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Civil forfeiture complaints to Congress 1996

Civil forfeiture complaints to Congress 1996

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Published by NICKY ZAKZUK
The real agenda behind the "war" on drugs
The real agenda behind the "war" on drugs

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Published by: NICKY ZAKZUK on Mar 24, 2009
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01/30/2013

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 THE DRUG WAR'SHIDDEN ECONOMIC AGENDABy Eric Blumenson and Eva Nilsen(c) 1998, The Nation, all rights reserved(republished on this website with permission)Since March 5, 1998, this page has had visitorsA number of aggrieved and hapless citizens converged on Washingtonduring the summer of 1996, invited by House Judiciary CommitteeChairman Henry Hyde to recite their misfortunes at the hands of thegovernments drug police. All had their property taken by police, thenwere let go and never prosecuted. All were innocent of wrongdoing.Remarkably, the hearing was not about corrupt cops shaking downhelpless individuals, but about the law authorizing the police to dowhat they did -- the civil forfeiture law, which transfers ownership tothe government of any property that "facilitated" a drug crime. ThisFall the Judiciary Committee completed its work, proposing a series of partial and controversial reforms now pending before Congress. The stories were sad survivors tales, each recounting a moment of unexpected financial ruin followed by years of mostly fruitless attemptsto undo it. A pilot told of how the government destroyed his air charterbusiness: the DEA seized his airplane when a drug dealer chartered it;$85,000 in legal fees later, the pilot filed for bankruptcy and became atruck driver. A landscaper testified that while on a purchasing trip, hehad been stripped of $9,000 by an airport drug interdiction unit, thensent home without a receipt, on grounds that only drug dealers carryso much cash. Congressmen also heard the tale of Mary Miller (apseudonym), a 75-year-old grandmother dispossessed of her home forthe sins of her fugitive, drug-dealing son.When events like these appear in the newspapers, they seem to beaberrations -- mishaps by some unskilled police officers, or thehandiwork of a few rogue cops. No one believes that police routinelyawait the chance to harass and impoverish elderly ladies like Mrs.Miller. Yet the 20 police who confronted Mrs. Miller were not keystonecops; they included not only local police officers, but also agents fromthe sheriffs office, the U.S. Marshals Service, the FBI and the IRS. Theseofficers were probably much less concerned with harassing Mrs. Millerthan with her property. By their presence at the seizure, the localagencies and the Justice Department each acquired a claim to a shareof the house. Mrs. Miller was on the wrong side of a police funding raid,and since 1984, many thousands of other Americans have been aswell.
 
1984 was the year that Congress rewrote the civil forfeiture law tofunnel drug money and "drug related" assets into the law enforcementagencies that seize them. This amendment offered law enforcement anew source of income, limited only by the energy police andprosecutors were willing to put into seizing assets. The number of forfeitures mushroomed; Between 1885 and 1991 the JusticeDepartment collected more than $1.5 billion in illegal assets; in thenext five years, it almost double this intake. By 1987 the DrugEnforcement Administration was effectively earning its keep, withseizures exceeding its annual budget.Local law enforcement benefited from a separate "equitable sharing"provision, which allows local police to federalize a forfeiture. This lawgives police a way to circumvent their own state forfeiture laws, whichoften require police to share forfeited assets with school boards,libraries, drug education programs, or the general fund. Instead, localpolice can conspire with the U.S. Justice Department to evade theserequirements through paperwork: if a U.S. attorney "adopts" theforfeiture, 80% of the assets are returned to the local police agencyand 20% are deposited in the Justice Departments forfeiture fund. As of 1994 the Justice Department had transferred almost $1.4 billion inforfeited assets to state and local law enforcement agencies. Somesmall town police forces have enhanced their annual budget by afactor of five or more through such drug enforcement activities. These financial benefits are essentially there for the taking, thanks toexpansive laws from Congress and a green light from the SupremeCourt. The reach of the forfeiture law extends to any property which"facilitated" a drug crime, a potentially enormous class. Cars, bars,homes and restaurants have all been forfeited on grounds that theyserved as sites for drug deals, marijuana cultivation, or other drugcrimes. Are the bills in your wallet forfeitable? Probably, because anestimated 80% of American paper currency has been contaminated bycocaine, and cocaine residue has been held sufficient by some courtsto warrant forfeiture. Meanwhile, according to the Supreme Court fewconstitutional safeguards apply to forfeiture cases, where the seizedproperty is deemed the defendant (as in United States v. One 1974Cadillac Eldorado Sedan) and the defendant is presumed guilty. Ownerswho want to contest seizures must put up a bond, hire a lawyer, andrebut the presumption of guilt with proof that the property is untaintedby criminal activity. There is no constitutional requirement that theowner knew of any illegal activities, and forfeiture may occur even if the owner is charged and acquitted. In other words, if you are eitherrelated to a drug dealer or mistaken for one, you may find yourself legally dispossessed of your property without effective recourse.
 
 There is, of course, a clever symmetry in the forfeiture law. It makes forsome appealing sound bites, like former Attorney General Richard Thornburghs boast that "its now possible for a drug dealer to servetime in a forfeiture-financed prison after being arrested by agentsdriving a forfeiture-provided automobile while working in a forfeiture-funded sting operation." According to a 1993 report on drug task forcesprepared for the Justice Department, we can expect entire policeagencies to be funded in this way. Heralding the prospect of "free" druglaw enforcement, the report noted that "one 'big bust' can provide a[drug] task force with the resources to become financially independent.Once financially independent, a task force can choose to operatewithout Federal or state assistance."But agencies that can finance themselves through asset seizures neednot justify their activities through any regular budgetary process. Theconsequence is an extraordinary degree of police secrecy and freedomfrom legislative oversight. The prospect of a self-financing lawenforcement branch, largely able to set its own agenda andaccountable to no one, might sound promising to Colonel North orGeneral Pinochet, but it should not be mistaken for a legitimate organin a democracy. It was an anathema to the framers, who in typicallyfar-sighted fashion warned that "the purse and the sword ought neverto get into the same hands, whether legislative or executive," andsought to constitutionalize the principle by establishing a governmentof separate branches which serve to check and balance each other.Whether forfeitures financial rewards will prove large enough to spawna permanent, fully independent sector of unaccountable lawenforcement agencies is not yet clear. What is clear is that theserewards already have corrupted the law enforcement agenda of agencies that have grown dependent on them. At the Department of  Justice, which has deposited 2.7 billion in its Asset Forfeiture Fund overthe last five years, a steady stream of memos exhorts its attorneys toredirect their efforts towards "forfeiture production" so as to avoidbudget shortfalls. One warns that "funding of initiatives important toyour components will be in jeopardy if we fail to reach the projectedlevel of forfeiture deposits." Several urge increasing forfeitures"between now and the end of the fiscal year." The departments taskforce study bluntly suggests that multijurisdictional drug task forcesselect their targets in part according to the funding they can produce.What happens when law enforcement agencies rewrite their agendasto target assets rather than crime? Contemporary police, prosecutionand court records furnish the answer. As expected, they disclosemassive numbers of seizures, a large majority of which areunaccompanied by criminal prosecution. But they also show a criminal

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