Years ago, I wrote a nice, friendly story about how Southern sheriffs were confiscating drug dealer property (cars, cash, boats, houses, whatever) and using the money to convert their cop cars to run on clean propane.

Mike Phillips, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office in Iredell County, North Carolina, told me his department had confiscated $7 million in cash and $170 million in drugs since 1994, and added, “With the economy the way it is, budgets are restrained, so we might use some of that money to buy vehicles one year.”

I didn’t know the half of it.

Confiscation is big business, and exotic cars are one target. According to a PBS Frontline investigation, in 1999 alone the federal government took in nearly $1 billion in confiscated cars, boats, real-estate and more, sharing the wealth (since a 1984 ruling) with state and local law enforcement. With criminal forfeiture, the goods can only be taken after a conviction, but civil forfeiture is much more lenient — the cars and boats are actually accused of involvement in a crime, and are returned only if their innocence is proven.

Confiscated pill mill carsCars confiscated during a raid on a Florida pill mill. (Photo: U.S. Marshals Office)

Sometimes innocent people get snared, like poor Rudy Ramirez, who was arrested on his way to Missouri to look at a classic Corvette. The cops thought he was buying and selling drugs, so they confiscated $6,000 of the car-buying cash he had on him. Despite never being charged with a crime, he didn’t get any of it back.

But a lot of ‘em are guilty as charged, and boy do the police get some nice cars out of it. Cops in Indiana chased down a marijuana dealer named Clarence DeBerry and ended up auctioning off his extensive collection of muscle cars in 2009 — after he died in jail.

confiscated corvette zr-1This Corvette ZR1 was used as a drug mule, but now it's on the right side of the law. (Photo: Clayton County Sheriff's Office)

The coppers made off with 60 incredible cars, but auctioned only 28 of them, including a ’57 Chevy Bel Air convertible, hot Camaros and Mustangs, a Model T and much more. The bulk of the half million raised went to the Indiana State Police and the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office.

In Florida last year, Lake County sheriffs arrested 67 people and seized 23 cars. “We feel like we have delivered a major blow to the drug problem here in south Lake County,” said Sheriff Gary Borders. Definitely, and delivered a nice chunk of change to the departmental budget, too. The cars weren’t itemized, but I saw a couple of nice BMWs and a lot of motorcycles in the TV footage.

In the Atlanta area in 2012, the Clayton County Sheriff’s Department lucked out with a Corvette ZR1 (used as a drug mule, with coke hidden in the taillights). The department uses the ‘Vette as a public education car. “Donated by a Local Drug Dealer” is emblazoned on the back. The car “sends the message” that if you deal drugs “we’re gonna take your goods and put them to use in a law-enforcement purpose,” said spokesman Clarence Cox.

But the granddaddy of all drug car seizures must be a Broward County, Florida bust in 2011. The cars — caught on amateur video being put on police transporters — were rounded up in a raid on drug-dispensing “pain clinics.” Mouth-watering muscle cars (including a garishly painted Dodge Viper) are the video stars, but also taken were Ferraris, Lamborghinis, an Acura NSX, a Mercedes-Benz SLR, a McLaren Roadster and a Rolls-Royce convertible. Seventy cars in total were seized in the “pill mill” raid, and these were just some of them. Watch the tantalizing video:

Just one of the raided facilities reportedly dispensed 660,000 oxycodone pills in two years. That’s the same drug that just got Toyota PR chief Julie Hamp pushed out of the company — it’s illegal to bring into Japan.

The pill cars were sold off at Apple Auctioneering in Opa-Locka three years ago, with the proceeds going to the Department of Justice Assets Forfeiture Fund. The money went to “compensate victims, supplement law-enforcement and support community programs,” said CBS-TV in Miami.

A subset of this story could be about cars seized from rappers during arrests, because there's a rich history, but not all of those takedowns involve drugs. Let's keep it pure.

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Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

There's big money in confiscated drug cars
Muscle cars, exotics and classics are all part of the law enforcement haul.