money on drug enforcement but when it comes to a battle over lives that is just something they will never surrender to.

“It’s tragedies where you find people laying in allies dead of overdoses, these are people’s children, they are sisters and brothers to people in the community,” said Melby.

“We have to make sure the drug dealers realize they aren’t welcome here. We don’t want them here,” said Johnson.

The West Central MEG unit started back in 1988 and Johnson said he is happy to see it is still around, despite major budget cuts.

In the early 2000s, the MEG unit received about $150,000 to $180,000 from the federal government every year to carry out drug investigations and reimburse overtime for local agencies.

Now they are operating on $39,000 so the MEG unit has had to cut back on its financial assistance to partnering agencies, but those agencies decided to step up and absorb those extra costs.

For the last two years, the Ho-Chunk Nation has donated about $50,000 a year to the MEG unit to support the effort and Johnson said they plan to renew that offer this year too.