Following bust, what happens to seized drugs and money?

Captain Wayne Robertson, commander over the West Alabama Narcotics Task Force, talks about what happens to narcotics and its accessories when they are seized from suspects.

By Miranda Fulmore
Contributing Writer

TUSCALOOSA – In 2014, the West Alabama Narcotics Task Force dealt with 3,121 cases involving narcotics.

The task force is responsible for receiving narcotics from five departments in Tuscaloosa County: The Tuscaloosa Police Department, Northport Police Department, Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Office, Tuscaloosa District Attorney’s Office and The University of Alabama.

“We deal mostly with marijuana,” said Captain Wayne Robertson, Commander of the West Alabama Narcotics Task Force. “Being a college town, we are going to see more of marijuana than we’ll see of anything.”

According to Robertson, the majority of drugs are seized at traffic stops and sent to the headquarters of the task force located at the Tuscaloosa Police Department. The narcotics then go through a chain of custody that chronologically documents the seizure and the custody of the drugs. After being documented, the drugs are then transferred to The Alabama Department of Forensic Science in Birmingham, Alabama, where they are tested.

“We can’t go to court unless… a chemist comes in and says that was actually marijuana or those were actually pills,” Robertson said.

After the drugs are tested, they are brought back to Tuscaloosa as evidence for the court hearing. However, if a defendant pleads guilty, the evidence is stored in a highly secured room that can be only be accessed by two people, one of them being Robertson.

The room is lined with 12 double-sided rolling book shelves containing narcotics dating back to 2010. The drugs are kept for up to five years or until the case is closed. After the case is closed the drugs are brought to a local steel facility, lit on fire and destroyed.

“It and all of it – evidence, paraphernalia, anything that was with it – is destroyed,” Robertson said. “We don’t put it back on the street or anything.”

However, drugs are not the only items that the task force seizes. When involved in a narcotics cases, the department is also responsible for seizing vehicles, weapons and drug money. The seized items are handed over to the state, but are sometimes awarded back to the department. Robertson explained that the department uses the awarded drug money to buy multiple items including the department’s cars, equipment and drugs for undercover informants.

“Everything in this office besides the salaries is used by confiscated money and things like that. We do good stuff with it,” Robertson said. “It could cost the tax payers a lot more money, but by us being able to seize some of these things, and the court system awarding us these things it allows us to do our job a lot better.”

However, a portion of the awarded drug money is spent by paying informants. There are several types of informants that work for the department. They range from undercover agents that are not addicted to drugs to concerned citizens in the community who call often to give them tips.

“A big part of our budget comes from paying them, but it’s worth it,” Robertson said.

However, the department does not pay all of its informants. Some of their informants are arrested drug users who cooperate with the department by helping them catch drug dealers in exchange for a lesser sentence.

“We have to start at street level, and what we do is we give people an opportunity to help themselves, and not only help themselves but to help the community… and by arresting a user or someone who’s addicted to drugs that’s not solving the problem, so we do give these people opportunities in the court system,” Robertson said.

Not everyone arrested is given the opportunity to participate as an informant. That decision is based on the suspect’s criminal history, mental stability and only given to suspects with drug offenses.

Robertson explained that they choose to spend the awarded drug money to pay for better equipment and informants in hopes that they will accomplish their main goal of stopping the flow of drugs from coming into the community.

“One thing I do believe strongly and a lot of people don’t, and I’m not ashamed to say it. I’ve said it openly before. I still think marijuana is a gateway drug,” he said. “I’ll say this, that I’ve never been to a heroin overdose and not seen any signs of marijuana.”