Billings police turn to online auction service to sell unclaimed evidence, found property

Billings police turn to online auction service to sell unclaimed evidence, found property

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A little gray garden statue that was turned in to the Billings Police Department will soon be offered up for sale to bidders around the world.

The statue of a little girl clutching a flower will have plenty of company.

"You check out our site," said Josh Hyneman. "We've got just about everything."

Hyneman works for Property Room, a company that picks up unclaimed evidence and found property from police departments all over the country and then auctions them off online, splitting the proceeds with the agency.

Hyneman, a truck driver for Property Room, made a quick stop in Billings on Wednesday, visiting the Police Department's evidence building on Midland Road to pick up a load of unclaimed bicycles and some other odds and ends, including the garden statue.

The city contracted with Property Room last June, according to Deputy Police Chief Tim O'Connell. He said the department signed on with Property Room because it was offered $60,000 worth of evidence-processing software made by a company that partners with Property Room.

O'Connell said the department wanted the software but couldn't afford it. Under its contract with Property Room, the city's share of auction proceeds from the first five years goes to the software company.

If the department remits more than $60,000 before that term is up, it will start splitting auction proceeds with Property Room. If the $60,000 is not paid off in five years, the department will own the software anyway and will start receiving half the auction profits.

"It's a sweet deal for us," O'Connell said.

Whether or not the city makes much money from the auctions, O'Connell said, the new software frees up a lot of staff time, and clearing the goods out of the evidence building on a regular basis is also a great benefit.

"It's keeping our evidence building clean by not letting things pile up us," he said. "It allows people in evidence to concentrate on other things."

In the past, the department periodically contracted with local auction businesses to sell found property and unclaimed evidence. But the businesses would pick through the goods, taking only the stuff most likely to sell.

The department would then have a separate auction for the leftovers because nothing could be thrown away or given to charity unless it first was put up for sale. Property Room takes almost everything.

Exclusions include pornography, which the department can destroy, and seized drugs and drug paraphernalia, which can be destroyed. Guns, under state law, have to be sold by the department and the proceeds given to the city's general fund budget.

O'Connell said the department is sitting on about 200 seized guns at the moment and is trying to arrange an auction, which will probably be open only to licensed gun dealers.

Everything else — jewelery, electronics, clothing, tools, recreational equipment, artwork, collectibles — is sold at www.propertyroom.com.

The department does have to hold on to property for specific lengths of time before selling it. Found property can be sold if no one claims it within 90 days. Misdemeanor cases are reviewed after six months to determine whether evidence is returned, destroyed or sold. Non-violent felony cases are reviewed after 18 months and violent felonies after two years.

P.J. Bellomo, CEO of Property Room, said the business was founded in 1999 by Tom Lane, a former cop who understood the needs of law enforcement agencies.

"He knew what a silly thing it was to take a highly trained police officer and make him into a retail salesman," Bellomo said.

The business has since expanded to include other municipal departments as well as private companies, but the great majority of its clients are still police departments, including several others in Montana, Bellomo said.

Property Room is based in Maryland and has branches around the country, including warehouses in New York, Los Angeles and Orlando, Fla. Having those warehouses in very large cities, where buyers can pick up their purchases, makes it possible to sell items, such as inexpensive bicycles, that would cost too much to ship.

Although Property Room does make exceptions, nearly everything on its site has an opening bid of $1. Bellomo said the company has learned a lot since its founding, and one lesson is that the excitement of a wide-open auction usually yields higher bids than starting with a high opening price.

O'Connell said another benefit of working with Property Room is that every single item is accounted for electronically. With a few mouse clicks, he can document what was sold and how much it sold for, or whether the property was ultimately thrown out or given to a charitable organization.

"It's a very clean system," O'Connell said. "We can track everything."

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