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‘More difficult’ to seize assets

December 18, 2018

KANKAKEE — Kankakee County’s top prosecutor says local law enforcement is careful how it exercises its power to seize assets in drug cases.

At a Kankakee County Board oversight committee meeting earlier this month, State’s Attorney Jim Rowe said a new state law has further restricted the use of civil asset forfeiture.

“It’s more difficult to seize assets. The burden of proof is higher,” Rowe told the committee. “We’re not out there to take grandma’s car. If she is letting her grandson take the car and sell drugs out of it, we’re taking it.”

One of the biggest changes in the law was the shifting of the burden of proof from the property owner to the government. Before, the owner had to prove that cash was not illegally gained. Now, the government must show it is entitled to the money.

However, law enforcement still can seize assets when no one is convicted.

Two-thirds of the money in forfeiture cases goes to the law enforcement agencies responsible for the seizures. The rest goes to other agencies, including 12.5 percent for the state’s attorney in the county where the money was seized.

The concept behind forfeitures, Rowe said, is that drug dealers, not taxpayers, pay for law enforcement’s anti-drug efforts. “I don’t have a problem with that,” he said.

In nearby La Salle County, longtime former State’s Attorney Brian Towne was indicted last year on charges he misspent forfeiture money on such things as Las Vegas trips. The money came as a result of a special patrol unit that Towne formed to stop people on Interstate 80 for the stated purpose of combating drug trafficking.

A 2016 Ottawa Times investigation found that in most cases, the unit’s officers seized cash but never arrested drivers, letting them continue down the highway, never to be charged. Towne’s case is pending.

Also at the recent county criminal justice committee meeting:

• County Board member Elisabeth Dunbar, D-Kankakee, said she recently was called for jury duty for the first time in her life. She was passed over as a juror.

“I had a really positive experience with Mr. Rowe’s office and (Circuit Clerk) Sandy Cianci’s office,” she said. “Unfortunately, the defense didn’t feel I was appropriate.”

“You vote on our budget. You need to know that it wasn’t the state,” Rowe joked.

• Board member Tinker Parker, R-St. Anne, asked Rowe whether he could provide numbers to see if there was an increase in felonies from 2017 to 2018.

Rowe said he could, but cautioned members to consider factors that led to changes in the number of felony cases filed. From 2016 to 2017, the number of filed felony cases jumped 35 percent or 40 percent. But that didn’t correlate to an increase in crime, he said.

“We had about the same number of cases come into our office. It’s how many we are filing. We are doing things differently. We’re working more closely with investigating officers to put the cases in a position to file,” Rowe said.

Rowe took office Dec. 1, 2016.

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