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Seizure Out of Control
an Editorial
Aug 18, 1991
from the Pittsburgh Press
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.