I-Team Report: Legal Tender
August 15, 2012 (CHICAGO) (WLS) -- Two building blocks of American justice are 'innocent until proven guilty' and 'no unreasonable search and seizure.' But under federal forfeiture laws since 1985, the taking and selling of ill-gotten property has become a $6 billion business for federal authorities, and in certain cases things are sold long before the owner goes to trial.
The best example: a horse farm west of Chicago, now being operated by the federal government after it was seized from owner Rita Crundwell. She was arrested in April, charged with stealing more than $53 million from the city of Dixon where she was the longtime city comptroller.
"She is alleged to have used the proceeds of crime to fund her lavish lifestyle including becoming the leading breeder in the country of quarter horses," said Jason Wojdylo, U.S. Marshal Service.
Those horses were aptly named Have Faith in Money, Sum for Me and Potential Fortune.
Faced with serious criminal charges, Crundwell agreed in a civil filing to forfeit her horses. Since then, the government has paid $200,000 a month in taxpayer funds to care for her 22 farms in 17 states. Crundwell's 400 horses will be auctioned next month.
"We all recognize in law enforcement that we can put people in jail all day every day, but you really pack a heavier punch when you take away their assets, when you take away the fruits of the crime," said Wojdylo.
From auction proceeds, taxpayers will be covered first and the balance will be held for restitution if Crundwell is convicted.
"It will be interesting to see if the civil forfeiture thing moves quickly so the city of Dixon does get some money back before anything happens with Ms. Crundwell," said Pravin Rao, attorney at Perkins Coie.
Rao, a former federal attorney now in private practice in Chicago, says forfeiture is a growingly popular tactic of prosecutors.
"By the time the government has seized property, they usually have amassed so much evidence that it's usually successful," said Rao.
Then there is Tom Piatek, charged three years ago in a violent militia plot to overthrow the government.
Piatek's guns, ammo and other property were seized from his Indiana home. In March, after he was acquitted, the feds returned some of his property but he says not all, including his dogs.
"I want my three German Shepherds back. They are still alive, I'm told they were. I want my property back, they were signed away, it was unauthorized. They whisked me away, my animals are gone, I want them back," said Piatek.
Authorities say Piatek's brother signed off on the animals being given to new owners but no one will tell Piatek -- or the I-Team -- where the dogs are citing "privacy" concerns.
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