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November 25, 2008
Drugs, money add up as seized off highway
RATON, New Mexico (STPNS) -- In the last 12 months, law enforcement agencies have seized almost 4,600 pounds of illegal drugs - with an estimated street value of more than $7.5 million - from alleged drug runners traveling through Colfax County on Interstate 25. In addition, more than $680,000 in suspected drug money has also been seized since last November.
New Mexico State Police and the state Motor Transportation Division account for the bulk of the drugs taken off the highway while the Colfax County Sheriff's Office has racked up a number of incidents in which no drugs were found, but large amounts of cash were seized based on enough evidence being found to believe the money was from the sale of illegal drugs.
The biggest amounts of drugs found during I-25 traffic stops in the past year were recorded by the Motor Transportation Division - with Officer John Valdez, who is based at the Raton Port of Entry north of the city, accounting for most or all of the seizures. The Department of Public Safety lists the following totals since November 2007: 3,392 pounds of marijuana with an estimated street value of more than $4 million, a kilo (about 2.2 pounds) of cocaine worth $16,383, and 39 pounds of heroin worth $468,000. In addition, $230,700 in suspected drug money has been seized from I-25 in Colfax County by the division.
According to law enforcement reports and court documents regarding drug and cash seizures, the drugs and money are often wrapped in some sort of plastic and duct tape and either stashed in a bag in the trunk or hidden within the vehicle, which often has been rented by someone other than the driver or any passenger in it when it is stopped by police. Officers have found packages of drugs or money hidden in places that include bumpers, interior paneling, and the air filter compartment of the engine.
The stashed drugs or cash are usually found after an officer has stopped the vehicle for a traffic violation, from speeding to following too closely to failing to stay in the proper lane. During the traffic stop, the officer may notice indicators that drugs may be in the vehicle or perhaps had been at another time recently. The indicators range from an abundance of air fresheners (to cover the drug odor) and the presence of energy drinks (to keep drivers awake for long non-stop drives) to a nervous - often shaking - driver and passengers, not enough luggage for the trip they claim to be on, and differing stories regarding their trip.
After noticing the indicators and completing the traffic citation or warning, an officer will tell the vehicle occupant or occupants they are free to go, but will then ask if they have anything illegal in the vehicle - the answer is generally no - and if he can search the vehicle. Most people agree to the search and at some point deny ownership of the drugs and money, and deny knowledge of whose it is.
Since November 2007, state police in Colfax County have discovered and seized, during I-25 traffic stops, 819 pounds of marijuana which they estimate has a street value of $777,955 and 73 pounds of cocaine with an estimated value of $1.45 million. In addition, three and a half pounds of heroine (estimated value of $100,000) were seized and three ounces of methamphetamine (estimated value of $3,000) were seized. State police estimated their finds of suspected drug money totaled less than $20,000 during the last year.
The Colfax County Sheriff's Office has had success at finding cash believed to be linked to illegal drug traffic. Deputies for that office have seized a total of $435,240 since last November. The actual drugs discovered during traffic stops in that period adds up to 248 pounds of marijuana and eight pounds of cocaine.
The money that is found in cases where the cash is not accompanied by drugs is turned over to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which handles the court proceedings necessary to complete forfeiture of the money. The sheriff's office gets 80 percent of the money - to be used for training and equipment - once the federal process is completed.
The federal forfeiture process does not require that someone be charged with a crime in order to have the money seized from them and forfeited.
State law does require a crime be charged in order to have money or other possessions forfeited to law enforcement. So when drugs are also found and criminal charges - drug trafficking usually - are filed as a result, suspected drug money is forfeited through state courts, which turn over 100 percent of the seized money to the local law enforcement agency.
The Colfax County commission last week set up a new budget line item for the sheriff's office in which to place the funds received from cash forfeitures. That fund will ensure those monies - limited in their use to training and equipment purchases - remain separate from the rest of the sheriff's budget.
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