Editors On Presumed Guilty

One of a five part series entitled Presumed Guilty.
Copyright, 1991, The Pittsburgh Press Co.
Top, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part5.

Unreasonable Seizures
Editorial/ Aug. 11, 1991

The "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures" is enshrined in the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.

For the most part, this bedrock right is so firmly entrenched, so thoroughly borne out by experience, that Americans take it for granted. When we read of an honest family deprived of its savings or its home or farm at the whim of the police, we assume an isolated abuse or think smugly of faraway tyrannies unblessed by our cherished Bill of Rights.

At least we used to. The remarkable series "Presumed Guilty," by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters Andrew Schneider and Mary Pat Flaherty, now running in this newspaper, paints a startlingly different picture. It documents a rash of unreasonable seizures unintentionally spawned by the war on drugs.

The opening for this corrosion of civil rights was the amendment of the racketeering laws, starting in 1984, to permit authorities to confiscate possessions of suspects never charged with crimes, much less convicted. This radical departure from traditions of law was justified in terms of seizing the assets of drug criminals," as the White House National Drug Strategy put it, and helping "dismantle larger criminal organizations."

So much for intentions. Mr. Schneider and Ms. Flaherty's 10-month investigation documents more than 400 cases of innocent people forced to forfeit money or property to federal authorities. These victims are farmers and factory workers, small-business owners and retirees. Often, their only offense was exhibiting behavior or personal traits considered typical of drug couriers.

But even among people convicted of crimes, some penalties were wildly disproportionate. Should a family be permanently robbed of the farm that is its home and livelihood because six marijuana plants were found growing in a field?

"Presumed Guilty" is a withering indictment of the forfeiture laws. This page will explore its implications in the coming days.

What Price This War?
Editorial / Aug. 14, 1991

In its zealous prosecution of the "war on drugs," the government undeniably and intolerably has trampled the rights of countless innocent people.

Using hundreds of wide-open federal and state seizure laws, police and prosecutors have taken homes, cash and other personal possessions of people whose only offense was being in the wrong place at the wrong time or fitting some officer's or informant's preconceived, and likely racist, notion of what a criminal looks like.

In some localities, government seizures take on the trappings of a criminal enterprise, with prosecutors, police departments, judges and tipsters conspiring to grab someone's property and divvy it up, all without regard to due process of law.

Those on the receiving end of such injustices are to be excused if they come to regard the government itself as a corrupt organization.

The abuses are documented in a continuing series, "Presumed Guilty," by reporters Mary Pat Flaherty and Andrew Schneider of The Pittsburgh Press.

The series examines the effect of a 1984 change in the federal racketeering law that allows police to seize the property of those even marginally involved with illegal drug activity. No conviction is required, only a showing of "probable cause." The idea was to deprive drug traders of their trinkets and baubles: the jewelry, cars, boats and real estate bought with illegal proceeds.

The Ideker was that the assets would revert to the law enforcement agency that seized them, with proceeds going to finance the fight against drugs. Some $2 billion has been generated for police departments, much of which no doubt has been put to good use.

But there are instances - far too many of them - in which financial incentive and lack of safeguards have pushed the "good guys" over the line. in Hawaii, federal prosecutors combed through records of old cases looking for opportunities to seize property. They took the home of Joseph and Frances Lopes, a couple of modest means whose son had pleaded guilty four years earlier to growing marijuana in the backyard for his personal use. "The Lopeses could be happy we let them live there as long as we did," an arrogant G-man snorted.

At some airports, counter clerks spy on customers, looking for those carrying large amounts of cash. They tip off the cops and collect a cut of the loot if there is a seizure.

Police, using dubious "profile" criteria that disproportionately target minorities, stop people like Willie Jones, a landscaper from Nashville. Mr. Jones' "crime" was to be carrying cash on a trip to Houston to buy shrubbery. He was relieved of $9,600 by Drug Enforcement Administration agents.

Like 80 percent of those whose property has been taken, Mr. Jones was not charged with a crime. He's still fighting the government to get his money back.

