Louisiana Law Enforcement Stops Innocent Motorists and Seizes Their Property, Reports NBC's "Dateline"
Louisiana law enforcement officers have been stopping motorists without cause and illegally seizing money and property from them, according to a January 3 broadcast of the NBC news magazine, "Dateline" (Deann Smith, "Foster to review drug forfeiture laws," Sunday Advocate (Baton Rouge), January 5, 1997, p. B1; Greg Garland, "I-10 drug searches," Sunday Advocate (Baton Rouge), February 9, 1997, p. A1).
The 45-minute program focused on cases in which motorists were stopped, arrested, and had their property seized without evidence of drugs in their car. The program said most of the misconduct occurred along Interstate 10 in Jefferson Davis and Cameron parishes in southwestern Louisiana, and that out-of state travelers, particularly minorities, were usually targeted. Hidden cameras used to record searches and seizures showed police officers stopping the TV crew for "violations" they did not commit and asking crew members how much money they had. "Dateline" reporter John Larson spent more than a year researching abuses of the state's drug forfeiture law.
Under state law, to sue for a return of their seized assets, uncharged citizens must pay the highest bond in the nation -- 10% of the property's value or $2,500, whichever is greater. The burden of proving their innocence is on the citizens. Baton Rouge defense attorney Jim Boren, who claims that drug forfeiture corruption is statewide, said district attorneys' offices sometimes offer to return half or a third of the value of the property seized to settle the claims.
The distribution of seized assets also came under fire in the NBC program. In Louisiana, 60% of seizure proceeds goes to the law enforcement agency that seized the property, 20% goes to the district attorney, and the remaining 20% goes to state judges' judicial expense fund. "It is a classic conflict of interest," said U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-IL), because the judges who determine if the seizure was made legally receive the money. Boren said law enforcement officials sometimes use the money for reasons other than improving drug law enforcement, citing a case in which a district attorney used seized money to buy an aquarium for his office.
Soon after the "Dateline" broadcast, which was watched by an estimated 12.7 million households and finished in the top-10 of prime-time television shows for that week, state and local tourism bureaus began receiving calls from people threatening to cancel trips or conventions. Louisiana obtains a high proportion of its income from tourism, including the Super Bowl in late January and Mardi Gras in February. Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Blanco, head of the state's tourism office, estimated the show could cost Louisiana $150 million. The Louisiana tourism bureau can be contacted at P.O. Box 44243, Baton Rouge, LA 70808, Tel: (504) 342-8100.
The Louisiana House Criminal Justice Committee discussed the report shortly after its broadcast. If a quarter of this is true, it's really disturbing," said Committee Chairman Steve Windhorst (R) (1601 Belle Chase Hwy., Suite 201, Terrytown, LA 70056, Tel: (504) 364-8000). David Lavergne, an attorney for the House committee told NwsBriefs there was a "good chance" that bills changing the forfeiture law would be introduced in the upcoming legislative session that begins in March, but that all bills are "confidential until they are pre-filed." None had been pre-filed by February 5. Lavergne said the committee would probably hold another discussion of the allegations after they receive a legislative auditor's report that is examining the charges and determining how the forfeiture money is being used.
Louisiana Governor Mike Foster (R) "is open to looking at changes in the law as long as they don't undermine the actual law enforcement," said Marsanne Golsby, the governor's press secretary. E. Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorney's Association also supports minor changes to the law to correct alleged abuses.
The drug forfeiture law was approved by voters in 1989 as a constitutional amendment and was opposed at the time by Baton Rouge's daily newspaper, the Morning Advocate. In an editorial on January 11, 1997, the Morning Advocate said the "Dateline" program showed abuses that "are encouraged by a system that anoints law enforcers with too much power and rewards them for stretching those powers." The paper also criticized state officials' calls for reform as "tame" because "they still allow motorists to be shaken down without evidence of a crime and require citizens to prove they deserve their own property back." In addition, the paper said the system "tempts prosecutors to go easy on real drug lords by making deals to keep seized cars or drug money in exchange for dropping charges and letting the criminal walk." ("OUR VIEWS: La. deserves this black eye," Morning Advocate (Baton Rouge), January 11, 1997, p. 6B)
For information on forfeiture abuses and forfeiture law reform, contact Forfeiture Endangers American Rights (FEAR), 20 Sunnyside, Suite A-204, Mill Valley, CA 94941, Voice Mail: (415) 388-8128, http://www.fear.org.