Pubdate: Wed, 10 Mar 1999
Source: Times Union (NY)
Copyright: 1999, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation
Contact:  Box 15000, Albany, NY 12212
Author: Carol DeMare - Staff Writer


Albany -- Law would expand confiscation of goods in drug cases

The Albany County Legislature is considering adopting a law allowing
authorities to seize cash and vehicles from drug suspects arrested on
misdemeanor charges.

The measure, being pushed by Albany Democrat Gary Domalewicz, would allow
cops to seize up to $1,000 in cash and $5,000 in other property.

Currently, seizures above the $1,000 and $5,000 thresholds -- including real
estate assets -- are provided under federal asset forfeiture laws in all
drug cases, including misdemeanors.

The proposed law is similar to one passed by Rensselaer County authorities
last fall.

But some legislators and defense attorneys believe the proposal tramples on
a defendant's rights.

Legislator Lucille McKnight, a Republican who represents the South End, said
the law is particularly hurtful to minorities.

"We feel there are bad race relations and a police brutality issue in our
city,'' McKnight said. "Many people of color are wrongfully targeted,'' she
said, so there are natural "concerns about them confiscating stuff even with
misdemeanor searches.''

"We cannot support a local law that will historically confiscate people's
belongings,'' she said. "This would really give (law enforcement) a license
to steal.''

Property seized during an arrest is held pending the outcome of the court
case. A conviction is required for permanent forfeiture.

Defense attorney Gaspar M. Castillo said forfeiture laws "ignore the
presumption of innocence, that's number one, and secondly, the fact that you
happen to have money, even if you allegedly have committed a crime, doesn't
connect the money with the crime.''

"There are a lot of reasons people carry around cash,'' Castillo said. "That
doesn't connect with any kind of illegality.'' Such a law, he said, would be
another way to give "government big power to impose upon the little guy
where the little guy doesn't have a lot of redress.''

At a meeting Monday, Inspector John F. Burke, who heads the Albany County
Sheriff's Department's drug interdiction unit, and Albany city Detective
Timothy Murphy, a member of the sheriff's drug unit, urged lawmakers to
adopt the measure.

"There are a lot of people in and out of the city,'' carrying various
amounts of money, Burke said. As it stands now, "from $1 up to $1,000 is not
seizable,'' if a misdemeanor is involved, he said.

He mentioned a recent arrest at Crossgates Mall on a misdemeanor drug charge
where the suspect was carrying $960 in cash. Eventually, the money was
returned to him, because there was no law on which to hold him, Burke said.

Burke's unit makes numerous arrests at the city's bus station, picking up
suspects from New York City who are transporting drugs to Albany and cities
west of here or arresting upstate residents who travel to the city to buy

By not passing the law, drug dealers and other low-level criminals could
perceive the wrong message, Murphy said.

"This is an opportunity for the city to send out a loud and clear message
that we have a county we are proud of,'' he said.

To pass, the law needs a simple majority of the 39-member legislature. The
law was scheduled to be voted upon at Monday's meeting, but Domalewicz moved
to table it when it was apparent the bill would be sent to the Law Committee
to review its constitutionality.

The proposal can reappear on the legislature's agenda at its next meeting,
April 12.

After the meeting, Domalewicz was angry that he was forced to table it.

"It's outrageous that the legislature can play politics with public
safety,'' he said.

County Attorney Michael Lynch advised legislators that the law could be
unconstitutional, but Domalewicz said, "We have five other counties in the
state that have this law in effect, and their attorneys don't believe it's

In a letter, District Attorney Sol Greenberg said he supports the law.

Last fall, Rensselaer County District Attorney Ken Bruno successfully
lobbied for passage of a similar law by the county legislature. The
forfeiture law covers various "quality of life'' crimes that involve
misdemeanor charges, such as drugs, gambling and prostitution.

Nothing has been seized so far in Rensselaer County. Bruno's staff plans to
train law enforcement officers to familiarize them with the new law before
any seizures take place, a spokeswoman said.

Bruno modeled the law after one in Columbia County that allows confiscation
of proceeds of a crime, such as cash paid for drugs, or the "instrumentality
of a crime,'' such as a van used in a string of burglaries or a car used to
deliver drugs.

In Schenectady County, legislators are studying a proposal in committee.

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