Asset Seizure Horror Story Recounted At Hearing
Jun 22 1992
from the Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) _ After Hurricane Hugo wrecked Selena Washington's South Carolina home in 1990, she headed south with $19,000 to hunt for cheap building materials. But she was halted halfway down Florida's east coast by a sheriff's officer for speeding. On a dark highway, he declared the cash drug money, seized it and drove away. No receipt. No ticket. No arrest. To try to get some official to look at papers showing where she got the money and what she was going to buy, Washington followed the officer down unlighted, unknown sidestreets to the station. She got nowhere. Later, an attorney worked out a deal that let the sheriff keep $4,000 because fighting for it all would cost far more. She wound up with only $13,800, because the lawyer got $1,200. "What happened to you is unconstitutional, un-American,'' Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., told Washington after hearing her tale at a congressional hearing Tuesday. "This is not a police state.'' "Extortion,'' is what Rep. Al McCandless, R-Calif., called it. The House Government Operations' subcommittee on legislation and national security is considering a bill by Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., to end some abuses of the nation's asset seizure and forfeiture law. Law enforcement officials see asset forfeiture as a good way to separate law breakers from ill-gotten gains while pumping millions into useful purposes such as building prisons, but detractors say some departments are wielding it to gain easy access to money. One case often cited is last October's slaying of reclusive millionaire Donald P. Scott in Malibu, Calif. A prosecutor concluded that a desire to seize Scott's $5 million ranch led to the drug raid that killed him. Los Angeles Sheriff Sherman Block has disputed the conclusion. Hyde defended targeting drug traffickers with asset forfeiture but said changes must be made because "our civil asset seizure laws are being used in terribly unjust ways, are depriving innocent citizens of their property with nothing that can be called due process.'' His bill would, among other things: force the government, not the owner, to prove the seizure is appropriate; provide attorneys for poor owners; give owners more time to contest forfeitures and enable them to sue the government for mishandling property. And the conservative Illinois Republican has an infrequent ally, the liberal American Civil Liberties Union, which is supporting Hyde's bill. As for Selena Washington, there is another side to the story of April 24, 1990, said Volusia County Sheriff's spokeswoman Cheryl Downs. Because of a class action lawsuit filed Friday, officials are silent about the case now. But previously they said that Washington, who denied having a criminal record, in fact was convicted in 1982 for illegally transporting liquor and that she told officers she was going to Miami to take her passenger to visit relatives, mentioning building materials only after the money was found. They did not say why she was not ticketed for allegedly going 72 mph. The five-man team seizing assets from people who drive south on Interstate 95, known as Florida's main drug pipeline, has seized $8 million, 168 pounds of cocaine, 134 pounds of cannabis, 100 quaaludes and 247 doses of LSD since it started in February 1989, Downs said. The lawsuit alleges the team discriminated against minority motorists. Washington is black. The Orlando Sentinel found Sheriff Bob Vogel's squad arrested only one of every four people they took money from, and more than 90 percent of those who lost money but were not charged with a crime were black or Hispanic. A panel appointed by Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles to review the situation cleared the office, Downs said. The Justice Department's civil rights division is reviewing that report, said Cary Copeland, who heads the department's asset forfeiture office.