Critics Target Drug Raid Seizures 

Critics Target Drug Raid Seizures 
Posted by FoM on December 13, 2001 at 11:01:10 PT
Sam Skolnik, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Reporter
Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer 
Before dawn, heavily armed officers stormed Shane Hendrickson's Tacoma home. They busted open the front door, grabbed the self-employed painter and hauled him off to the police station.There, they grilled him, accusing him of participating in a major pot-growing operation. Hendrickson steadfastly denied it, and hours later, detectives had enough doubts to cut him loose.
By the time he returned home that day, Oct. 4, Hendrickson's baby-blue 1984 Chevy van -- with Dialed-in Paint Co. stenciled on the sides -- was gone. So were his business papers, including bids for upcoming jobs. And his girlfriend's new computer and all her disks.In the blink of an eye, Hendrickson, 27, was out of work."It just kind of shut me down for a while," he said. "These people think they're above God."Hendrickson, though, was more fortunate than most. He hasn't been charged with a crime, and, after a month or so, the last of his property was returned -- albeit with a lawyer's help.In the past decade, drug-related property seizures have skyrocketed in Washington, with annual proceeds raised from auctions statewide jumping from $1.2 million to a record $6.7 million in 2000. That doesn't count forfeitures made by federal agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration or the FBI.In King County last year, authorities seized $2.2 million in drug-related assets. But even though four out of 10 criminal cases either never got off the ground or fell apart, the bulk of the cars, cash, cellular phones, stereos and other goods grabbed from those suspects were never returned, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has found.One out of five people whose property was seized were never charged with a crime. When people were charged, the cases were dropped about 23 percent of the time, according to records obtained from the state Treasurer's Office and a search of computerized court documents.Washington's powerful property-seizure law, loudly criticized by defense attorneys and civil rights activists, allows police departments, sheriff's offices and drug task forces to take a suspect's property if authorities believe it was used in connection with a drug crime or purchased with tainted money.Fears of overzealous law enforcement have spurred a drive to revamp the law -- toughening the legal standard for forfeiture and barring police from taking a person's property until he or she is convicted of a crime.Backers of Initiative 256, which include the American Civil Liberties Union, must collect 197,734 valid signatures by Jan. 4 in order to put the measure before the 2002 Legislature. Lawmakers can pass I-256 outright or put it on the ballot next November.Forfeiture money helps fund drug enforcement efforts, which critics call a blatant conflict, driving authorities to seize as much as they can from suspects -- even when there's insufficient evidence to support criminal charges."There's a huge financial incentive for police to be taking property," said Jerry Sheehan, legislative director of the ACLU of Washington. "That they can do that without any charges ever being brought, let alone any conviction gained, is very troubling."Legislators adopted modest reforms this year, passing a bill that shifts the burden of proof to police when their seizures are challenged. Law enforcement agencies are also required to pay legal fees if they lose such a challenge. The bill passed only after a tougher measure, similar to the current initiative, failed.Law enforcement officials say further restrictions would hurt their ability to crack down on drug dealers by choking off some of the money supporting undercover operations."We don't want to jump off of the cliff" with an initiative that could effectively end forfeitures in Washington, said Christopher Hurst, a Black Diamond Police Department detective and Democratic state representative. "The answer here really falls somewhere in the middle.""In reality, money is the engine that drives drug dealers," said Steve Tucker, a King County sheriff's detective who has worked drug cases since 1989. "If you take away the money, it's not only deterrence for new guys, it's stopping repeat offenders. If you dismantle the structure, including the proceeds, they have to start again at ground zero."But why are so many suspected drug dealers finding their property seized but escaping punishment?The P-I examined 236 King County cases involving property seizures last year and found that 50 suspects, or 21 percent, were never charged. Of the 186 cases that were prosecuted, 42 (23 percent) dissolved into acquittals or dismissed charges, court records show. There has been no resolution in 19 other cases.Thus, at least 39 