State and federal law enforcement say that civil-asset forfeiture is a crucial weapon in the battle against crime, but critics say the laws are a scandal and an outrage.
The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that no person shall "be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."
Under current civil-asset forfeiture, these guarantees have been undermined. Now, largely due to a public outcry about abuses in enforcing the forfeiture laws by state and federal law enforcement, Congress has passed the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000. This bipartisan effort has been seen by some critics as a welcome relief, but others say it does not go far enough.
David Smith, deputy chief of the Asset Forfeiture Office under the Reagan administration and a defense lawyer in Alexandria, Va., has been a major player in civil-asset forfeiture for nearly two decades and a key negotiator in the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000. Smith says that the "1984 asset-forfeiture laws were enacted with good intentions to combat the newly declared war on drugs, but the process is out of control." There are "far too many horror stories and lives that have been ruined."
Take, for instance, the case of Kathy Schrama, who was accused of stealing $500 worth of United Parcel Service packages from her neighbor's doorstep in New Jersey. Local police took her home, two cars and furniture -- they even took her 10-year-old son's Christmas gifts. Schrama pleaded guilty to theft and paid a $5,000 fine and eventually her home was returned to her.
Then there is the case of Delmar Puryear. Police found 500 marijuana plants growing on the disabled retiree's 37-acre farm in Kentucky. Puryear insisted he had no knowledge of the plants and a jury found him innocent of any criminal wrongdoing, but the federal government refused to drop its efforts to seize the farm until Puryear agreed to pay $12,000.
While acknowledging abuses have occurred, state and federal law enforcement insist that civil-asset forfeiture is a crucial weapon in the baffle against narcotraffickers. A Justice Department official who only would speak on the condition of anonymity tells Insight that "civil-asset forfeiture helps us keep a lid on the problem. More than half of all the cases are drug related and that money is traceable back to the cartels -- it means, say, that $600 million is taken out of the hands of the criminals. Allowing state and local law-enforcement agencies to keep a portion of the seized profits is a good incentive to have them cooperate with federal officials. It's not the complete solution to the problem, but it has been the most effective means we've found. And other nations, such as South Africa, the United Kingdom and Ireland, are adopting our system of asset forfeiture because they see that we've made some real headway."
Former Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, Agent Wayne Roques has no doubts about the importance of keeping tough asset-forfeiture laws on the books. "For most of the kingpins and big dealers the loss of their profits is something they really fear" he says. "I have had guys say to me that they didn't mind doing the time -- they always expected to get caught -- but the one thing they didn't want to see happen was their money to be seized."
And successes there have been virtually every law-enforcement source with whom Insight spoke about this issue agreed that the civil-asset forfeiture laws have dealt significant blows to drug kingpins and cartels. But with the successes has come a heavy price for a growing number of innocent people -- mostly at the local level, where the gains from seizures represent a huge windfall for city and state law-enforcement agencies.
"Ed Meese," says Smith "is a big forfeiture reformer and he was the attorney general who succeeded William French Smith under whom many of the forfeiture laws were enacted. …