18. FEDERAL SEIZURE LAWS: MAKING CRIME PAY
Since the mid-1980s it has become common practice, for law enforcement
agencies to seize property believed to be used or purchased by suspected
drug dealers or users. Federal and state asset forfeiture laws have
generated millions of dollars in seized drug cash -- plus booty such
as cars, homes, planes and boats -- which have been turned over to local
law enforcement agencies. As a result, the laws, perversely, have made
police departments financially dependent on the drug dealing they are
supposed to curtail. Lt. Michael Post, who heads the Glendale (California)
Police Department's narcotics unit says that he has seen evidence of
other police departments "under pressure to be revenue producers,"
to the point where they use shortcuts to seize drug cash but do not
follow up on their investigations in an effort to arrest the dealers.
And while most officials deny it, the seizure laws certainly can cloud
the judgment of local police, leading them to investigate suspects based
on their assets rather than their threat to the community.
Since Congress authorized the return of drug assets to local
law enforcement agencies in 1984, the program has come under fire from more than
one federal agency. In a report issued last June, the U.S. General Accounting
Office criticized both U.S. Customs and the Justice Department for inadequate
management of the program. Three months later, the Justice Department's inspector
general also complained about the program's management.
Perhaps more disturbing
is that property may be seized without legal concern as to the guilt of the owner,
without due process of law, and without any more evidence than "we suspect
him/her of drug activity." This tactic of seizing property was developed
to discourage high-stakes, high-profile drug dealers from gorging themselves on
drug-profits through extravagant living. It is not surprising, however, that this
new-found strategy has been subverted by enforcement groups hungry for the spoils
of the drug war.
In one such case, a West-Texas sheriff has been using the
seizure laws to develop an "extra jurisdictional" strike force. According
to the Texas Observer, Midland County Sheriff Gary Painter is coordinating a group
of drug mercenaries. The group tracks down and stings suspected drug dealers outside
county lines, then brings the spoils back into Midland County, and reaps the profits.
The most troubling question, however, is the legality of "paramilitary"
deputies sweeping across the countryside, seizing property without concern for
the due process rights of suspects. Apparently as long as these activities are
profitable for groups like Painter's, "freelance" deputies will be encouraged
to pillage at will.
SSU CENSORED RESEARCHER: ERIK CUMMINS
SOURCE: THE TEXAS OBSERVER, 307 West 7th St., Austin, TX 78701
TITLE: "Have Badge, Will Travel"
AUTHORS: David Armstrong and Nick Johnson
SOURCE: LOS ANGELES TIMES, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053,
TITLE: "Seized Assets Underwrite the War on Drugs"
AUTHOR: Ronald L. Soble
COMMENTS: Investigative author David Armstrong notes that "Law
enforcement officers are generally portrayed as dedicated civil servants
out to serve, protect and defend their communities. Forfeiture laws
established as part of the 'War on Drugs,' however, have provided an
almost irresistible incentive for law enforcement agencies to forsake
traditional duties in favor of more sensational operations that could
enrich their departments. A more thorough examination of this phenomenon
by the mainstream media could help communities to recognize and combat
the dangers inherent in this situation." Armstrong adds that while
law enforcement agencies benefit from the limited coverage given this
issue, "The big losers, of course, are the taxpayers, who are not
only deprived of the full services of their law enforcement agencies,
but may also fall victim to a War on Drugs' run amok."
Los Angeles Times reporter Ronald Soble, who said he saw very little
coverage of the federal and state forfeiture programs, provides a different
insight into the issue from David Armstrong. "The subject should
have a major public impact to the extent that it demonstrates that individuals
dealing in drugs stand to lose everything of value that they own. Property,
cars, jewelry -- all of this is subject to confiscation. Losing all
of one's possessions is a daunting proposition. Furthermore, it demonstrates
that the government has a financing mechanism in place that will continue
to underwrite the war on drugs for the foreseeable future.
"Undoubtedly the major
drug cartels would benefit from lack of coverage. The cartels need the middle
men for distribution. If the distributors feel they can deal in cocaine and heroin
without fear of government intervention, Washington and the state will make no
progress. But if there is wide media coverage of a well-financed anti-drug campaign,
it could have an intimidating impact on the distributors in this country. The
dealers need to know -- through the media -- that not only will they face jail
time, but that their possessions will be confiscated. Such stories generate public
confidence in the war on drugs."