percent of the 236 cases never resulted in convictions, a fact law enforcement officials say isn't surprising.They say many of the smaller fish turn state's evidence or become informants at the behest of detectives in hopes of busting higher-ranking traffickers. To shield the suspect from liability, the property is often purchased in the name of a different party, a "straw owner," such as a girlfriend. In those cases, the property owner is not the suspected criminal and doesn't get charged.Even though the criminal cases often crumble, property seizures usually stand up. In the vast majority of cases, people who have property seized never get it back, according to defense attorneys, prosecutors and police.That's because police have less to prove in taking property than in convicting people of a crime, said Seattle attorney Richard Troberman."You are operating under a much lower legal standard, and you are usually not even facing an attorney," he said.When it comes to challenging property seizures, low-income people don't have the same right to a public defender that they do in the criminal system. Troberman said prosecutors have testified that in about 80 percent of the cases in which people contest the forfeitures, no attorney is present. That's roughly the same percentage of cases the police win, one hearing examiner estimates.The move to change Washington's law comes in the midst of efforts to reform property-seizure standards nationwide.After years of failed efforts, Congress last year passed a bill sponsored by Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., that toughens the standard for federal forfeitures. And voters in Oregon and Utah passed initiatives last year to change their own laws.In July, unsatisfied with the legislation passed in Olympia, a coalition of activists -- on the left and the right of the political spectrum -- took matters into their own hands by pushing a citizens initiative. In addition to preventing police from seizing property until a conviction is notched, the Innocent Property Owners Protection Initiative would redirect forfeiture-related proceeds from police to state education and drug-treatment programs.In a related effort, the ACLU next year plans to introduce a bill to mandate that the state's forfeiture law align itself with a provision in the state constitution that says proceeds derived from forfeitures should be used to fund the state school system."There was a purpose in the Bill of Rights," said Erne Lewis, a Libertarian Party activist who is spearheading the initiative effort. "It was to protect individuals and their property. Forfeiture is a weapon, and this is what they'll tell you. 'We use this to get guilty pleas,' they say. Well, so does torture."Under Washington's law, the agency that seizes the goods gets to keep 90 percent of the proceeds, after a public auction.The rest goes to a state fund that provides assistance to domestic violence victims, AIDS-infected babies and others. The law states that forfeited property "shall be retained by the seizing law enforcement agency exclusively for the expansion and improvement of controlled substances-related law enforcement activity."But that's not the way some agencies, which have been slapped by state auditors for misusing seized property, have seen it.It took 2 1/2 years after concerns were first raised internally for the King County Sheriff's Office to stop allowing employees to use vehicles seized in drug cases. At one point, 21 detectives and officials -- including the budget and accounting director, the legal adviser, a volunteer chaplain and the Asian community liaison -- were driving the cars.In March 1997, a drug unit sergeant, Dawn Grout, raised the issue in a letter to Frank Adamson, chief of the Criminal Investigations Division, apparently to little effect. The following February, she sent another memo identifying 16 drug-seized vehicles that she said were still "assigned to non-drug enforcement personnel in direct violation of state law."The issue was still unresolved in September 1999, when the Auditor's Office concluded after a brief investigation that "some vehicles are not being appropriately used" at the sheriff's office. A short time later, the last of the seized cars were returned to the drug unit.Sheriff Dave Reichert, who was appointed in March 1997, about four weeks before Grout sent her first memo, said that "when the problem rose to my level, I took care of it. I took the cars away."Not everyone, including long-time budget and accounting chief Jon McCracken, was happy about losing the cars, Reichert said.McCracken, who had been driving a 1991 beige Buick Park Avenue sedan, referred calls seeking his comment to sheriff's spokesman John Urquhart.Urquhart said part of McCracken's job is to handle the accounting of large amounts of money involved in drug seizures and undercover buys."We thought it was a legitimate use of a vehicle," Urquhart