PART 4 of 4
Jon Christian Ryter
March 9, 2011
Police agencies routinely refuse to identity "sources" who finger specific targets for seizures. In some cases, the rumors are made up by the police themselves because someone in the department or the city government wanted a particular home, vehicle, or other asset that was suddenly targeted for seizure. The Fort Lauderdale, Florida police seized the $250 thousand riverfront home of a man who had just died from cancer. The reason for the seizure? A confidential informant told the police that, two years earlier, the owner of the house had taken a $10 thousand payment from some drug dealers who used his dock to unload a shipment of cocaine. The informant did not know who the drug dealers were, didn't know the name of the boat that supposedly transported the drugs to Florida, nor did the informant have any idea of the approximate date when the incident supposedly took place. With nothing more than a vague rumor that the owner was involved in a drug transaction a couple of years earlier, and with absolutely no evidence that drugs had ever been offloaded on the man's dock, the police seized the home from the man's heirs.
But that incident is not as bad as the one in which a Malibu, California heir to a European chemical fortune, Donald Scott, was shot to death on October 2, 1992 by LA County sheriff's deputies in a forfeiture raid on his plush ranch. When the story broke in October, 1992, reports leaked out that an official in the US Forest Service wanted the house and believed he could buy it "cheap" in a forfeiture sale. The claim, identifying the official, appeared once in print. The story quickly died and did not resurface. It had "lawsuit" written all over it.
Two US Park Service employees—Ranger Mike Alt and Special Agent Laurel Pistel—were asked to attend a meeting with the LA Sheriff's Rampart Division to discuss marijuana cases. Pistel told the media that she heard Scott's Trail's End Ranch mentioned during the meeting, but added that she did not recall asset forfeiture being discussed by anyone. A raid was planned for that evening. In the meeting aerial photographs of Scott's land were displayed, purportedly supporting the contention that the millionaire was growing marijuana on his land. However, no one could identify anything that resembled the 4,000 cannabis plants that were supposed to be there. The only thing the photos showed was an irrigation system on the property that appeared to have been channeled from a nearby National Park that, according to Alt may or may not have been illegal. There was certainly nothing there that would allow anyone to raid Scott's ranch, let alone seize his property.
Late that night 31 sheriff's deputies and federal agents from no less than five agencies broke down their door and stormed into the house. Frances Scott heard the initial crash and bolted from her bedroom, heading down the stairs only to be greeted by a horde of armed, masked men charging up the stairs—right at her. She screamed. This brought 68-year old Donald Scott—who had cataract surgery earlier that day—out of the bedroom with a gun in hand. Half-blind, Scott ran to the sound of voices to defend his wife. He got as far as the stairwell and was shot dead. Other than as blurs, he likely never saw the men who killed him.
The forfeiture warrant allowed the DEA, FBI and Sheriff's deputies to search his home and property for evidence of marijuana. None was found. No signs of any form of illegal activity was found on the Scott ranch—except the diverted water from the National Park. And that certainly was not a capital offense. Since Scott's ranch was primarily located in Ventura County and not LA County, the Ventura Sheriff's Department claimed jurisdiction to investigate the shooting. After a thorough investigation, Ventura County District Attorney Michael Bradbury concluded that the LA Sheriff's Department had lied to a judge to obtain the search warrant that brought them to Trail's End on the night of Oct. 2, 1992. Bradbury further stated that there was no evidence that there had ever been any marijuana grown anywhere on Scott's property, and that the raid was instigated by someone whose intent was to forfeit the multi-million dollar ranch. Frances Scott has filed a $100 million lawsuit against the LA Sheriff's Department and the deputies who actually killed her husband.
The lawsuit was resolved. Scott's Trail's End home caught fire a few months after his death. Park Service officials refused to allow Ventura County fire engines near the home. It burned to the ground. Ultimately, the Internal Revenue Service seized the property for nonpayment of taxes. The US government assessed a Death Tax on the estate, computed on the value of Scott's foreign inheritance. Not paid as Frances Scott struggled to pursue her lawsuit against Los Angeles County, the penalties and interest on the IRS lien pyramided until the IRS seized every asset possessed by Donald Scott's estate—which, of course included everything in the world the widow possessed. Left virtually penniless, she could no longer pursue her lawsuit against the deputies who wrongfully killed her husband.
