* Legal Plunder
- J.A.I.L. News Journal
Los Angeles, California January 11, 2002
Legal PlunderCritics target drug raid seizures
Police often keep property even absent a conviction
Thursday, December 13, 2001
By SAM SKOLNIK
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
Before dawn, heavily armed officers stormed Shane Hendrickson's Tacoma home. They busted open the front door, grabbed the self-employed painter and hauled him off to the police station.
There, they grilled him, accusing him of participating in a major pot-growing operation. Hendrickson steadfastly denied it, and hours later, detectives had enough doubts to cut him loose.
By the time he returned home that day, Oct. 4, Hendrickson's baby-blue 1984 Chevy van -- with Dialed-in Paint Co. stenciled on the sides -- was gone. So were his business papers, including bids for upcoming jobs. And his girlfriend's new computer and all her disks.
In the blink of an eye, Hendrickson, 27, was out of work.
"It just kind of shut me down for a while," he said. "These people think they're above God."
Hendrickson, though, was more fortunate than most. He hasn't been charged with a crime, and, after a month or so, the last of his property was returned -- albeit with a lawyer's help.
In the past decade, drug-related property seizures have skyrocketed in Washington, with annual proceeds raised from auctions statewide jumping from $1.2 million to a record $6.7 million in 2000. That doesn't count forfeitures made by federal agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration or the FBI.
In King County last year, .... [o]ne out of five people whose property was seized were never charged with a crime. When people were charged, the cases were dropped about 23 percent of the time, according to records obtained from the state Treasurer's Office and a search of computerized court documents. ....
Fears of overzealous law enforcement have spurred a drive to revamp the law -- toughening the legal standard for forfeiture and barring police from taking a person's property until he or she is convicted of a crime.
Backers of Initiative 256, which include the American Civil Liberties Union, must collect 197,734 valid signatures by Jan. 4 in order to put the measure before the 2002 Legislature. Lawmakers can pass I-256 outright or put it on the ballot next November.
Forfeiture money helps fund drug enforcement efforts, which critics call a blatant conflict, driving authorities to seize as much as they can from suspects -- even when there's insufficient evidence to support criminal charges. ....
The P-I examined 236 King County cases involving property seizures last year and found that 50 suspects, or 21 percent, were never charged. Of the 186 cases that were prosecuted, 42 (23 percent) dissolved into acquittals or dismissed charges, court records show. There has been no resolution in 19 other cases.
Thus, at least 39 percent of the 236 cases never resulted in convictions, a fact law enforcement officials say isn't surprising. ....
Even though the criminal cases often crumble, property seizures usually stand up. In the vast majority of cases, people who have property seized never get it back, according to defense attorneys, prosecutors and police. ....
The move to change Washington's law comes in the midst of efforts to reform property-seizure standards nationwide.
After years of failed efforts, Congress last year passed a bill sponsored by Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., that toughens the standard for federal forfeitures. And voters in Oregon and Utah passed initiatives last year to change their own laws.
In July, unsatisfied with the legislation passed in Olympia, a coalition of activists -- on the left and the right of the political spectrum -- took matters into their own hands by pushing a citizens initiative. ....
"There was a purpose in the Bill of Rights," said Erne Lewis, a Libertarian Party activist who is spearheading the initiative effort. "It was to protect individuals and their property. Forfeiture is a weapon, and this is what they'll tell you. 'We use this to get guilty pleas,' they say. Well, so does torture."
Under Washington's law, the agency that seizes the goods gets to keep 90 percent of the proceeds, after a public auction. ...
It took 2 1/2 years after concerns were first raised internally for the King County Sheriff's Office to stop allowing employees to use vehicles seized in drug cases. At one point, 21 detectives and officials -- including the budget and accounting director, the legal adviser, a volunteer chaplain and the Asian community liaison -- were driving the cars. ...
In March 1997, a drug unit sergeant, Dawn Grout, raised the issue in a letter to Frank Adamson, chief of the Criminal Investigations Division, apparently to little effect.
The following February, she sent another memo identifying 16 drug-seized vehicles that she said were still "assigned to non-drug enforcement personnel in direct violation of state law."
The issue was still unresolved in September 1999, when the Auditor's Office concluded after a brief investigation that "some vehicles are not being appropriately used" at the sheriff's office. A short time later, the last of the seized cars were returned to the drug unit.
Sheriff Dave Reichert, who was appointed in March 1997, about four weeks before Grout sent her first memo, said that "when the problem rose to my level, I took care of it. I took the cars away."
Not everyone, including long-time budget and accounting chief Jon McCracken, was happy about losing the cars, Reichert said.
McCracken, who had been driving a 1991 beige Buick Park Avenue sedan, referred calls seeking his comment to sheriff's spokesman John Urquhart.
Urquhart said part of McCracken's job is to handle the accounting of large amounts of money involved in drug seizures and undercover buys.
"We thought it was a legitimate use of a vehicle," Urquhart said, defending McCracken's prior use of the vehicle. "Where do you draw the line? If 25 percent of the activity is drug investigation-related, is that enough?"
When Puyallup police arrested Lance Gloor on a drug charge in December 1999, they practically stripped his house bare. Hundreds of items were seized, ranging from two cars and stereo gear to the 22-year-old maintenance worker's collection of music CDs.
"They cleaned me out," he said. .... When he went to the police station to press his case, Gloor said, he saw his big-screen TV in the break room. His $2,000 stereo speakers, he was told, were in the office of one of the detectives who made the bust. Neither the detective, Wayne Spencer, nor Police Chief Rodger Cool returned calls for comment.
For the most part, Gloor prevailed. Craig Adams, legal adviser for the Pierce County Sheriff's Department, recommended returning much of Gloor's property, concluding that police went too far.
"I looked at the case, and I didn't think it was a very good one, in terms of search-and-seizure and the like," Adams said. "I said (to police), 'What proof do you have that this is proceeds of drug money?' I don't think there was a whole lot of evidence, quite honestly. ....
The Gloor case, however, illustrates how easy it is to cart off a person's belongings and how difficult it can be to get them back.
© 1998-2001 Seattle Post-Intelligencer
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