When Federal Drug Laws Create Havoc for Citizens Series: GOVERNMENT'S BIG GRAB. CIVIL FORFEITURE. to Many Law Enforcement Officials, Asset Seizure Is a Key Weapon in the War on Drugs. but to Citizens Who Lose Property, It Can Be a Personal and Legal Nightmare. Today, the First in a Five-Part Series
John Dillin, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
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 pounds."
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." Reagan-era laws
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 get.
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. …