by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

Since the mid-1980s it has become common practice, for law enforcement agencies to seize property believed to be used or purchased by suspected drug dealers or users. Federal and state asset forfeiture laws have generated millions of dollars in seized drug cash — plus booty such as cars, homes, planes and boats — which have been turned over to local law enforcement agencies. As a result, the laws, perversely, have made police departments financially dependent on the drug dealing they are supposed to curtail. Lt. Michael Post, who heads the Glendale (California) Police Department’s narcotics unit says that he has seen evidence of other police departments “under pressure to be revenue producers,” to the point where they use shortcuts to seize drug cash but do not follow up on their investigations in an effort to arrest the dealers. And while most officials deny it, the seizure laws certainly can cloud the judgment of local police, leading them to investigate suspects based on their assets rather than their threat to the community.

Since Congress authorized the return of drug assets to local law enforcement agencies in 1984, the program has come under fire from more than one federal agency. In a report issued last June, the U.S. General Accounting Office criticized both U.S. Customs and the Justice Department for inadequate management of the program. Three months later, the Justice Department’s inspector general also complained about the program’s management.

Perhaps more disturbing is that property may be seized without legal concern as to the guilt of the owner, without due process of law, and without any more evidence than “we suspect him/her of drug activity.” This tactic of seizing property was developed to discourage high-stakes, high-profile drug dealers from gorging themselves on drug-profits through extravagant living. It is not surprising, however, that this new-found strategy has been subverted by enforcement groups hungry for the spoils of the drug war.

In one such case, a West-Texas sheriff has been using the seizure laws to develop an “extra jurisdictional” strike force. According to the Texas Observer, Midland County Sheriff Gary Painter is coordinating a group of drug mercenaries. The group tracks down and stings suspected drug dealers outside county lines, then brings the spoils back into Midland County, and reaps the profits. The most troubling question, however, is the legality of “paramilitary” deputies sweeping across the countryside, seizing property without concern for the due process rights of suspects. Apparently as long as these activities are profitable for groups like Painter’s, “freelance” deputies will be encouraged to pillage at will.


SOURCE: THE TEXAS OBSERVER, 307 West 7th St., Austin, TX 78701, DATE: 10/18/91

TITLE: “Have Badge, Will Travel”

AUTHORS: David Armstrong and Nick Johnson

SOURCE: LOS ANGELES TIMES, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053, DATE: 4/16/91

TITLE: “Seized Assets Underwrite the War on Drugs” AUTHOR: Ronald L. Soble

COMMENTS: Investigative author David Armstrong notes that “Law enforcement officers are generally portrayed as dedicated civil servants out to serve, protect and defend their communities. Forfeiture laws established as part of the War on Drugs,’ however, have provided an almost irresistible incentive for law enforcement agencies to forsake traditional duties in favor of more sensational operations that could enrich their departments. A more  thorough examination of this phenomenon by the mainstream media could help communities to recognize and combat the dangers inherent in this situation.” Armstrong adds that while law enforcement agencies benefit from the limited coverage given this issue, ‘The big losers, of course, are the taxpayers, who are not only deprived of the full services of their law enforcement agencies, but may also fall victim to a War on Drugs’ run amok.”

Los Angeles Times reporter Ronald Soble, who said he saw very little coverage of the federal and state forfeiture programs, provides a different insight into the issue from David Armstrong. ‘The subject should have a major public impact to the extent that it demonstrates that individuals dealing in drugs stand to lose everything of value that they own. Property, cars, jewelry -­all of this is subject to confiscation. Losing all of one’s possessions is a daunting proposition. Furthermore, it demonstrates that the government has a financing mechanism in place that will continue to underwrite the war on drugs for the foreseeable future.

“Undoubtedly the major drug cartels would benefit from lack of coverage. The cartels need the middle men for distribution. If the distributors feel they can deal in cocaine and heroin without fear of government intervention, Washington and the state will make no progress. But if there is wide media coverage of a well-financed anti-drug campaign, it could have an intimidating impact on the distributors in this country. The dealers need to know — through the media — that not only will they face jail time, but that their possessions will be confiscated. Such stories generate public confidence in the war on drugs.”