Source: San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune (CA)
Section: Opinion, page B-6
Pubdate:   Friday, 21 August 1998
Author: Molly Ivins, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.


AUSTIN Texas - And in 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.

+ 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 in-sufficient 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.

+ Last year, 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.

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 Associatoin 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.

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 politicians to undo what they have
done is to build public pressure to stop this outrageous
practice. Take pen in hand ...

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Checked-by: Rich O'Grady