Sunday, November 02, 2014

Property Forfeiture

In the very early 1990s I wrote a series of articles on property forfeiture for High Times magazine. It was a vital issue at the time. Now it seems to be rearing its ugly head again, despite Henry Hyde having spearheaded a number of things into law to curb the abuses being perpetrated on pretty decent people. His office, I am proud to say, got in touch with me back in 1992 or 1993 to get background on the issue. I'm sure he got it from several major newspapers who were writing fantastic series on the topic as well. Still, it was nice to be included. By about 2000, give or take, Hyde finally put some brakes on property forfeiture. But it's going wild again.
    My older brother, Mike--a former Lieutenant with the New York PD, a lawyer, and now a part time judge, sent me a story recently from the New York Times on the topic. The following is the exchange--and though it's old, it will give people who do not understand property forfeiture a thumbnail sketch of what it is and what it isn't.
From me:
Mike: Most forfeitures of property involve property that is fully or nearly paid off. Cash is even better because there is no property to sell. I'm sure you remember when airport drug dogs were smelling people's pockets and the police/DEA were seizing the cash the dog's located as drug money. It was a fantastic way to raise funds until --I forget which paper, might have been St. Louis Post Dispatch or the Miami Herald--had random money tested for drugs and it turned out that something on the order of 94 percent of all the bills in circulation in the US had traces of cocaine on them. Property forfeiture would end tomorrow, for all practical purposes, if the authorities had to prove they had a right to seize it--a la a bad check was used to buy a car. I really thought Henry Hyde took a lot of the incentive out of forfeiture back in 2001 or so. I guess some policing forces and now the IRS have discovered new ways around the Hyde forfeiture limitations. This is bad news for good people.

From My Brother:
Michael Gorman Good points, Pete. I like the selectivity of choosing forfeiting property that is nearly paid off -- like making sure the victim is the little guy who will lose everything.

From me:
One of the best stories I got on this in trying to prove the point that it was selective forfeiture based on financial gain rather than on getting rid of bad guys happened years ago while I was doing the Forfeiture work with High Times. I was in regular correspondence with several DEA spokespeople at the time and asked one of them once: Let's say there are four houses on four corners of the same block. One house belongs to a heroin dealer and has mob guys going in and out all day but the house has a $400,000 mortgage. The second house is a place where human trafficking goes on and is known, but has a $400,000 mortgage. The third house is a bordello with naked women in the windows all times of day and night and drunken customers driving up every few minutes, but has a mortgage of $400,000. The fourth house belongs to a grandma who is being supplied marijuana for her glaucoma by her son. Her house is paid off. Which house would the DEA go after first? The answer was: "The grandma, of course. Then we would use the proceeds of the sale of that house to continue funding our investigations of the other three houses." That's about as clear as it gets, eh?

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