How to catch drug smugglers -- with their own gear

When the 42-foot luxury fishing boat ''No Respect'' slipped into the shallow waters of Marsh Harbor, Fla., in the summer of 1981, the Broward County Sheriff's Department had more than a hunch there were seven tons of marijuana on board. That's because the boat belonged to the sheriff's department.

''No Respect'' was confiscated in a drug raid the previous year and then pressed into service in an elaborate ''sting'' operation staged by the law enforcers. When the fishing boat arrived in Marsh Harbor from a remote Bahamian island that summer, several of the dozen crewmen were police officers. Sheriffs moved in, arrested nine suspects, and seized the seven tons of marijuana worth more than $5 million.

Spearheaded by a successful Florida law, states are waging the war on crime with a new weapon: laws legalizing the seizure of criminals' assets. A 1980 Florida forfeiture law has netted the state more than $5 million in seized goods. At least four other states passed legislation similar to Florida's in 1982 alone, including Missouri, Utah, Maryland, and Illinois. New York State plans to introduce a forfeiture bill in the Legislature sometime in April.

Federal seizure laws, called RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations), have been in existence for years. Many of the new state laws are modeled on such federal legislation.

Florida's law allows police to seize assets, such as cars and cash, used by criminals in the commission of a felony. Other variations allow states to take virtually any assets they can prove were obtained with illegal drug profits. For states like Florida, concerned about a wave of illegal drug imports, the law has produced a windfall in expensive equipment that police have turned around and used to catch other drug runners.

Florida has accumulated an impressive array of goods: everything from a Rolls Royce Corniche to a $30,000 wristwatch - a total of 382 vehicles, 16 boats, 14 airplanes, and $853,000 in cash.

The actual process of seizing a criminal's assets and putting them in the hands of police requires civil action separate from criminal prosecution. In those cases where the state is after property not directly involved in a crime - a drug dealer's closetful of fur coats, for instance - officials have to prove in court that there is a connection between the assets and the dealer's profits. This can involve an army of investigators and accountants.

Confiscated goods in Florida go into a trust fund controlled by the County Commissioner's Office. When the sheriffs need equipment they make a request. The vast majority of seized goods are auctioned off and the revenue added to the trust fund.

''Without this equipment, our drug enforcement efforts would be an exercise in futility,'' says Maj. Nick Navarro of the Broward County Sheriff's Department. ''Souped-up smugglers' boats used to outrun us easily. Now we've got the boats that can't be outrun.''

But law enforcement officials generally agree that the capture of sophisticated hardware for later use by police is a secondary benefit. More important, they say, is the psychological impact the confiscations have on the criminals and the damage they do to the structure of organized crime.

''Most drug dealers have a system set up in case of a bust,'' says Major Navarro. ''A lawyer is on retainer, bail money is set aside, and there's a replacement for anyone who is arrested. In those cases, arresting an individual does very little. Virtually nothing in fact. But seizing assets starts to break down the whole system.''

The difficulty of proving a connection between a drug dealer's profits and assets has sometimes limited the effectiveness of the seizure laws. But the legality of the laws themselves appears to be beyond question. Similar federal legislation has been upheld in court on numerous occasions.

''We've done our homework. The legal complications have been worked out, the law is well established,'' says Steven Zimmerman, senior attorney in the office of chief counsel of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Bert Neuborne, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, generally agrees, but he voices concern about those cases in which a third party becomes involved. In several cases people who have lent their car or boat to a suspect who used it illegally have had their property seized. But in those cases it wasn't clear whether the third party was entirely ignorant of the purpose to which the assets were going to be used.

The DEA has written a model Drug Profits Act that has been adopted by 10 states. In fact, the federal government has led the way in writing forfeiture legislation. They have been seizing criminal's assets since the 1970s. In fiscal 1982 alone, the federal government confiscated roughly $105 million worth of assets, according to Mr. Zimmerman.

One of the major differences between federal forfeiture laws and similar state laws is that the federal assets that are confiscated go directly to the general treasury.

On the other hand, the equipment and money amassed through forfeiture in Florida has had a ripple effect there that has benefited a number of nondrug-related agencies in the state. Confiscated cash allowed the sheriff's department to purchase state-of-the-art night-vision equipment to spot drug traffickers after dark, equipment they otherwise could not have afforded. The equipment was lent to another agency that used it to locate missing children.

Other states plan to use the money to pay for investigations and court fees as well as providing compensation to victims.

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