IT was Friday afternoon, just before New Year's. Walter Cwikla,
a state safety adviser, was behind his house, chopping firewood.
His wife, JoAnn, was grocery shopping. Unnoticed, a federal agent
walked to their front door where he posted an official warning -
their home was being seized by the United States government.
Federal attorneys claimed that years before, the Cwiklas' garage
had been used briefly to store drugs for a marijuana trafficker.
The government's "proof": testimony from anonymous witnesses.
Returning home, Mrs. Cwikla discovered the seizure notice. "I
almost passed out," she recalls. "I couldn't believe it. I
thought they had the wrong person.... It was terrible. I lost 20
That was 1989, yet today the Cwiklas' troubles persist. The case
still has not come to trial. Legal fees are piling up. The family's
finances are drained. The government offered to "settle" if the
Cwiklas will pay $25,000, but they refused. "My husband ... was
livid," Mrs. Cwikla says.
In the government's war on narcotics, the Cwikla case is
symbolic. Federal and state lawmen, using expanded powers granted
by Congress in the 1980s, can create financial, emotional, and
legal havoc for ordinary citizens.
JoAnn and Walter Cwikla are accused of no crime. No illegal
drugs were ever found on their property. No federal law enforcement
official has ever searched their house. Yet under asset-forfeiture
laws passed by Congress during the Reagan presidency, US officials
can confiscate their property, even on hearsay testimony, without
a criminal conviction.
Controversial cases like the Cwiklas' can be found from coast to
coast. Jon Schoenhorn, the Cwiklas' attorney, compares the
enforcement of drug laws to "the communist witch hunts" of the
1950s. Just an accusation of illegal behavior can be disastrous.
Mrs. Cwikla charges: "They just want to ruin your life."
Critics claim that the Reagan-era drug laws are dangerously
flawed. They permit government agents in drug cases to bypass
criminal procedures - including constitutional safeguards - to
impose huge civil penalties, an area in which the burden of proof
is much less stringent.
Further, when law enforcement agencies seize property, they
usually are permitted to keep the loot - whether it is cash, real
estate, airplanes, or vehicles. The more they seize, the more they
Grim stories about zealous enforcement of the drug laws are
raising cries of alarm from defense attorneys, constitutional
scholars, lawmakers, and the news media.
* In Ventura County, Calif., officers stormed into the home of
Mr. and Mrs. Donald Scott at Trails End Ranch in search of
marijuana. Mr. Scott was shot dead. No drugs were found. Later,
the county district attorney accused state and federal lawmen of
being motivated by a desire to seize Scott's valuable ranch, and
share the proceeds among various agencies.
* In Martin County, Fla., Customs agents and sheriff's deputies
searched a newly purchased boat being delivered to Craig Klein, who
was then a professor at Jacksonville University. In their hunt for
illegal drugs, the officers punched 30 holes in the hull, ruptured
the fuel tank, ripped out woodwork, and destroyed the engine.
Again, no drugs. Damage, $30,500. The boat was sold for scrap.
* In Hamden, Conn., the residence of Paul and Ruth Derbacher was
seized after marijuana and cocaine belonging to their grandson was
found in their home. They had raised the grandson since he was 10.
The government sold the grandparents' home, but in a compromise
that a US attorney calls "about as fair as you can get," the
government gave the couple a $25,106.46 check for a portion of its
value. A state judge told the Derbachers, who now live in an
apartment: "You are probably only guilty of being too tolerant of
a criminal grandson."
Congress was targeting drug kingpins when it passed tough
forfeiture laws during the last decade. …