Wayne Bonam jumped up, blinded by a flash-bang grenade, as police swarmed through the door and pointed guns at his head. His girlfriend, next to him, shouted at the cops: “Hey, wait – he has a bad heart!”
Wayne, 41, was indeed ill. More than a decade of heart problems left him with a fragile cardiovascular system, and the smoke from the grenade thrown into his home by police did not help. He would never recover after the September 2015 raid, which was carried out by 22nd Judicial Circuit Drug Task Force agents in the small South Alabama town of Andalusia. Coughing up blood, Wayne Bonam was hospitalized weeks later. He died the following November.
Wayne’s death was already a tragedy. But, for his family, it was only compounded by what police and prosecutors did next.
Yes, they took the family home. The police did apparently find some cocaine and about $18,000 in cash in the house. But they never proved the family had anything to do with the drugs, or that the home was bought with drugs. They didn’t need to. They needed only to allege the most spurious of connections, and finding the drugs and the house was more than enough. The family hired an attorney with their life insurance money to try to keep the house. They lost. Then this happened:
This past August, the house fetched $76,000 at auction. Together with Wayne’s cash, the seized property was worth $94,282. On Oct. 12, everyone who had a hand in the forfeiture got a cut. The cash-strapped drug task force received $74,612. The prosecutor’s office walked away with $18,653. Even the court overseeing the proceedings collected $1,017.
That’s right. The court that was supposed to be neutral and fair in all of this got a cut of the proceeds. Had the family won, the court would have received nothing. Does that sound rigged? It ought to.
Then there’s the matter of that anti-drug task force. These task forces exist all over the country, and most were started with federal funds. But then the federal government started cutting funding. Like most government entities, the task forces weren’t just going to go away. Instead, they funded their continued existence with, you guessed it, civil asset forfeiture. That means taking houses from families.
By 2013, though, the county commission’s Byrne funding was already falling from year to year. The drug task force, in turn, saw less and less financial support. ADECA’s grants to the county, which at their highest totaled $273,366 in fiscal year 2008, dropped to $56,601 in fiscal year 2015 and have continued to decline since then. Regardless, county officials were reluctant to shutter the task force or fold it into the drug agency in the nearby city of Dothan.
Asset forfeitures helped to plug the funding holes.
In 2011, when the county commission received $132,172 in DOJ grant money through ADECA, prosecutors filed zero asset forfeiture cases, according to court records. In 2013, after the size of the grant from ADECA fell to $81,710 – from $115,949 the previous year – prosecutors brought 13 forfeiture cases based on task force operations. A judge awarded most of the proceeds to prosecutors and the task force itself. The drug agents cracked down on people buying and selling marijuana, seizing more than $19,000 in cash, three vehicles and five guns. In a prelude to Wayne Bonam’s case, they also took one parcel of land.
By 2015, the result in Covington County was a Frankenstein’s monster of a task force, cobbled together with resources from different agencies, addicted to drug money and in need of more.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is from Alabama. If you’re wondering why he’s fighting like hell to preserve civil asset forfeiture, even as his own allies come out against it, this is probably a good clue. He comes from a state where it’s a major source of funding — for cops, for prosecutors and (to a lesser extent) for the courts.