Stop Asset Piracy

One of the ways the War on Drugs has frayed civil liberties in the United States is in the expansion of civil asset forfeiture scams run by law enforcement authorities. In their zeal to stop the drug trade, police are empowered to seize cash, cars, homes, computers and other assets which they believe might be used in illegal commerce. They do not need to submit to the niceties of a court hearing. They do not even need evidence that the seized assets actually had any connection to drug trade. The police can seize cash from people who fit their "profile" of a drug dealer, even if they do not find any drugs on the suspect. Only about 20% of these suspects are even charged with a crime, but to reclaim the assets, they have to post a bond and prove in court that the money or other assets was not connected with drugs or other illegal trade.

This is big business: The U.S. Justice Department's Assets Forfeiture Fund received $338 million in 1996, the last year for which statistics are available, and state and local agencies have seized hundreds of millions of dollars worth of assets since the mid-1980s. And asset forfeiture is not limited to drug cases. Federal agents can now seize property under 200 different statutes, and local governments have started seizing cars of people suspected of such misdemeanors as soliciting prostitution and driving while intoxicated. Many local law enforcement agencies have come to rely on seized assets to help finance their activities and to limit their accountability to city councils and county governments.

One of those who ran afoul of asset forfeiture was Willie Jones, a landscaper who was waiting to board a flight from Nashville to Houston in February 1991 when he was stopped by police who were alerted because he was a black man who had paid cash for his airline ticket. When Jones was found to be carrying $9,600 in cash, which he planned to use to buy landscape materials in Houston, the police seized the money, reasoning that it must have been the proceeds from a drug transaction, although he had no criminal record.

The police let Jones go but they kept the money. It took more than two years before a federal judge ordered Jones' money returned.

There are numerous other examples of black and Hispanic travellers being victimized. "Racial profiling on our nation's roads and at our airports is an increasingly well-chronicled problem," said Rachel King, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. But you don't have to be a minority to run afoul of asset forfeiture pirates. The ACLU has compiled a list of asset forfeiture abuses (available on the Internet at www.aclu.org). It includes:

* Anchorage, Alaska -- Kip Baker was staying at a friend's home when federal agents showed up at the door and informed him that his friend was involved in a marijuana-growing network and the government was taking the house and its contents. Baker was never charged with a crime. However, agents seized his ivory collection, the heirloom diamond ring off his finger, and the gold nugget from around his neck. He was informed that federal law required him to prove they were acquired legitimately. After a year and a half of fighting bureaucracies, a federal prosecutor informed him that the government had sold his possessions.

* Malibu, California -- Donald Scott, a 61-year-old millionaire who owned a 200-acre ranch was shot and killed on October 2, 1992, by federal agents who had burst into his home to serve a warrant to search his ranch for evidence of marijuana cultivation. After a lengthy investigation, Ventura County District Attorney Michael Bradbury concluded that the slight evidence of marijuana cultivation given to the judge in support of the warrant contained misstatements and omissions which invalidated the warrant. Ironically, it was later revealed that Scott was "fanatically antidrug." The District Attorney issued a statement concluding that law enforcement had been interested in the value of the ranch because they were motivated by a desire to forfeit the property. The U.S. Park Service, who also took part in the raid at Scott's home, had been pressuring Scott to sell his ranch to add the land to the adjacent Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, but Scott had repeatedly refused offers for as much as $5 million dollars.

* South Dakota -- Gary and Kathy Bergman had their home seized after a houseguest was found with marijuana. After a three hour search of the house, federal agents found a trace of pot and a marijuana butt in a car outside belonging to the Bergmans' daughter. Even though neither of the Bergmans was charged with a federal crime (Gary pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor state charge) the federal government seized the entire house as the presumed tainted property of a drug ring. The Bergmans have been allowed to stay there under an occupancy agreement. However, their front and back doors post signs stating, "No trespassing by order of U.S. Marshall."

* South Houston, Texas -- The Red Carpet Inn was seized by federal agents in February 1998 after patrons were accused of drug trafficking. Although prosecutors admitted the government was not accusing the motel owners of participating in illegal activity and, in fact, motel personnel called police to the establishment dozens of times to report suspected drug-related activity, the government claimed the hotel deserved to be seized because management had "failed" to implement all of the "security measures" dictated by law enforcement officials, such as raising room rates to discourage drug traffickers.

* Washington D.C. -- A 72-year-old woman's home was seized by FBI agents and D.C. police officers when her nephew, who was staying there overnight, was suspected and later charged with drug dealing. More than 15 FBI agents, armed with what appeared to be automatic weapons, placed the nephew under arrest and began searching the house. After handcuffing the woman, they took all of her televisions, VCRs, family photos, personal papers, and an automobile. It took 12 police officers to tear the built-in television set out of the wall. One of the police officers was caught on camera saying: "How do you like your new house?" The warrant was based on an informant's claim that he made a drug deal with the nephew on the front porch years earlier.

U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is sponsoring HR 1658, which would drastically reform the unfair practice of civil asset forfeiture in the United States. Co-sponsors include John Conyers, D-Mich., Bob Barr, R-Georgia, and Barney Frank, D-Mass. The Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act would force the government to prove that seized property is related to a crime, protect owners of property used by someone else to commit a crime, and remove the requirement that property owners post a bond to contest the seizure in court. The bill does not eliminate civil asset forfeiture, but it's a step in the right direction.

This is the third time Hyde has filed such a bill. In 1997 a version of Hyde's bill got out of the Judiciary Committee, but only after Drug War enthusiasts transformed it so that it actually expanded the government's authority to seize property even when there was no probable cause to believe the property was forfeitable.

Strike a blow for the embattled Fourth and Fifth Amendments, which in plain English protects against "unreasonable searches and seizures" and states that no person shall be "deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." Contact your Congress member, particularly if he or she is on Judiciary, and urge support of a clean version of HR 1658.

While the House Republican leadership continues to stall the Shays-Meehan bill, which would enact modest campaign finance reforms, Sen. Paul Wellstone, DFL-Minn., has reintroduced the "Clean Money, Clean Elections" bill that would provide public financing for candidates who voluntarily forgo private contributions and agree to strict spending limits. Similar legislation has been enacted at the state level through ballot initiatives in Arizona, Maine and Massachusetts while Vermont passed it through the state legislature. Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., is the House sponsor. Make sure your congressional rep signs on to the "gold standard" of campaign finance reform. -- Jim Cullen

-- Jim

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