The Scott killing created national headlines. One of those who read the headline was Congressman Henry Hyde [R-IL]. Civil asset forfeiture had been a reform in the center of Hyde's plate for almost seven years. In 1992 federal law enforcement agencies seized $450 million in personal assets from American citizens using civil asset forfeiture proceedings that pretty much leave the human defendant penniless and unable to fight the forfeiture in court. Robert Bauman, a former Republican US Congressman from Maryland who now serves on the Board of Directors of FEAR [Forfeiture Endangers American Rights], a Washington, DC advocacy group, said conservatively, $7 to $8 billion in seized asset bonuses have been split between the various federal, state and local police agencies over the past two decades. What troubled Bauman—and Henry Hyde—was that aside from one or two States that turned their "commissions" over to the State treasury, most police departments got to keep the money. And that presented an unacceptable conflict of interest. After Frederick, Maryland police seized the 1988 Toyota pickup of a local resident after he purchased a $40 drug placebo in a police department sting, Maryland Delegate John Arnick proposed a law to reform Maryland's forfeiture laws by adding a section on defendant rights. The House of Delegates denounced his legislation, calling it a crazy law that's "..going to inconvenience the hell out of everyone" by making the cops appear in court and testify why they seized someone's property. The legislators thought the existing law was good because it allowed the owner of the property to buy their property back at one-half the appraised value.
In 1993—when the Newt Gingrich-inspired "Contract With America" gave the GOP control of Congress, Hyde introduced HR315, The Civil Forfeiture Reform Act of 1993. The proposed legislation would shift the burden of proof from the defendant to the government, and provide counsel for indigent defendants whose assets were seized and who couldn't afford legal representation. And, most of all, it allowed those who won back their property in court to sue the government for damages. HR315 passed in the House of Representatives, but died in its fetal stages in the Senate. The more liberal US Senate pretty much took the same view as the Maryland legislature— its an easy way to generate revenue for the government without raising taxes.
Hyde did not give up. He ramped up the bill again in 1995, adding a couple of new twists that the bureaucrats didn't like any better in 1995 than they did in 1993. The Civil Forfeiture Reform Act of 1995 would require whomever seized the defendant's property to return it until the case was decided in federal court and the federal judge—not by some local cop, deputy sheriff, state cop or DEA agent working on commission. In addition, the new law would eliminate the requirement that the litigant post a bond to cover the cost of the proceedings in order to sue the government. A watered-down version of the bill was finally enacted in 2000. Clinton signed the bill into law to help Al Gore during his campaign against George W. Bush. But The Civil Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 did little to solve the problems. But it made it appear that Congress was diligently working to control how RICO was applied against average American citizens when it really wasn't. What the right hand giveth, the left hand always takes away.
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On March 20, 2002 Colorado State Senator Bill Theibaut and State legislator Shawn Mitchell introduced legislation in that State to curb the power of the bureaucracy to confiscate the property of Coloradoans without due process. More and more States are now looking at the "gift horse" that makes up the shortfalls in the State's budget and are realizing that, in far too many instances, the men wearing badges should actually be wearing masks—and they should be the ones arrested for theft. Particularly those police agencies that use sting operations to snare marijuana and crack cocaine users by selling them drugs or drug placebos—and then seizing the cars of those they trap or, seizing the cars of "johns" who approach—or, more often, are approached by—female police officers posing as prostitutes. Entrapment is bad enough, but seizing the cars of those snared by trickery when the drugs they are buying are not real drugs, and the prostitutes they proposition are not real prostitutes raises serious questions about the legitimacy of the forfeitures...even if the seizures do not technically violate the 4th and 5th amendments because government feels it has a compelling need to "test" the moral character of its citizens to see if they will commit a crime if the opportunity presents itself.