10/11 Investigates What Happens to Cars & Cash After a Drug Bust

You've likely heard about busts on Interstate 80 involving cash and drugs. Now 10/11 investigates what happens to the money and cars, after the bust is over.

It's a process that can take months, even years to complete, but once the US Marshals Service seizes property Nebraska, the money goes right back into fighting crime in local communities.

It's the end of a criminal career for SUV's seized by the US Marshals Service and now being auctioned off in Omaha.

Chris Newton is the US Marshals Service Asset Forfeiture Coordinator for Nebraska's District. She told 10/11, "They are cleaned up, if they have a hidden compartment, the hidden compartments are repaired, there are days that the public can view them, and they're ran through an auction."

Auctioning the vehicles is the very last step in closing the book on a case. The seized vehicle must first go through the court system if it was part of a criminal case. Once that case is closed and it's no longer considered evidence, the accused still have a chance to get the property back.

Newton said, "If the owner of the car can prove that he bought the car without bad drug money, that he bought it with actual work money he earned, then there's a chance he could get it back.

But if not, then it all belongs to the authorities. Seized money comes to Newton in the form of a check or money order. Newton said she then deposits it into a holding account, and it sits in that holding account until it's been forfeited. After it's officially forfeited, the money is transferred into the asset forfeiture fund to be split up. Twenty percent stays in the asset forfeiture fund, while 80 percent is split up between the agencies who made the bust.

Data from the US Marshals Service shows in 2013, the Lincoln Police Department closed nine cases, getting $26,596 and a vehicle from the US Marshals. The Nebraska State Patrol had 74 cases totaling $1,125,149 and the Lancaster County Attorney's Office handled 14 cases and received $89,500 from the US Marshals.

Cars aren't the only thing Newton sees come through her office, "It could be jewelry, coins, electronic, recording equipment, computers cameras."

Newton said it depends on the city of what the US Marshals see most. San Diego and Florida it's boats, Las Vegas even had a strip club seized, but in Nebraska with I-80 running through the state, cars and cash are king.

"It's a major thoroughfare and I would imagine with Colorado and marijuana, we're going to see more of it."

The Lincoln-Lancaster County Narcotics Task Force deals with drug investigations on a daily basis. Lincoln Police Chief Jim Peschong said it's made up of officers from LPD, a deputy from the Lancaster County Sheriff's Office, a UNL Police Officer and a member of the FBI Safe Streets Team. Chief Peschong said over the years the unit's seen cases increase, while federal grant money's decreased--meaning money from the US Marshals is important.

Chief Peschong told 10/11, "Any asset forfeiture money that the Lincoln Lancaster County Narcotics Task Force generates, goes back into supplementing and furthering their investigative efforts." He added, "Whether or not it's surveillance camera equipment, body wires, camera in general, buy money to buy narcotics, vehicles."

Money sharing after a drug bust, isn't limited to the US Marshals Service. The Department of Homeland Security has a similar program the Lancaster County Sheriff's Office goes through. Sheriff Terry Wagner says it works the same way, with the goal to stop criminals.

Sheriff Terry Wagner said, "We've had very good success in furthering the investigations at the source of the money and at the source of the drugs. So our goal is to find out where the money is coming from on one end and find out where the dope is coming from on the other end, and get both stopped."

In January 2014, deputies may have found the one of sources, making a $934,000 cash bust on I-80.

Wagner said because they just switched to the Department of Homeland Security's Asset Forfeiture Program, LSO hasn't seen any dollars come back to them--but he says it will come as cases are wrapped up.