Pubdate: Sun, 08 Jul 2001
Source: Omaha World-Herald (NE)
Copyright: 2001 Omaha World-Herald Company


Law enforcement agencies ought to be quicker than they usually are to admit 
a mistake. They only invite disrespect when they subject an individual to 
all the inconvenience of a criminal investigation, find no basis for 
prosecution and then begrudge the targeted person's attempts to make 
himself whole.

It has happened at least twice in recent months in connection with drug 
surveillance at Eppley Airfield. In each case, officers intercepted an 
individual who was carrying an unusual amount of cash. They seized the cash 
and interrogated the person.

Neither individual was prosecuted. But one had to take the police to court 
to get his money back. The other had to sign an agreement that he would not 
sue the government for violating his civil rights.

Some defenders of the system argue that the seizure of property is a 
legitimate tool in narcotics law enforcement. Often, they say, a drug 
runner can be put out of business, even in situations where the evidence is 
insufficient to prosecute, by applying a federal law that allows the 
seizure of property used in the commission of a crime.

Perhaps that's a good thing. But it's also a dangerous tool, as both 
Congress and the courts have recognized. Even with the safeguards they have 
put in place in recent years, there is something fundamentally distasteful 
- - illogical, even - about a system that allows the police and prosecutors 
to mete out what amounts to a sentence in the absence of a conviction. 
Americans fought hard for the presumption of innocence. The government 
should not punish them unless they are convicted.

The two Omaha cases were further muddied by the fact that neither 
individual is white and both accused the authorities of singling them out 
because of their race.

Racial profiling is a difficult accusation to prove and an irresponsible 
one to fling about on nothing more than circumstantial evidence. However, 
the situation is made worse by the failure of law enforcement agencies to 
communicate better. If they are wrong, they should say so and fix whatever 
went wrong. If they are right, they ought to find a way to inform the 
public. The very fact that they are so reluctant to talk about cases in 
which they are accused of wrongdoing, racial or otherwise, makes them 
appear suspect. This undermines respect for the law and contributes to the 
fragmentation of society.

How interesting it is that, in this age in which politicians are always 
apologizing for someone else, there is a dearth of sincere, heartfelt 
apology for one's own wrongdoing.

Blame our lawsuit-happy society for that. Some lawyers now advise their 
clients never to admit that they made a mistake, to never apologize lest it 
be used against them as an admission of liability. So even some situations 
that could be cleared up using the human touch - explanation, apology and 
forgiveness - now roil along for months, creating hard feelings and 
sometimes ultimately leading to lawsuits anyway.

No one is suggesting that the authorities give up a useful crime-fighting 
tool. But there ought to be some mechanism by which government can make 
right its mistreatment, inadvertent or otherwise, of private citizens. A 
simple apology would do for starters. And certainly, if you can't establish 
that the seizure of someone's money is lawful, or if you find out that a 
person really wasn't a drug runner in the first place, don't drag your feet 
when he asks for the return of what is rightfully his.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens