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Report: Missouri police wrongly kept millions in seized money

ST. LOUIS | A newspaper report says St. Louis police wrongly kept millions of dollars in money seized from suspects and earned interest on that money.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Thursday that police disregarded laws requiring that money seized from a suspect be returned to its owner, used for back child support or forfeited to a state school fund. The newspaper said police amassed up to $6 million.

The revelation came during questioning from a Post-Dispatch reporter following a police board meeting. Commissioners voted 5-0 to spend $188,000 to cover improper spending from interest the department had earned on the funds.

Officials said the problem was uncovered during an audit last year.

The department said it is returning the money, with interest, to its owners.

Police spokeswoman Erica Van Ross said the department's new chief, Dan Isom, has made improved management of the department one of his top priorities. She said the news out of the board meeting was part of his effort to be "open and transparent" with the residents of St. Louis.

Earlier this year, a Post-Dispatch investigation found that police routinely seized cars from suspects and sent the vehicles to a private tow lot holding a lucrative contract. The FBI and IRS continue to investigate the department's ties to the lot, which provided freebies and deep discounts of cars to some officers and the daughter of Joe Mokwa, who was the chief at the time. He retired under pressure in July after the revelations.

The Post-Dispatch later found that the lot had not paid $700,000 owed to taxpayers, and police failed to act upon evidence in their own files. Gov. Matt Blunt called for a state audit, which is ongoing.

Defense attorneys said they have complained for years that the department kept their clients' money long after prosecutors had passed on the 14-day window to file formal seizure lawsuits. Such suits are rarely filed unless a substantial sum is at stake.

"It was a way to mess with who they considered to be bad people," defense lawyer David Stokely told the newspaper.

Board of Police Commissioners president Chris Goodson said the unpaid money was "a concern." But he said a department audit unit created last year had found and corrected the error.

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