Guilty Until Proven Innocent

By Randy Fitzgerald

Asset-forfeiture laws were meant to combat drug crimes.
 Instead they’ve become a means to trample your rights.


Five days before Christmas 1995, Cheryl Sanders of Long Beach, Calif., was driving on Interstate 10 in Sulphur, La., when she was stopped by three police officers. They told her she had been speeding. But instead of giving Sanders a ticket, they handcuffed her and took her to a local jail, where she was made to disrobe and submit to a search. No drugs were found on her or in her car, nor did she have a criminal record.

“You’re free to go now,” a policeman told Sanders. “But we’re keeping your car.”

Under Louisiana’s civil asset-forfeiture law in 1995, police could seize vehicles on little more than suspicion that the owner was a drug dealer. Sulphur police said that the trunk of Sanders’s Lincoln Town Car contained a 21 2-inch-deep compartment under a false bottom capable of concealing narcotics.

Sanders, who had purchased the car used only six months earlier, didn’t know what they were talking about. She hired an attorney, and after seven months a judge ruled that the city had to return her property since the police seizure lacked probable cause. By then she had had to sell the car to pay her legal bills.

“They stole my car,” Sanders complains. “It was highway robbery.”

Sanders is one of countless citizens who feel the same way about a series of controversial laws enacted as part of the war on drugs. In 1984 Congress authorized federal law enforcement agencies to seize any property purchased with drug money or used to facilitate the drug trade.

Many states then enacted their own versions of the statute to allow local prosecutors and police agencies to grab a person’s money or property based on the belief that a drug connection is more probable than not. Critics charge that these laws allow the seizure of assets on virtually anything more than mere suspicion of a link.

In criminal law you’re presumed innocent until proven guilty. But under most civil asset-forfeiture statutes the burden of proof falls on individuals to prove in court that their property is free of any involvement with illegal drug activity. Even to challenge a seizure under federal law, the owner must post a bond of ten percent of the property’s value or $5000, whichever is less.

Driving Away Business

 With this sort of power at the government’s disposal, excesses and abuses are inevitable. An episode involving the Red Carpet Inn in southwest Houston is a case in point.

On February 17, 1998, Acting U.S. Attorney James DeAtley announced that the government was going to seize the property in response to drug activity that the owners were “facilitating by not taking steps to prevent.”

Jason Brice was stunned. To prevent criminal activity by guests and visitors, the co-owner and manager of the Red Carpet Inn had signed a trespass affidavit with the Houston Police Department, giving officers the right to patrol the grounds and question patrons. He also hired night security guards, required guests to show driver’s licenses to obtain a room, and installed video cameras in the parking lot.

Then the Houston police and city attorney’s office wanted the Red Carpet Inn to raise its room rates from $29 a night, a move they believed would keep out drug users. Brice resisted, arguing that he had to keep rates down in this low-income area to compete with the six other hotels and motels located nearby.

According to Brice, the police presence on his property intimidated innocent customers. “It scared them and began to drive away our business.” He withdrew the trespass agreement, which had given police free rein on his property. Three weeks later U.S. Attorney DeAtley filed a lawsuit seeking forfeiture of the motel. The complaint alleged that the operators “had knowledge that the Defendant Property was being used to facilitate drug transactions and consented to the use of the property to facilitate the illegal activity.”

Brice was particularly enraged that the government cited “32 calls for police service (that) resulted in narcotics or currency being seized” during 1996 and 1997. By his count he and his security guards themselves had initiated many of these calls.

After months of wrangling, the government dropped its suit, in return for Brice’s agreeing to make some minor security improvements to the motel. Meanwhile, his business had incurred $60,000 in legal fees.

In a blistering editorial, the Houston Chronicle accused the U.S. Attorney of overstepping his bounds. “Good people should not have to fear property seizure because they operate businesses in high-crime areas.”

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