A Houlton Police Department cruiser is seen on Jan. 24. Credit: Courtesy of Timothy DeLuca

HOULTON, Maine — Tough local drug enforcement has netted an Aroostook County police department some of the highest court-ordered awards of confiscated illegal drug money in the state.

In the past six months, the Houlton Police Department, a town of about 5,000, received seized drug money nearly equal to what Maine State Police got in the same amount of time in 2022. This does not include funds obtained through Maine Drug Enforcement Agency arrests. Houlton received about $38,000, and state police $42,000.

Officials credited new policing techniques and a rise in drug trafficking across Aroostook County with the increase.

“There may be nothing particularly unique about Houlton except that they are the last exit on I-95 North; and the I-95 corridor from Florida to Maine is a well-used and well-known drug trafficking stream of commerce,” Aroostook County District Attorney Todd Collins said.

When firearms or money are seized during an arrest, they are logged into an evidence vault in the police station where they remain, except for lab testing or trial, until the case is closed.

The court determines the redistribution of this property. Sometimes a portion is returned to the defendant, to a victim and to the police department, which receives the money after municipal leaders vote approval.

From September to February, the Houlton Police Department had already received about $40,000, which was twice as much as in 2020 and nearly as much as it did in all of 2021.

Presque Isle, about 55 miles north of Houlton, also saw a dramatic increase in asset forfeitures — in 2021 forfeitures totaled $10,508, and in 2022, $58,074, according to City Manager Martin Puckett.

The Houlton department’s approach to getting drugs off the street is what Police Chief Tim DeLuca calls “boots-on-the-ground policing.”

This means officers are trained in drug detection in the community. Specific details about policing tactics are confidential, DeLuca said, but added that many arrests come from traffic stops.

Records describing police techniques are confidential in Maine, according to The Reporter’s Committee of Freedom of the Press.

In the past three years, the Houlton Police Department made 42 drug-related arrests from traffic stops. For the first two months of this year, there were nearly as many drug-related arrests as in all of 2021. DeLuca said that stops in 2021 were reduced because of the COVID-19 pandemic, when vehicle registration and inspection expirations were extended to limit the risk of exposure.

When an officer stops a vehicle on a traffic violation — such as swerving off the road or having a burned-out taillight or an expired registration — drugs, large amounts of cash, guns or other illegal items must be in plain sight or the officer must have good reason before searching a vehicle and seizing those items.

There have been many cases around the country where an officer searched a vehicle without cause, which is the crux of the problem with asset seizure from traffic stops, said Keith Taylor, assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. Taylor was a New York Police Department undercover narcotics detective and the assistant police commissioner prior to his retirement.

“Sometimes police officers skirt around the legality of stops and then find a way to justify it,” Taylor said. “It is important how the officers document the stops.”

In Maine there are cases where law enforcement officers searched vehicles illegally and prosecutors were forced to dismiss the cases, according to court records. DeLuca said his Houlton officers are carefully trained to establish probable cause.

aroostook drug distribution conspiracy

“There is a system of checks and balances, and we work within the parameters of the law,” DeLuca said.

Last month the Houlton Town Council approved the release of $16,106 in confiscated drug money to the police department from a 2021 case in which police seized 50 grams of methamphetamine and more than $18,000 in cash.

Last August, the Houlton Town Council approved the release of $20,681 in asset forfeiture funds related to Andrew Adams of Bangor, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine and fentanyl, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maine.

Adams was arrested in Houlton in September 2020 along with two others. At the time of the arrest, Houlton police confiscated more than 100 grams of suspected methamphetamine, more than 250 grams of suspected fentanyl and more than $20,000 in cash, according to police.

While the police department has not earmarked the most recently released funds, DeLuca said the department is considering several options including upgrading the police department break room, upgrading the dispatch center, uniforms, starting a citizens police academy or a volunteers in police services program.

Previously, forfeiture funds have been used for cruiser equipment; upgraded chairs in the dispatch center; computer equipment and monitors at the police station; tokens for the department’s “Sweet Treats for Kind Feats” program, given by officers to youths for doing kind acts in the community and Halloween glow sticks and candy for youths.

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Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli

Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli is a reporter covering the Houlton area. Over the years, she has covered crime, investigations, health, politics and local government, writing for the Washington Post, the LA...