Ending the Abuse

While defense lawyers talk of reforming the law, agencies that initiate
forfeiture scarcely talk at all. // DEA headquarters makes a spectacle
of busts like the seizure of fraternity houses at the University of
Virginia in March. But it refuses to supply detailed information on the
small cases that account for most of its activity. // Local prosecutors
are just as tight-lipped. Thomas Corbett, U.S. Attorney for Western
Pennsylvania, seals court documents on forfeitures because ``there are
just some things I don't want to publicize. the person whose assets we
seize will eventually know, and who else has to?''

Although some investigations need to be protected, there is an
``inappropriate secrecy'' spreading throughout the country, says Jeffrey
Weiner, president-elect of the 25,000 member National Association of
Criminal Defense Lawyers. // ``The Justice Department boasts of the few
big fish they catch. But they throw a cloak of secrecy over the
information on how many innocent people are getting swept up in the same
seizure net, so no one can see the enormity of the atrocity.'' //
Terwilliger says the net catches the right people: ``bad guys'' as he
calls them. // But a 1990 Justice report on drug task forces in 15
states found they stayed away from the in-depth financial investigations
needed to cripple major traffickers. Instead, ``they're going for the
easy stuff,'' says James ``Chip'' Coldren, Jr., executive director of
the Bureau of Justice Assistance, a research arm of the federal Justice

Lawyers who say the law needs to be changed start with the basics: The
government shouldn't be allowed to take property until after it proves
the owner guilty of a crime. // But they go on to list other
improvements, including having police abide by their state laws, which
often don't give police as much latitude as the federal law. Now they
can use federal courts to circumvent the state.

Tracy Thomas is caught in that very bind. // A jurisprudence version of
the shell game hides roughly $13,000 taken from Thomas, a resident of
Chester, near Philadelphia. // Thomas was visiting in his godson's home
on Memorial Day, 1990, when local police entered looking for drugs
allegedly sold by the godson. They found none and didn't file a criminal
charge in the incident. But they seized $13,000 from Thomas, who works
as a $70,000-a-year engineer, says his attorney, Clinton Johnson. // The
cash was left over from a Sheriff's sale he'd attended a few days
before, court records show. the sale required cash -- much like the
government's own auctions. // During a hearing over the seized money,
Thomas presented a withdrawal slip showing he'd removed money from his
credit union shortly before the trip and a receipt showing how much he
had paid for the property he'd bought at the sale. The balance was
$13,000. // On June 22, 1990, a state judge ordered Chester police to
return Thomas' cash. // They haven't. Just before the court order was
issued, the police turned over the cash to the DEA for processing as a
federal case, forcing Thomas to fight another level of government.
Thomas is now suing the Chester police, the arresting officer, and the
DEA. // ``When DEA took over that money, what they in effect told a
local police department is that it's OK to break the law,'' says Clinton
Johnson, attorney for Thomas.

Police manipulate the courts not only to make it harder on owners to
recover property, but to make it easier for police to get a hefty share
of any forfeited goods. In federal court, local police are guaranteed up
to 80 percent of the take -- a percentage that may be more than they'd
receive under state law. // Pennsylvania's leading police agency -- the
state police -- and the state's lead prosecutor -- the Attorney General
bickered for two years over state police taking cases to federal
court, an arrangement that cut the Attorney General out of the sharing.
The two state agencies now have a written agreement on how to divvy
the take. // The same debate is heard around the nation. // The hallways
outside Cleveland courtrooms ring with arguments over who will get what,
says Jay Milano, a Cleveland criminal defense attorney.

``It's causing a feeding frenzy.''

--- Renegade v6-27 Beta
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