said, defending McCracken's prior use of the vehicle. "Where do you draw the line? If 25 percent of the activity is drug investigation-related, is that enough?"When Puyallup police arrested Lance Gloor on a drug charge in December 1999, they practically stripped his house bare. Hundreds of items were seized, ranging from two cars and stereo gear to the 22-year-old maintenance worker's collection of music CDs."They cleaned me out," he said.Gloor later pleaded guilty to growing marijuana and hired a lawyer to try to fight the property seizure. When he went to the police station to press his case, Gloor said, he saw his big-screen TV in the break room. His $2,000 stereo speakers, he was told, were in the office of one of the detectives who made the bust. Neither the detective, Wayne Spencer, nor Police Chief Rodger Cool returned calls for comment.For the most part, Gloor prevailed. Craig Adams, legal adviser for the Pierce County Sheriff's Department, recommended returning much of Gloor's property, concluding that police went too far."I looked at the case, and I didn't think it was a very good one, in terms of search-and-seizure and the like," Adams said. "I said (to police), 'What proof do you have that this is proceeds of drug money?' I don't think there was a whole lot of evidence, quite honestly."When they take CDs and stuff, I mean, come on. ... How are you going to prove it was bought with drug money?"It wasn't the first time Adams has had to tell officials from Pierce County law enforcement agencies, including the sheriff's department, to return seized property."I have an obligation to act ethically," he said. "If I don't, I'm dirty."The Gloor case, however, illustrates how easy it is to cart off a person's belongings and how difficult it can be to get them back. Two years later, many of Gloor's possessions -- including 150 CDs, a camera, a camcorder, a silver chain, an electronic safe and about $2,000 in small bills -- have still not been returned -- or accounted for.Police and prosecutors are quick to point out that suspected drug dealers who have property seized are legally entitled to a hearing to try to persuade a hearing examiner to give them back their stuff.Last year, for example, the King County Sheriff's Office alone seized various items from 155 people, according to state records. Of those cases, 44 people requested hearings to contest the seizures.But fewer than half ever actually had their hearings, estimated Keith Scully, a deputy prosecutor assigned to the sheriff's office. Some claimants settled their cases before the hearing, he said, and many more simply didn't show up.Several factors weigh against the claimants. The hearing examiners are often current or retired police officers or prosecutors. And citizens who cannot afford a lawyer to represent them in the civil proceeding often have to go up alone against a police attorney.Shane Hendrickson of Tacoma was lucky enough to be able to avoid going through the hearing process. Tacoma police returned his property after determining that he merely knew people involved in the marijuana-cultivation plot.Today, Hendrickson is eager to forget the whole episode."I just really, really, really want to wash my hands of this and keep going."Note: Police often keep property even absent a conviction.Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer (WA)Author: Sam Skolnik, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Reporter Published: Thursday, December 13, 2001Copyright: 2001 Seattle Post-IntelligencerContact: editpage seattle-pi.comWebsite: Articles & Web Site:ACLU Makes It Tough for Police To Seize Property Enforcement Shares The Wealth in War on Drugs
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Comment #1 posted by p4me on December 13, 2001 at 13:03:41 PT
Tom and Rollie
How did the police get all this unconstitutional power to start with is what I would like to know. Isn't about time for another FBI target practice round like at Rainbow Farms when they killed Tom and Rollie because they were burning state peoperty that Tom and Rollie somehow thought was theirs. Or is it the DEA's turn. They have medicinal cannabis there. They could cut off the people with chronic pain from MJ and threaten to take their stuff and charge them with possession, intent to distribute, paraphanalia, manufacturing of a controlled substance, maintaining a dwelling for the purpose of manufacturing, conspiracy with others making them just as responsible for the crimes of others as had they done them, and associating with know felons. They could give them the option of facing charges or see if they could make it to the top of a volcanoe before being shot. Come on DEA. It is still warm in Hawaii and the DEA will cover the expenses. You know how you shoot a person running away in a wheelchair? You don't consider the lead of a person that can run while you are aiming.
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