Making the Case for Forfeiture Series: GOVERNMENT'S BIG GRAB CIVIL FORFEITURE. Hundreds of Millions of Dollars in Assets Seized from Drug Traffickers Are Plowed Back into Law Enforcement. for Some, This Is a `Delicious Irony.' Part 2 of a Five-Part Series. First of Two Articles Appearing Today. Part 1 Ran Sept. 28

Article excerpt

CALL it "jalopy justice."

Five years ago, local drug traffickers flaunted their new-found wealth by driving through this suburban community in snazzy new Porsches, Ferraris, and BMWs. Then came the crackdown.

Police grabbed the criminals' fancy wheels, seizing them under California's 1988 asset-forfeiture law. Drug dealers tried to steer around the law by leasing their costly cars. But police then confiscated the equity in their leases.

Today, Ventura County drug dealers are a chastened lot, forced to drive old "clunkers" not worth seizing, says Ronald Janes, senior attorney with the Ventura County District Attorney's office.

Mr. Janes says proudly: "If nothing else, we prevented them from going around in these flashy Ferraris, and giving off the message to young people that drug dealing is a dramatic way to make a living."

Janes lauds the laws which gave police the power to seize any property used in a drug crime, or purchased with drug profits. Across the United States, these state and federal laws snagged nearly $3 billion in cash and property from drug traffickers during the past eight years, according to the latest Justice Department figures.

Now that may change. Forfeiture is under attack. The California legislature recently refused to renew the 1988 state law that took away drug dealers' cars in Ventura.

Congress is considering a newly introduced bill to curb the federal government's forfeiture authority. The courts say lawmen may be exceeding their constitutional authority. Criticism of forfeiture is growing among defense attorneys, judges, lawmakers, scholars, and civil libertarians.

The complaints worry lawmen. Right now, US marshals have a huge storehouse of seized drug assets in custody that includes $64,453,093.32 in cash, 300 boats, 90 aircraft, 119 businesses, 14,000 automobiles, 4,903 pieces of real estate, and a king's ransom in jewelry.

Most of this cache will eventually be turned over to law enforcement agencies - federal, state, and local - to finance the battle against illegal narcotics. Loss of those resources could cripple the decade-long Reagan-Bush-Clinton "drug war."

Yet critics are growing louder. One of the most outspoken, Superior Court Judge James Gray of Santa Ana, Calif., says the unremitting effort to grab drug assets threatens Americans' First, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendment rights.

Nor is the all-out effort really effective. Judge Gray notes that in eight years of tough enforcement, police have gotten hold of less than 1 percent of the drug traffickers' booty.

"We're in worse shape {with drugs} than when we started," the judge concludes.

Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, a conservative Republican, reflects the mixed emotions some lawmakers have toward civil forfeiture.

He calls forfeiture a "delicious irony," since hundreds of millions of dollars every year are confiscated from drug traffickers, then plowed back into law enforcement. Representative Hyde finds that "wholly proper."

But he continues: "On the darker side, some of our civil asset seizure laws are being used in terribly unjust ways and depriving innocent citizens of their property.... This is wrong and it must be changed."

Such criticism gets little support, however, out on tough city streets, where drug gangs rule the night. Many residents in Boston, Washington, Miami, Los Angeles, and New York cheer tough police action - the tougher, the better.

In Dorchester, on Boston's east side, blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asians live side-by-side under constant threat of drug shootouts. Alyce Lee, a community organizer, would like to see stronger law enforcement, even if some property owners are hurt.

Ms. Lee, who is executive director of the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation (CSNDC), says: "It's a disgrace that we're not more aggressive about stopping the flow of drugs to our inner cities, where our urban poor live. …