Pubdate: Thursday, February 24, 2000
Source: New Haven Register (CT)
Copyright: 2000, New Haven Register
Author:    Evan Goodenow, Register Staff


NEW HAVEN-A family's home is seized because a child dealt a small amount of
drugs out of it; a woman's car is taken because her husband picked up
a prostitute in it; a doctor's office becomes the property of the
government because of alleged Medicare fraud on the premises; minority
motorists have cash seized because they fit a drug courier profile.

Those cases were prosecuted under asset forfeiture laws, a practice
law enforcement officials tout as a valuable tool but critics decry as
"policing for profit." Speakers on both sides of the issue clashed
Wednesday night at Yale in a debate sponsored by the Connecticut Civil
Liberties Union and The Yale Political Union.

"We become forfeiture junkies," said former New Haven Police Chief
Nick Pastore, who recalled a rise in motor vehicle seizures in the
early 1990's. "We had a lot of detectives riding around in new cars
that didn't belong to them."

Noting a rise in unsolved homicides locally and nationally, Pastore
questioned policing priorities.

"Why are there no less than 32 murder cases pending in New Haven
County? Shouldn't that be a priority?...I'd rather see us deal with
crimes of violence and the like rather than be preoccupied with
driving someone else's new car," Pastore said.

By its nature, the seizure law, which targets inanimate objects rather
than individuals, is rife for abuse, according to Roger Pilon, vice
president for legal affairs at Cato Institute. He concedes the
seizures are a useful tool in the "war on drugs."

"So are the thumbscrew, the rack and the police state," Pilon added.
"It's not simply wrong in practice, it's wrong in principle."

Abuses are rare, said David Sullivan, head of the state's U.S.
Attorney's Office Forfeiture Division. "I could not sleep at night if
I was taking some innocent person's personal property."

Sullivan recalled prosecuting hundreds of cases while working with the
Department of Justice in Washington.

Seizures are rare in Connecticut, and small amounts of property are
rarely targeted, said Mark Kaczynski, federal Drug Enforcement Agency
resident agent in charge of Connecticut.

Kaczynski said local police departments must follow strict guidelines.
"Every year they're audited, and if they can't justify an expense, they're
never getting anymore. You abuse it, you lose it, it's gone," Kaczynski
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