The Law: Guilt Doesn't Matter

Rooted in English common law, forfeiture has surfaced just twice in the
United States since colonial times. // In 1862, Congress permitted the
president to seize estates of Confederate soldiers. Then, in 1970, it
resurrected forfeiture for the civil war on drugs with the passage of
racketeering laws that targeted the assets of criminals. // In 1984
however, the nature of the law was radically changed to allow government
to take possession without first charging, let alone convicting the
owner. That was done in an effort to make it easier to strike at the
heart of the major drug dealers. Cops knew that drug dealers consider
prison time an inevitable cost of doing business. It rarely deters them.
Profits and playthings, though, are their passions. Losing them hurts.
us in the law. the proceeds would flow back to law
enforcement to finance more investigations. It was to be the ultimate
poetic justice, with criminals financing their own undoing.

But eliminating the necessity of charging or proving a crime has moved
most of the action to civil court, where the government accuses the item
-- not the owner -- of being tainted by a crime. // This oddity has
court dockets looking like purchase orders: United States of America vs.
9.6 acres of land and lake; U.S. vs. 667 bottles of wine. But it's more
than just a labeling change. Because money and property are at stake
instead of life and liberty, the constitutional safeguards in criminal
proceedings do not apply. // The result is that ``jury trials can be
refused; illegal searches condoned; rules of evidence ignored,'' says
Louisville, Ky. defense lawyer Donald Heavrin. The ``frenzied quest for
cash,'' he says, is ``destroying the judicial system.''

Every crime package passed since 1984 has expanded the uses of
forfeiture, and now there are more than 100 statutes in place at the
state and federal level. Not just for drug cases anymore, forfeiture
covers the likes of money laundering, fraud, gambling, importing tainted
meats and carrying intoxicants onto Indian land.

The White House, Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Administration
say they've made the most of the expanded law in getting the big-time
criminals, and they boast of seizing mansions, planes and millions in
cash. But the Pittsburgh Press in just 10 months was able to document
510 current cases that involved innocent people -- or those possessing a
very small amount of drugs -- who lost their possessions. // And DEA's
own database contradicts the official line. It showed that big-ticket
items -- valued at more than $50,000 -- were only 17 percent of the
total 25,297 items seized by DEA during the 18 months that ended last

``If you want to use that 'war on drugs' analogy, the forfeiture is like
giving the troops permission to loot,'' says Thomas Lorenzi,
president-elect of the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense
Lawyers. // The near-obsession with forfeiture continues without any
proof that it curbs drug crime -- its original target. // ``The reality
is, it's very difficult to tell what the impact of drug seizure is,''
says Stanley Morris, deputy director of the federal drug czar's office.

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