More than $1 million seized in drug-related arrests has been used to outfit the state Department of Public Safety with two airplanes, a helicopter, bullet-proof vests and other crime-fighting equipment, lawmakers were told.
Much of the money was spent to protect troopers who stop suspected drug couriers along the state's lonely rural highways, state Public Safety Commissioner Doug Bodrero told members of an appropriations subcommittee."My greatest worry is that they're going to start taking out my officers," Bodrero said when asked whether he was concerned drug traffic - and the amount of money seized - would slow as word spread about the confiscations.
With the state's share of money seized jumping from a total of less than $58,000 in 1986 and 1987 to more than $1 million in 1988, Bodrero said he expects the amount collected from criminals to taper off.
Already, authorities have collected maps and other information from as far away as Colombia directing drug couriers to either bypass Utah entirely or avoid stopping during the drive through the state.
But if they don't heed the warnings, Bodrero said he believes the drug couriers will become more aggressive in protecting their shipments. He said a "chase car" was reportedly following a car stopped near Nephi last year.
While the Utah Highway Patrol trooper was searching the car, which was found to contain cocaine, Bodrero said people in the second car armed with automatic weapons decided to drive on only because of the heavy traffic and the proximity to a populated area.
Subcommittee members listened with interest to the account but still expressed concern about the department spending the confiscated money without legislative approval.
Last year, lawmakers turned down a request from the department for a new helicopter. But an Army surplus helicopter was purchased for thousands of dollars less and refurbished.
That was the example Rep. Stanley Smedley, R-Bountiful, used to explain why lawmakers should have a say in how the seized money is spent. He also referred to a law passed last session that he interpreted differently than Bodrero.
The law requires that any seized money exceeding $150,000 be returned to the state's general fund.
But while Smedley believes that means the state should have gotten more than $850,000 from the recent seizures, Bodrero said he understood it to mean that only whatever amount over $150,000 that he had not spent must be returned.
Legislative fiscal analyst Mark Bleazard proposed using money confiscated in the new budget year that begins July 1 to pay department overtime and for a computerized fingerprint search service.
The subcommittee, which has not yet approved the department budget, also appeared ready to consider a compromise that would allow lawmakers to approve a priority list and Bodrero to purchase the items on it as seized money becomes available.
***** (Chart) Department of Public Safety expenditures
of money seized from drug couriers:
-Two used airplanes --$216.000.
-Army surplus helicoper --$2,750.
-Bullet-proof vests --$122,000.
-Semi-automatic 9mm handguns for narcotics agents --$14,500.
-Weapons, gear, supplies and training for SWAT --$17,800.
-Safes for seized cash, drugs and evidence-- $4,200.
-Walkie-talkies for agents and troopers --$73,000.