Law enforcement just loves asset-forfeiture laws
other news ... the War on Drugs is ripping up the Constitution, endangering American liberty and encouraging law enforcement officers to act like bandits. The unpleasant ramifications of the War on Drugs are too numerous for one column, but the area of asset forfeiture deserves special consideration.
This entire practice is rapidly becoming worse and worse, causing more and more injustice, police lawlessness and distorted law enforcement priorities. This is one of those times when the right and the left can unite in opposition to government abuse. The American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association have opposed these practices. Rep. Barney Frank, the liberal Democrat, and Rep. Bob Barr, the conservative Republican, both support reform. The Wall Street Journal is as concerned as The Nation. Surely the property-rights people, who seem to consider the Endangered Species Act a threat to liberty, would like to join the ACLU on this one.
- On Oct. 2, 1992, a team of officers from the Los Angeles police, the Park Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Forest Service, the California National Guard and the California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement staged a raid on the home of Donald Scott, a 61-year-old rancher, near Malibu. Armed with high-powered weapons, flak jackets, a battering ram and a presumably legal search warrant, they kicked in the door and rushed through the house. Scott's wife began screaming; he went to her side with a gun and was shot to death before her eyes.
The officers found no marijuana plants, other drugs or paraphernalia. It turned out that Scott was bitterly opposed to all drug use.
According to The Nation magazine, a subsequent investigation revealed that there was no credible evidence of marijuana cultivation on Scott's ranch, that the Sheriff's Department had knowingly sought the search warrant on legally insufficient information, and that much of the information supporting the warrant was false, while exculpatory evidence was withheld from the judge. As they invaded the property, the officers -- with two forfeiture specialists in tow -- had a property appraisal of Scott's $5 million ranch and instructions to seize the ranch if 14 marijuana plants were found.
- In a much-noted case, a Detroit woman had her car seized after her husband was found using it to dally with a prostitute. The Supreme Court upheld the forfeiture, even though the woman was clearly not involved in her husband's illegal activity.
- A 72-year-old grandmother in Washington, D.C., lost her home after letting a nephew, who was suspected of drug dealing, stay there overnight.
- The owner of an air-charter business in Las Vegas lost his livelihood when he unknowingly chartered a plane to a drug dealer.
- Several years ago, NBC's "Dateline" did a prize-winning expose of the practice of Louisiana sheriff's deputies stopping motorists with little or no cause and seizing cars and cash under the state's forfeiture laws. The deputies started a slush fund with the money. According to "Dateline," deputies used the fund to pay for a ski trip, pizza and doughnuts; thousands of dollars were unaccounted for.
According to the Wisconsin State Journal, all this started in 1984, when Congress passed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act, which allowed drug money and "drug-related assets" to be funneled into the police agencies that seize them. Between 1985 and 1991, the Justice Department collected more than $1.5 billion in illegal assets; in the next five years, it almost doubled this intake, according to a report by The Nation. Local law enforcement agencies fight to "federalize" their drug busts because if a U.S. attorney "adopts" a forfeiture, 80 percent of the assets are returned to local police, whereas under many state laws, forfeited assets go to school funds, libraries, drug education or other programs. According to The Nation, some small-town police forces have increased their budgets by a factor of five or more through seizing assets.
This is also deforming the efforts to control drugs; police forces can get far more money by busting small-time marijuana buyers in reverse stings (where the cops sell drugs to unsuspecting customers) and then seizing their assets than they can by, say, going after major methamphetamine dealers who work on street corners.
The political problem is that we have created a monster. Law enforcement just loves asset-forfeiture laws; agencies have practically become self-financing through these abuses. And when the coppers of the nation stand in unison and say, "We need this for law 'n' order," mighty few politicians are willing to go against them. (Envision the ads in their re-election campaigns: "My opponent sided with the drug dealers and against the police officers of our fair state.")
The only way to get the politicians to undo what they have done is to build public pressure to stop this outrageous practice. Take pen in hand ...
© Creators Syndicate
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December 31, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor)
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