The reporters' 10-month investigation revealed more than 400 cases from Maine to Hawaii in which the rights of innocent people were steamrollered. Their findings should send a chill up the backs of all citizens - most particularly those in the law enforcement community who must act to salvage the credibility and legitimacy of the war on drugs.

Seizure: Out Of Control
Editorial / Aug. 18, 1991

Less than four months from now, on Dec. 15, to be exact, the 10 original amendments to the U. S. Constitution - the precious Bill of Rights - will be 200 years old.

For two centuries, these superbly crafted safe-guards have served to protect the individual rights of the American people, withstanding attempt after attempt to erode the liberty guaranteed by the Constitution.

But seven years ago, Congress, in a well-intentioned but poorly executed attempt to step up the war on drugs, twisted some of the guarantees until a crack developed. Since then, money-hungry law enforcement agencies across the country have slammed wedges into the breach, creating a gap of frightening dimensions.

Compromised, indeed, even seriously endangered by the Congressional fervor of the Orwellian year of 1984, are three basic rights.

No longer is an American assured by the Fourth Amendment that he or she will not be subjected to "unreasonable searches and seizures." No longer does the Fifth Amendment assure that private property will not be taken "for public use without just compensation." And no longer does the Eighth Amendment protect anyone from "cruel and unusual punishment."

Blame Congress. By changing the federal forfeiture law, aimed at curbing drugs by causing hardships to dealers, Congress in 1984 gave law enforcement agencies the power - and even an incentive - to abridge these rights.

How the law has run rampant over the rights of individuals since then was startlingly documented during the past week in The Pittsburgh Press. Reporters Andrew Schneider and Mary Pat Flaherty, in six chilling installments, documented more than 400 cases of innocent people falling victim to government out of control.

They found that police, using hundreds of federal and state seizure laws, have confiscated $1.5 billion in assets and expect to take in $500,000 more this year. But, it turns out, for every drug lord and dealer who loses his ill-gotten treasures to the government, there are four innocent people who are being victimized - fully 80 percent of the people who lose property to the federal government are never charged with a crime.

They are searched, unreasonably in most cases, and after fitting a profile that is likely racist. Their property is taken with not even a thought of compensation. Their homes, their farms, their very life savings are confiscated in as cruel and as unusual a punishment as one can imagine.

Why? Because the forfeiture law calls for funds derived from seizures to be turned back to law enforcement agencies, to be used to continue the war on drugs.

That's a cunningly attractive concept - crime paying for its own investigation and prosecution. In practice, though, the theory falls distressingly flat, the victim of human greed.

Law enforcement agencies, on the hunt for dollars, are on a seizure binge, taking property indiscriminantly and without compassion. People only marginally involved with a drug investigation, people who never were charged with a crime, have lost their homes, money and belongings. So have those who were charged and cleared.

Some were even the victims of bounty hunters - those who, for a piece of the seizure pie, become informants. As it stands now, anybody with a finger to point can share in money seized from a person they tab as "suspicious."

But because it doesn't matter whether their target is guilty or innocent -just whether there is a seizure of property in which they will share - the system is wide open to abuse. And it has been abused, to the point where innocent travelers have been detained, searched and stripped of their money.

Even some police shudder at what is happening. Wayne County (Detroit) Sheriff Robert Ficano, who, while aggressive in leading his drug war, is careful not to wage it at the expense of the rights of individuals. "Seizure is an important tool," he said, "but we'll lose it unless we keep a heavy emphasis on respecting individual fights."

He's right, of course. Seizure has been, is, and should continue to be a big gun in the war on drugs. But it can't be a shotgun, blasting away at innocent people who happen into its path.

The legal massacre uncovered by Mr. Schneider and Ms. Flaherty must stop and only Congress has the necessary remedial power.

The forfeiture law must be overhauled once again, due process restored, the bounty hunters disenfranchised and seizure of property permitted only after an individual has been convicted of a crime.

All we are demanding, after all, is that Congress pay attention to a 200-year-old list of guarantees that was ignored in 1984.

Top, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part5.

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