DrugSense FOCUS Alert # 161 February 23, 2000 

DrugSense FOCUS Alert # 161 February 23, 2000 
Posted by FoM on February 23, 2000 at 16:21:28 PT
Prepared by Stephen Young
Source: MapInc.
A couple of things are going on in asset forfeiture reform right now that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. First, the U.S. Senate is expected to vote on legislation regarding forfeiture reform as early as this week. The U.S. House has already approved reform legislation.
Perhaps harder to believe, the unrepentant prohibitionists at Readers Digest published a pretty good article on asset forfeiture reform in their latest issue. If there was one thing media watchers thought they could count on, surely Readers Digest's hostility toward any subject related to drug policy reform would be included. The tide could be turning on this issue in front of our eyes. In order to keep the momentum going, please write some letters to Readers Digest and both of your U.S. senators today. Contacting your senators has been made very easy by: Thanks for your effort and support. WRITE A LETTER TODAYIt's not what others do it's what YOU do PLEASE SEND US A COPY OF YOUR LETTER OR TELL US WHAT YOU DID (Letter, Phone, fax etc.)Please post a copy your letter or report your action to the sent letter list (sentlet if you are subscribed, or by E-mailing a copy directly to MGreer Your letter will then be forwarded to the list with so others can learn from your efforts and be motivated to follow suit This is VERY IMPORTANT as it is the only way we have of gauging our impact and effectiveness.CONTACT INFO:Source: Reader's Digest (US) Contact: Christopher.Wilcox_ NOTE: This address goes directly to the RD Executive Editor. This is the first time this address has ever been given out to our letter writing volunteers. Please be courteous and supportive. FAX (914) 238 4559 (verified)Mailing address (verified)Reader's DigestReader's Digest RdPleasantvilleNY 10570-7000914-238-1000 (HQ)NOTE: Please consider augmenting your effort by sending your letter via Email, fax, and perhaps even S-mail or a personal phone call. EXTRA CREDIT:Call or fax your senators to express support for reform, or quickly send prepared email messages at: http://www.forfeiture.orgARTICLE:US: Guilty Until Proven InnocentURL: Newshawk: MAP - Making a Difference With Your Help Pubdate: Wed, 01 Mar 2000 Source: Reader's Digest (US) Copyright: 2000 Reader's Digest Association, Inc. Contact: Christopher.Wilcox_ Address: P.O. Box 235, Pleasantville, NY 10570-0235 Feedback: Website: Author: Randy Fitzgerald Bookmark: Asset Forfeiture items: See: Forfeiture Endangers American Rights: Act: New Forfeiture Site Encourages Letters to Congress: UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT:Asset Forfeiture Laws Were Meant To Combat Drug Crimes. Instead They Have Become A Means To Trample Your Rights FIVE DAYS before Christmas 1995, Cheryl Sanders of Long Beach, Calif., was driving on Interstate 10 in Sulphur, La., when she was stopped by three police officers. They told her she had been speeding. But instead of giving Sanders a ticket, they handcuffed her and took her to a local jail, where she was made to disrobe and submit to a search. No drugs were found on her or in her car, nor did she have a criminal record."You're free to go now," a policeman told Sanders. "But we're keeping your car."Under Louisiana's civil asset forfeiture law in 1995, police could seize vehicles on little more than suspicion that the owner was a drug dealer. Sulphur police said that the trunk of Sanders's Lincoln Town Car contained a 2 1/2-inch-deep compartment under a false bottom capable of concealing narcotics. Sanders, who had purchased the car used only six months earlier, didn't know what they were talking about. She hired an attorney, and after seven months a judge ruled that the city had to return her property since the police seizure lacked probable cause. By then she had to sell the car to pay her legal bills. "They stole my car," Sanders complains. "It was highway robbery."Sanders is one of countless citizens who feel the same way about a series of controversial laws enacted as part of the war on drugs. In 1984 Congress authorized federal law enforcement agencies to seize any property purchased with drug money or used to facilitate the drug trade. Many states then enacted their own versions of the statute to allow local prosecutors and police agencies to grab a person's money or property based on the belief that a drug connection is more probable than not. Critics charge that these laws allow the seizure of assets on virtually anything more than mere suspicion of a link. In criminal law you're presumed innocent until proven guilty. But under most civil asset-forfeiture statutes the burden of proof falls on individuals to prove in court that their property is free of any involvement with illegal drug activity. Even to