Local law enforcement seized just over $1.3 million in cash from suspected drug dealers and suspected illegal gambling establishments from 2019 to 2021, enabling them to invest in upgrade of technology and equipment.
According to records obtained from the Ector County District Attorney’s Office through Texas Public Information Law, the Odessa Police Department completed 90% of the seizure, collecting $1.18 million. The Ector County Sheriff’s Office seized just under $81,000 and the DPS recovered just over $48,000 during this three-year period.
According to Texas state laws, law enforcement officers are authorized to seize money and property that they believe to be the ill-gotten gains of criminal activity. Ector County District Attorney Dusty Gallivan is then required to file a civil forfeiture action in district court, giving the money and owners the opportunity to refute the money and property are the result of illegal activities.
“We never have hearings on these cases because they usually don’t come forward,” Gallivan said.
Seizing property and money and filing forfeiture proceedings has sparked controversy in other jurisdictions, but Gallivan said he would not pursue forfeiture action unless criminal charges were brought. been brought against the defendant or his office is about to pursue a criminal case.
“Legally, there’s no need for there to be a conviction,” Gallivan said. “My policy is that we will not seize any funds or property unless there is an associated criminal matter. The case may not have been solved yet, but they’ve been charged with something, whether it’s in the state system or the federal system, because sometimes you’ll have drug cases where they’ll seize drugs. money, but it’s not the amount that the feds want to deal with, but the drugs were high enough that the feds want it. So the criminal case becomes federal and we take the forfeiture action.
It is only fair to testify when there is a criminal case, he said.
“I can’t break into your house and steal your TV and then when they arrest me for it, keep your TV. So, I mean, it’s the same with any other crime, but not all prosecutors have that philosophy,” he said. “I can’t speak for everyone across the state. That’s how we do it here. »
According to records, law enforcement has also seized vehicles, televisions, drones, power tools and a soundbar in recent years. OPD records show that a few of the vehicles were kept for use by undercover agents, the rest of the property was auctioned off.
Records show that while the vast majority of seizures are drug-related, this is not necessarily the case when it comes to the percentage of money seized.
In 2019, 51% of the money seized by the OPD was linked to just two cases of illegal gambling. The other 16 cases filed concerned drugs.
In 2020, 34 drug cases were filed by the OPD and one was a money laundering case in which nearly $44,000 was seized. Overall, OPD seized $609,428 that year.
In 2021, 50 forfeiture cases involving OPD were filed and approximately 30% of the $421,589 seized was related to five illegal gambling cases. Seven of the 50 cases were for theft and the rest were for drugs, records show.
About $84,000 was seized in a catalytic converter theft case and nearly $35,000 was seized from two people accused of illegally selling buyer’s tags, which are temporary registration tags for vehicles motorized. In a third case, more than $18,000 was seized from a man accused of selling catalytic converters and drugs, records show.
Proving that their possessions and money are not ill-gotten gains can be somewhat difficult, Gallivan said.
“It depends. We had people, gambling halls, who were just employees and the cops seized money from their purse, for example. Well, we returned that money because , obviously, in my opinion, it was not a product, even if it is their salary and it came indirectly from the illegal products. They did not earn it illegally. They earned it in the part of their salary, so we returned that money,” Gallivan said.
Gallivan said he doesn’t believe the fact that gambling sting operations typically result in large cash seizures has motivated law enforcement to carry out such operations.
“But you know, with any criminal enterprise, that’s the quickest way to try to stop them. You run after their money. If they can’t make money or keep money, they won’t stay in business,” Gallivan said.
There are strict rules on how law enforcement can spend the money they seize or obtain after seized property is auctioned off, Gallivan said.
His office, which receives a percentage of the seized money but no percentage of the auction proceeds, uses it for technology upgrades, Surface laptops and training, he said.
“We use it to keep our computers up to date and we have Surfaces. Due to COVID, we need to be able to work from home and that’s where Surfaces comes in. We currently have two employees who are remote and we’ve actually just hired two more who will be remote so that they only have Surfaces,” Gallivan said.
Records obtained from the OPD through TPIA requests show that the department also used its seizure money for technology.
“There are a very limited number of things you can actually use these funds for,” OPD chief Mike Gerke said. “You can’t use it to build a new building. I can’t fly to Mexico for a vacation. None of those things. It’s just equipment. »
Gerke is a firm believer in intelligence-led policing, which translates to deploying police to areas where data shows crimes are occurring. In recent years, the department has invested in drones, incident management cameras that are monitored at the city’s real-time intelligence center, Flock security cameras that read license plates, and CloudGavel, which is an electronic warrant system that allows officers and judges to create, review and process arrest and search warrants in the field.
Asked about the extent of the drug problem in Odessa, Gerke said we are no different from other communities.
“I would say like any other community in the United States, there are drug dealers in Odessa and we are targeting those guys. It’s part of our intelligence-led policing strategy, because it’s all connected, right? So drug dealers and violent crime and property crime, the vast majority of these things are interrelated,” Gerke said. “So the strategy is to use any means, legally, to keep people who are causing social harm away from our community. So if that means we know someone who is potentially violent and we can do a narcotics deal against him, then we would go that route. Are there cartel ties in Odessa? I would say there are probably cartel ties in any community in Texas.
The most common drug in Odessa is currently methamphetamine, followed by marijuana, Gerke said. Most cases are prosecuted in the federal court system, he said.
The OPD narcotics unit is made up of a sergeant and six investigators, but thanks to CloudGavel, patrol officers now also play a role in narcotics investigations, Gerke said.
“We really changed the role of patrol when we moved to intelligence-based policing, so we gave them a lot more power,” Gerke said. “The job of a patrol officer is not just to move around, write a few tickets and write reports. We actually have patrol officers who get (arrest) warrants and search warrants and that sort of thing on stolen property and sometimes narcotics.