Aug 11, 1991
from the Pittsburgh Press
The "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures" is enshrined in the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. For the most part, this bedrock right is so firmly entrenched, so thoroughly borne out by experience, that Americans take it for granted. When we read of an honest family deprived of its savings or its home or farm at the whim of the police, we assume an isolated abuse or think smugly of faraway tyrannies unblessed by our cherished Bill of Rights. At least we used to. The remarkable series "Presumed Guilty," by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters Andrew Schneider and Mary Pat Flaherty, now running in this newspaper, paints a startlingly different picture. It documents a rash of unreasonable seizures unintentionally spawned by the war on drugs. The opening for this corrosion of civil rights was the amendment of the racketeering laws, starting in 1984, to permit authorities to confiscate possessions of suspects never charged with crimes, much less convicted. This radical departure from traditions of law was justified in terms of "seizing the assets of drug criminals," as the White House National Drug Strategy put it, and helping "dismantle larger criminal organizations." So much for intentions. Mr. Schneider and Ms. Flaherty's 10-month investigation documents more than 400 cases of innocent people forced to forfeit money or property to federal authorities. These victims are farmers and factory workers, small-business owners and retirees. Often, their only offense was exhibiting behavior or personal traits considered typical of drug couriers. But even among people convicted of crimes, some penalties were wildly disproportionate. Should a family be permanently robbed of the farm that is its home and livelihood because six marijuana plants were found growing in a field? "Presumed Guilty" is a withering indictment of the forfeiture laws. This page will explore its implications in the coming days.