Supreme Court Curbs Police Property Seizures Law-Enforcement Authorities Warn That War on Drugs Will Be Stymied Series: GOVERNMENT'S BIG GRAB CIVIL FORFEITURE. Part 7 of an Occasional Series

Article excerpt

PIECE by piece, federal judges are dismantling a powerful weapon used by lawmen in the war on drugs.

The weapon - civil asset forfeiture - permits government officials to seize homes, businesses, cars, airplanes, cash, and other property used in drug crimes and other illegal schemes. Police often act without a court hearing.

The United States Supreme Court now has warned the government in a series of precedent-setting decisions that police and prosecutors are treading on dangerous ground. The judges caution US officials that fundamental American liberties are being put at risk by the drug war.

Brenda Grantland, a California attorney who has waged a decade-long struggle against forfeiture, cheers the court's decisions, but says many abuses remain. The most recent case, US v. Good, was decided last week on a 5-to-4 vote.

"Case by case, we are getting back to the Constitution," she says. "The courts had to rein in the government, or we would lose everything we have under the Constitution." Police are alarmed

Federal, state, and local law-enforcement officials are alarmed, however. They warn that their battle against drug felons will be crippled unless they have the authority to seize suspects' assets quickly before a trial or a hearing.

In the latest case, the government had grabbed the home in Hawaii of James Daniel Good, a known drug dealer. Although Mr. Good had served a jail term for his crime and paid a $1,000 fine, lawmen suddenly seized his house 4 1/2 years after his arrest. He was given no opportunity to challenge the action prior to seizure.

Such aggressive government action is not unusual. Police often forfeit property without warning, especially when it involves cars, boats, or cash, which can be quickly moved outside their jurisdictions. The courts have accepted such seizures. However, the court said a house is another story - and Mr. Good's ability to defend his property was unlawfully abridged.

Although Good was a drug dealer, Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, reminded government lawyers that even criminals have rights.

"Fair procedures are not confined to the innocent," Justice Kennedy wrote.

The court also reasserted the constitutional principle that property rights are an essential part of the American system.

"Individual freedom finds tangible expression in property rights," the court said. "At stake in this and many other forfeiture cases are the security and privacy of the home and those who take shelter within it."

In their defense, government officials point out that before seizing a home, they go before a judge and request, in effect, permission to "arrest" the house. …

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