laws were meant to combat drug crimes.
Instead theyve become a means to trample your
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.
free to go now, a policeman told Sanders. But were keeping your
Under Louisianas 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 Sanderss 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, didnt 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.
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
Many states then enacted their own versions of the statute to allow local prosecutors and
police agencies to grab a persons 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.
law youre 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
propertys value or $5000, whichever is less.
sort of power at the governments 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.
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 drivers licenses to obtain a room, and
installed video cameras in the parking lot.
Then the Houston police and city attorneys 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.
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
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.
months of wrangling, the government dropped its suit, in return for Brices 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.