In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: In Sunrise, drug busts are all about the cash

Sunrise, since the days of flamboyant Mayor John Lomelo, has been known as a suburban town with outsized ambitions, annexing huge tracts of neighboring land, building a performing arts center it couldn’t afford, exploiting a giant retail maze called Sawgrass Mills as a tourist attraction, convincing the Broward County Commission to build a hockey arena at the very edge of the Everglades.

Perhaps the city’s unlikely new status as an illicit drug hub is just another symptom of overwrought ambitions. Except this particular scheme makes $2 million to $4 million a year for the city, or at least for a semi-autonomous unit of the Sunrise Police Department.

The Sunrise Vice, Intelligence & Narcotics Division, exploiting civil forfeiture laws, has gorged itself with money and property seized from would-be drug dealers. No small chunk of the stunning profits from this undercover enterprise goes toward overtime for squad members.

Megan O’Matz and John Maines, in an investigative piece this week in the Sun-Sentinel, looked at payroll records and discovered that the squad’s dozen officers were paid in $1.2 million in overtime atop their regular pay since 2010. The sergeant who ran the oh-so-profitable drug stings made $240,000 in extra pay.

Once a suspect has been implicated in a drug deal, cops can seize his money, cars and other property under the loose rules of civil forfeiture. No conviction necessary.

The flaw in the squad’s business plan, of course, is that Sunrise is no Miami or New York or Chicago with a significant pool of local drug dealers to exploit. So undercover cops coax criminals to come to Sunrise with promises of bargain cocaine. The Sun-Sentinel reported that four out five targets of the forfeitures come from another county, often from another state.

The most enticing lure, apparently, has been a confidential informant, described as “beautiful, buxom brunette,” who is paid like a salesman on commission for the dealers she brings to town. The sexy CI has earned more than $800,000.

The Sunrise story was reminiscent of a report in the Miami Herald last year about an even more outrageous forfeiture racket run by the Bal Harbour police. Rather than enticing drug dealers to Bal Harbour, undercover Bal Harbour cops sought them out in places like Las Vegas, Chicago, Phoenix and Los Angeles.

The Herald’s Dan Chang and Michael Sallah reported that in a single month, undercover Bal Harbour cops spent $23,704 on first-class tickets, luxury car rentals and fancy hotels.

Before the Justice Department finally intervened last year, tiny Bal Harbour, population about 3,300, was pulling in more forfeiture money than any other police agency in the state, spending it wildly on parties and pricey equipment that would be the envy of a major police agency. Chang and Sallah reported that in 2010 alone, village police seized $8.2 million from drug suspects, all outside Florida, “without law enforcement agents making a single arrest.”

Of course, none of this has been about arresting criminals. It’s all about the money.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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