challenge a seizure under federal law, the owner must post a bond of ten percent of the property's value or $5000, whichever is less. Driving Away Business:WITH THIS SORT OF POWER at the government's disposal, excesses and abuses are inevitable. An episode involving the Red Carpet Inn in southwest Houston is a case in point. On February 17, 1998, Acting U.S. Attorney James DeAtley announced that the government was going to seize the property in response to drug activity that the owners were "facilitating by not taking steps to prevent." Jason Brice was stunned. To prevent criminal activity by guests and visitors, the co-owner and manager of the Red Carpet Inn had signed a trespass affidavit with the Houston Police Department, giving officers the right to patrol the grounds and question patrons. He also hired night security guards, required guests to show driver's licenses to obtain a room, and installed video cameras in the parking lot.Then the Houston police and city attorney's office wanted the Red Carpet Inn to raise its room rates from $29 a night, a move they believed would keep out drug users. Brice resisted, arguing that he had to keep rates down in this low-income area to compete with the six other hotels and motels located nearby. According to Brice, the police presence on his property intimidated innocent customers. "It scared them and began to drive away our business.'' He withdrew the trespass agreement, which had given police free rein on his property. Three weeks later U.S. Attorney DeAtley filed a lawsuit seeking forfeiture of the motel. The complaint alleged that the operators "had knowledge that the Defendant Property was being used to facilitate drug transactions and consented to the use of the property to facilitate the illegal activity." Brice was particularly enraged that the government cited "32 calls for police service (that) resulted in narcotics or currency being seized" during 1996 and 1997. By his count he and his security guards themselves had initiated many of these calls. After months of wrangling, the government dropped its suit, in return for Brice's agreeing to make some minor security improvements to the motel. Meanwhile, his business had incurred $60,000 in legal fees. In a blistering editorial, the Houston Chronicle accused the U.S. Attorney of overstepping his bounds. "Good people should not have to fear property seizure because they operate businesses in high-crime areas."No Credible Evidence:ACTUALLY, NO PROPERTY is safe from highhanded asset forfeitures. In 1990 the U.S. Attorney's Office grabbed a house in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., because, they claimed, cocaine had been offloaded from a boat onto the property by three men who were subsequently arrested for drug trafficking. The house's owner, George Gerhardt (who had already died of cancer), allegedly knew one of the three defendants. During a one-day nonjury trial before a federal judge on October 26, 1992, the government's flimsy case evaporated. The cocaine defendant who had been acquainted with Gerhardt testified that Gerhardt had no knowledge that drugs were unloaded at his house; he was not even in the country at the time. Other witnesses testified that Gerhardt detested drugs and drug users.The government brought two informants from prison to testify. One claimed to have once met someone he knew as George, whom he described as five feet, six inches tall, overweight, gray-haired and in his 60s. Gerhardt was five feet, ten inches tall, slender, blond-haired and 47 years old at the time of the alleged meeting. In a strongly worded judgment, U.S. District Judge James Paine ordered the government to relinquish the house for distribution to Gerhardt's heirs. "Gerhardt was an innocent owner," wrote the judge. "No credible evidence" to suggest otherwise had been produced. Lack of credible evidence figured in another egregious asset-forfeiture case involving Billy Munnerlyn and his wife, Karon, who operated an air charter service. One day Billy flew a businessman from Little Rock, Ark., to Ontario, Calif. The passenger was a convicted drug trafficker Munnerlyn had never met. Nevertheless, Munnerlyn was arrested, as was his passenger. A search of the passenger's possessions turned up $2.8 million in cash. Munnerlyn was released a few days later, and criminal charges against him were dropped. But the government kept his $500,000 jet and his $8500 charter fee, based on suspicion that they were linked to a drug transaction.Munnerlyn's home and office were searched, the DEA's application for a warrant stating that such a search could reveal evidence of his involvement in drug trafficking "in the form of personal and business records." Nevertheless, Munnerlyn was subject thereafter to no further criminal proceedings. But the government didn't return his plane. Munnerlyn fought the seizure in court for two years, until a