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New York Times Magazine Author Critiques Law Enforcement Forfeiture Practices


January 1995

David Heilbroner, a former Manhattan assistant district attorney, takes a look at the "Alice-in-Wonderland" world of civil forfeiture in a recent article for the New York Times Magazine (David Heilbroner, "The Law Goes on a Treasure Hunt," The New York Times Magazine, Dec. 11, 1994, p. 70-73).

The author discusses a trip to Sulphur, Louisiana, where he was stopped by police on the pretext of failing to signal a lane change. Heilbroner, however, thought the police had spotted an out-of-towner who might be a forfeiture candidate:

The Sulphur police constitute what might be called one small segment of America's new blue line. The change began in the 1980s with a newly declared war on drugs. Drug enforcement agents bought high-tech hardware and set up extensive undercover operations. They also revived a legal weapon known as civil forfeiture. This began a transformation of American law enforcement . . .

Sulphur, population 20,552, illustrates the transforming power of civil forfeiture. It is a modest Southern town with one main drag, but at its north ends stands a modernistic new office building. Outside its tinted windows and trim lawn, the well-swept Tarmac is crowded with rows of gleaming blue-and-white cruisers and sporty unmarked coupes, many of them equipped with video cameras and computers. The building, cars and gear all belong to the Sulphur Police Department ...

Sulphur may be a small town but it usually ranks first in asset seizures in Louisiana, far surpassing large, crime-ridden cities like New Orleans. Officials say that in the late 1980s, they learned how to turn highway stops into drug searches. They learned so well that since 1990 their police department has seized about $5 million, most of it in cash and at least half from drivers passing along I-10 [Interstate 10 is a major east-west corridor  -- the route between New Orleans and Houston. It is the route from the southeast to Los Angeles] ...

"I would never agree to putting somebody in jail without proof beyond a reasonable doubt," [Rick] Bryant [District Attorney of Calcasieu Park, which includes Sulphur] responds. "But I would agree to taking every dime that guy's got. You're not dealing with people. You're dealing with the forfeiture of property."