The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide whether the Constitution bars prosecution of drug lords after civil courts seize money and property associated with their crimes.
Hundreds of prosecutions are endangered because criminals are winning federal appeals on double-jeopardy grounds, Solicitor General Drew S. Days III said in asking the court to settle the question.
Federal appeals courts in the 6th and 9th circuits found aspects of the civil and criminal processes unconstitutional, but earlier cases in the 1st and 11th circuits were decided for the government. Resolving such splits among circuits is a prime function for the high court.
Even the sternest anti-crime activists voice qualms about the fairness of civil forfeitures, particularly when the wealth gained helps finance the law enforcement agency that brings the case.
"I think there is a growing unease with what is perceived to be a rising zeal for forfeitures," said Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, Calif.
"I have some reservations on forfeiture. It is a valuable tool when done properly, but I am uneasy when the agency that does the forfeiture ends up with the money," he said yesterday.
The court took these cases involving forfeiture issues:
* The 1992 Los Angeles convictions of James Wren and Charles Arlt, who were sent to prison for manufacturing amphetamines and laundering money by one federal judge, then ordered by another in a civil case to forfeit $405,089.23 in cash plus automobiles, silver ingots, a helicopter and a boat.
* The seizure of $5 million in property in Lake Tahoe, Nev., Squaw Valley, Calif., and Hawaii belonging to Brian J. Degen, a dual citizen of the United States and Switzerland who stayed in Europe to avoid trial for a smuggling operation that imported $250 million worth of drugs. His attorney in the civil case was not permitted to offer a defense because the client was a fugitive.
* The 1993 marijuana conviction of Guy Jerome Ursery, who forfeited $13,250 as a civil penalty for growing the narcotic on his farm in Perry, Mich.
Only Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor were at the court yesterday when orders were issued. The decisions came at a conference moved up to Thursday because of snow warnings.
Justice O'Connor drove her own car to work, while court …