federal jury ruled in his favor. The judge set aside the verdict and ordered a new trial, so the government refused to release his plane. Broke and bitter, he eventually reached a settlement in which he paid $7000 for the jet's return and agreed to allow the government to keep the original $8500 charter fee.Burden of Proof:AS EXPERIENCE. with this powerful tool has grown, even some law enforcement officials have become uneasy. Says Steven Kessler, former head of the asset-forfeiture unit at the Bronx, N.Y., district attorney's office, "The focus is no longer on combating crime. It's on fund-raising."Joseph McNamara would certainly agree. During his 15 years as police chief of San Jose, Calif., he felt the pressure firsthand. One day he saw a proposed budget that included no funds for police equipment. When McNamara questioned this, his boss, the city manager, replied half in jest, "You guys seized $4 million last year. I expect you to do better this year."With such perverse incentives in place, McNamara believes many of the nation's police agencies have become addicted to asset forfeiture, with serious consequences for our system of law. "When cops are put under pressure to produce revenue, bad things happen," he says. And bad things do happen. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported this past summer that the sheriff in St. Francis County privately sold seized cars to himself and others at prices at or below appraised values. (Such sales were legal at the time.) House Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde (R., Ill.) has led a bipartisan effort to reform the federal civil asset-forfeiture law. His bill would shift the burden of proof to government agencies before assets can be seized. It would also eliminate the requirement that property owners file a bond to challenge any seizure, allow judges to order property released pending the disposition of forfeiture cases and give individuals more time to contest seizures in court. "It is obvious that something needs to be done about civil forfeiture run amok," Hyde says, and Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D., Mich.), ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, agrees. "The civil asset-forfeiture law," he says, "contradicts fundamental principles of traditional American jurisprudence." With both Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, lining up in support, the bill passed by an overwhelming 375 to 48. Nevertheless, the Clinton Administration claims the Hyde bill would undermine law enforcement and favors a narrower reform. Meanwhile, no action was expected in the Senate until early this year. Roger Pilon, a constitutional scholar with Washington's Cato Institute, believes strongly that overhaul of the asset-forfeiture law is needed to safeguard the nation's constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure. "Forfeiture has a place in law enforcement," he says. "But like every tool it must spring from principles of justice if it is to service justice." SAMPLE LETTER:To the Editor of Readers Digest, Thank you for reporting some of the terrible things that have happened as a result of asset forfeiture policies in the United States ("Guilty Until Proven Innocent," March 1). It is plain to see current forfeiture laws cause much injustice. I hope your article will help persuade Congress to reform the laws. Such legislation would improve our society, but it is important to remember that these nightmares were made possible by the never-ending war on drugs. Examined as a whole, the damage from asset forfeiture is merely one of many problems created by prohibition. Prison populations are exploding, the judicial system is overwhelmed, law enforcement is being corrupted, students and employees endure the discomfort of drug tests, and addiction problems worsen, all because we are told America needs to wipe out drugs. I look forward to investigations into the devastation caused by these other issues coming soon in your publication.Stephen YoungIMPORTANT: Always include your address and telephone numberPlease note: If you choose to use this letter as a model please modify it at least somewhat so that the paper does not receive numerous copies of the same letter and so that the original author receives credit for his/her work. ADDITIONAL INFO to help you in your letter writing efforts:3 Tips for Letter Writers: Letter Writers Style Guide: TO SUBSCRIBE, DONATE, VOLUNTEER TO HELP, OR UPDATE YOUR EMAIL SEE: UNSUBSCRIBE SEE: Prepared by Stephen YoungFocus Alert Specialist CannabisNews MapInc. Archives - New:
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Comment #1 posted by Nero on February 24, 2000 at 20:05:43 PT
great job
This artical is what the "main stream" media should have reported on long ago . It is an honorable thing that you have done to print this artical
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