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What Price This War?
an Editorial
Aug 14, 1991
from the Pittsburgh Press
In its zealous prosecution of the "war on drugs," the government
undeniably and intolerably has trampled the rights of countless innocent
people.

Using hundreds of wide-open federal and state seizure laws, police and
prosecutors have taken homes, cash and other personal possessions of people
whose only offense was being in the wrong place at the wrong time or fitting
some officer's or informant's preconceived, and likely racist, notion of what
a criminal looks like.

In some localities, government seizures take on the trappings of a
criminal enterprise, with prosecutors, police departments, judges and
tipsters conspiring to grab someone's property and divvy it up, all without
regard to due process of law.

Those on the receiving end of such injustices are to be excused if they
come to regard the government itself as a corrupt organization.

The abuses are documented in a continuing series, "Presumed Guilty," by
reporters Mary Pat Flaherty and Andrew Schneider of The Pittsburgh Press.

The series examines the effect of a 1984 change in the federal
racketeering law that allows police to seize the property of those even
marginally involved with illegal drug activity. No conviction is required, only
a showing of "probable cause." The idea was to deprive drug traders of their
trinkets and baubles: the jewelry, cars, boats and real estate bought with
illegal proceeds.

The kicker was that the assets would revert to the law enforcement agency
that seized them, with proceeds going to finance the fight against drugs. Some
$2 billion has been generated for police departments, much of which no doubt
has been put to good use.

But there are instances - far too many of them - in which financial
incentive and lack of safeguards have pushed the "good guys" over the line. In
Hawaii, federal prosecutors combed through records of old cases looking for
opportunities to seize property. They took the home of Joseph and Frances
Lopes, a couple of modest means whose son had pleaded guilty four years earlier
to growing marijuana in the backyard for his personal use.  "The Lopeses should
be happy we let them live there as long as we did," an arrogant G-man snorted.

At some airports, counter clerks spy on customers, looking for those
carrying large amounts of cash. They tip off the cops and collect a cut of the
loot if there is a seizure.

Police, using dubious "profile" criteria that disproportionately target
minorities, stop people like Willie Jones, a landscaper from Nashville. Mr.
Jones' "crime" was to be carrying cash on a trip to Houston to buy shrubbery.
He was relieved of $9,600 by Drug Enforcement Administration agents.

Like 80 percent of those whose property has been taken, Mr. Jones was not
charged with a crime. He's still fighting the government to get his money back.

The reporters' 10-month investigation revealed more than 400 cases from
Maine to Hawaii in which the rights of innocent people were steamrollered.
Their findings should send a chill up the backs of all citizens - most
particularly those in the law enforcement community who must act to salvage the
credibility and legitimacy of the war on drugs.