Pubdate: Thu, 25 May 2006
Source: Fort Pierce Tribune (FL)
Copyright: 2006 The E.W. Scripps Co.
Author: Will Greenlee and Derek Simmonsen
Note: MAP archives articles exactly as published, except that our 
editors may redact the names and addresses of accused persons who 
have not been convicted of a crime, if those named are not otherwise 
public figures or officials.
Bookmark: (Asset Forfeiture)
Bookmark: (Marijuana)
Bookmark: (Cocaine)


PORT ST. LUCIE -- As police shut down two more alleged marijuana grow
houses and made more arrests Tuesday, the city is moving for the first
time to seize some of the homes through the courts.

Police Chief John Skinner said there are more than two dozen homes
that could be targets for seizure, though the city has not officially
begun forfeiture proceedings. The attorney for a homeowner arrested
May 9 on [address redacted] filed a pre-emptive request
for a hearing this week in anticipation of the city attempting to gain
the house.

"Crime control isn't just about arresting individuals,
it's about hurting the enterprise's proceeds as well," Skinner said.
"It's going to require a great deal of civil work from our attorneys,
but in the end I think will send out the message that if you play in
Port St. Lucie, we will play also."

State law allows cash, vehicles, real estate and other property to be
seized if it can be proven they were used in the commission of a
felony or were gained through criminal proceeds. Forfeitures of cash
and cars are rather common, but house seizures have been rare on the
Treasure Coast, officials said.

In real estate forfeitures, it must be proven that the homeowner knew,
or should have known, that illegal activity was occurring at the
residence, said Assistant State Attorney Lev Evans, who is working on
the cases temporarily with police. A new assistant city attorney will
take them over in early June, according to City Attorney Roger Orr.

"Any house that's been converted from a home into a pot factory would
be fair game," Evans said. "There are safeguards. You can't seize a
50- foot Hatteras yacht based on one rock of cocaine. There has to be
a fairness."

Skinner said "most of these homes were strictly being used for the
cultivation of marijuana" and in several of the cases, the homeowners
were arrested. Police haven't seized alleged pot grow houses in the
past, though attempts have been made, Skinner said.

"Because there were liens on some homes, it ultimately ended in an
administrative fee, if you will, as opposed to the full seizure," he
said. "The city looked at it from a business perspective ... and said,
you know what, we'll go back and they'll pay us administrative costs
as a result of the pursuit of the home but we didn't get the home entirely."

Skinner said seizing the homes would bring funds to the department's
coffers, though there are stipulations on how cash from seized assets
can be used. According to Chief Deputy Garry Wilson, the St. Lucie
County Sheriff's Office would not attempt to seize two homes raided in
Lakewood Park earlier this month.

Two more homes were raided and five suspects were arrested on Tuesday
in the latest in a series of about two dozen grow-house raids begun
more than two weeks ago. Paperwork recovered from at least one grow
house raided on Friday led investigators to a home in the [address 
redacted], Sgt. Todd Schrader said Wednesday.

Inside, they found four "large grow rooms" and about 100 marijuana
plants. An estimated two-thirds of the home had been converted into a
pot farm.

Three people -- all natives of Cuba -- [names and ages redacted]. None had
jobs, Schrader said.

In turn, paperwork at the Chicopee home led investigators to a
residence in the [address redacted], where police
found four alleged grow rooms and about 87 large marijuana plants.
Again, about two-thirds of the home allegedly had been converted into
a marijuana garden.

Police arrested [name and age redacted] , and his girlfriend, [name 
and age redacted] -- both natives of Cuba -- at the home.


* Law enforcement agencies can seize cash, vehicles, real estate and
other items if it can be proven they were used in the commission of a
felony or paid for through criminal proceeds. The process is handled
in civil court, apart from any criminal cases that exist.

* "The idea of the statute was to further clip the wings of felons
by taking away the fruits of their trade," Assistant State Attorney
Lev Evans said.

* Agencies typically have 45 days to file a forfeiture notice from
the date of seizure, though an extension can be granted. Once a notice
of forfeiture is filed, a preliminary hearing is set to find if there
is probable cause to believe the property was criminally paid for or

* If probable cause is found, a jury trial is set unless the
property owner waives that right.

* Many cases settle without going to trial, typically with an owner
agreeing to pay money to the agency to drop the forfeiture claim.

* If an agency gains title to a home, it also must take care of any
outstanding liens or mortgages. There are restrictions on how the
proceeds can be used. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake