Key excesses in the US drug war have been coming under the political gun in recent months. Both “racial profiling” and rampant seizure of property have been getting a great deal of media coverage and debate in the US media and Congress.
Racial profiling refers to the practice of police to officially or unofficially assume that non-whites are more likely to commit crimes and therefore deserve more scrutiny and harassment.
On February 28, the head of the New Jersey State Police was fired by Governor Christie Whitman. Whitman fired Superintendent Carl Williams because he said in a newspaper interview that “minority groups” were more likely to be involved in the cocaine and marijuana trade.
Williams’ comments came on the heels of an appeal by New Jersey officials against a 1996 Superior Court decision, in which a judge said state police “allowed, condoned, cultivated and tolerated discrimination … in its crusade to rid New Jersey of the scourge of drugs.”
The judge’s decision to discharge 19 black drug defendants was based partly on research by professor John Lamberth, who compiled racial records of motorists on the state’s highways, and then compared them with police records of traffic stops and vehicle searches.
In both New Jersey and Maryland, Lamberth found disproportionate numbers of black and Latino motorists were targeted by police.
In 1992, black lawyer Robert Wilkins was detained with his family at the roadside for an hour, while Maryland police fetched their drug-sniffing dog to search his car. He sued the police force, and when a police memo was found which advised that “drug couriers were likely to be black males and females,” the state settled the suit for $95,600, and agreed to retrain officers and take other steps to avoid racism.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has recently filed class-action lawsuits in Maryland, Illinois, New Jersey and Oklahoma, challenging racial profiling. Similar class-action lawsuits are also underway in Ohio and Colorado.
In the Maryland lawsuit, District Judge Catherine Blake ruled that the ACLU had made a “reasonable showing” that Maryland troopers on the I-95 were still engaged in a “pattern and practice” of racial discrimination, despite the Wilkins settlement.
In April, North Carolina became the first state to pass a law requiring data collection on all traffic stops. Similar bills have been introduced in Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas and Virginia. In May, President Clinton ordered federal law authorities to also keep racial traffic-stop data.
Customs also charged
US Customs has also been facing increased charges of racism in their profiling policies. In May, a Congressional subcommittee heard testimony from two women who had been given extreme yet fruitless personal searches by US Customs.
Amanda Buritica, Hispanic, said she was searched and forced to take laxatives by US Customs agents in 1994, when she arrived on a flight from Hong Kong.
Janneral Denson, black, said she was about seven months pregnant when she flew from Jamaica to Florida in 1997. Customs agents took her to a hospital, forced her to take a laxative and shackled her to a bed for two days so they could monitor her bowel movements. Eight days later her son was born prematurely.
A jury awarded Buritica $450,000 last year in her lawsuit against the Customs Service. Denson’s lawsuit is pending.
“We no longer live in an America that will tolerate the basic civil liberties of our citizens being violated by law enforcement officers,” said Democratic Congressman John Lewis. Lewis is preparing a bill which would guarantee basic rights to travelers searched at American airports. The agency would also have to keep data on the race and sex of detained passengers.
In April, the US Customs service created a supposedly “independent” panel to review the procedures used by inspectors looking for drug-smugglers, to find out if non-whites are being targeted for increased searches.
Property seizure reform
Meanwhile, Congress voted in June to reform America’s vicious property seizure laws. The bill must still be ratified by the Senate before coming into force.
Under current law, the federal government can seize any money or property suspected of being used in drug offences and certain other crimes, whether or not the owner has been charged, or is even suspected of taking part of in that crime. This is done through “civil asset forfeiture” where the property itself is considered guilty of the crime. According to Congressman Henry Hyde, the bill’s main proponent and author of Forfeiting Our Property Rights, 80% of the people whose assets are seized by the government under current law are never formally charged with any crime.
In order to retrieve the property, the owner must go to court, post a bond and prove that the property was not used in a crime, forcing owners into a “guilty until proven innocent” situation.
Congress has steadily increased federal authority to seize assets over the past decade. In 1985 the Justice Department seized $27 million in assets, which had soared to $449 million by 1998. Combined with state seizures, over $1 billion was confiscated from Americans last year. According to the New York Times, this includes $349 million in cash, $205 million in real-estate, $49 million in businesses, and $398 million in “other assets.”
Tales of property seizure abuse are plentiful, but one compelling example was the 1998 seizure of the Red Carpet Motel in Houston. There were no allegations that the hotel’s owners had ever participated in any crimes. But prosecutors claimed the management had failed to implement “security measures” dictated by police, including raising room rates to make them less affordable to criminals.
Another example cited in the June 24 Congressional debate was the case of a landscaper, Willie Jones, who was detained in a Nashville airport after paying for his ticket in cash. The $9,000 he was carrying to buy nursery stock was simply confiscated, as officers stated that anyone with that much money “must be involved with drugs.”
Sponsors of the legislation used these and other similar examples to argue for greater controls over how and what property may be seized.
Supporters of the law reform included the American Bar Association, the National Rifle Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Tax Reform, the American Bankers’ Association, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the United States Chamber of Commerce, and pilot, boating, hotel and housing organizations.
Republican Congressman Henry Hyde has spent six years pushing this legislation, which was passed by a vote of 375-48. The bill must now go to the Senate, where the Judiciary Committee has not yet held hearings on it.
“They don’t have to convict you. They don’t even have to charge you with a crime. But they have your property,” said Hyde, a Republican. “This is a throwback to the old Soviet Union, where justice is the justice of the government and the citizen doesn’t have a chance.”
Among other features, Hyde’s bill would:
? Require the government to prove that the property seized was part of a criminal activity. Under existing law, the owner must prove that his property was not used in a crime.
? Remove a requirement that an owner post a bond equal to 10 percent of the property’s value just to get a hearing to challenge the government’s claim.
? Allow a property owner to sue the government for any damage or destruction of the seized property while in the government’s possession.
Hyde’s co-sponsors on the bill included both Republicans and Democrats, many of whom had earlier been feuding over the possible impeachment of President Clinton.
The Clinton administration, backed by national and local policing agencies which profit from property seizure, opposed the legislation, saying it would make it harder to combat crime. Clinton’s potential alternative was voted down by Congress in support of Hyde’s bill.
Although it will likely be quite some time before reforms to property seizure law and racial profiling practices are actually implemented, increased awareness and debate in the public and political spheres bodes well for an eventual end to these extreme abuses, and perhaps ultimately a close to the entire drug war.
? Representative Henry Hyde: 50 E Oak St, Suite 200, Addison, IL 60101; tel (630) 832-5950; fax (630) 832-5969; email email@example.com; web www.house.gov/hyde
? American Civil Liberties Union: ACLU, 125 Broad Street, 18th Floor, New York, NY 10004-2400; email firstname.lastname@example.org; web www.aclu.org
? Forfeiture Endangers American Rights: FEAR, PO Box 15421, Washington, DC 20003; tel (202) 546-4381; email email@example.com; web www.fear.org