VENTURA, Calif. — CALL it ``jalopy justice.''
Five years ago, local drug traffickers flaunted their new-found wealth by driving through this suburban community in snazzy new Porsches, Ferraris, and BMWs. Then came the crackdown.
Police grabbed the criminals' fancy wheels, seizing them under California's 1988 asset-forfeiture law. Drug dealers tried to steer around the law by leasing their costly cars. But police then confiscated the equity in their leases.
Today, Ventura County drug dealers are a chastened lot, forced to drive old ``clunkers'' not worth seizing, says Ronald Janes, senior attorney with the Ventura County District Attorney's office.
Mr. Janes says proudly: ``If nothing else, we prevented them from going around in these flashy Ferraris, and giving off the message to young people that drug dealing is a dramatic way to make a living.''
Janes lauds the laws which gave police the power to seize any property used in a drug crime, or purchased with drug profits. Across the United States, these state and federal laws snagged nearly $3 billion in cash and property from drug traffickers during the past eight years, according to the latest Justice Department figures.
Now that may change. Forfeiture is under attack. The California legislature recently refused to renew the 1988 state law that took away drug dealers' cars in Ventura.
Congress is considering a newly introduced bill to curb the federal government's forfeiture authority. The courts say lawmen may be exceeding their constitutional authority. Criticism of forfeiture is growing among defense attorneys, judges, lawmakers, scholars, and civil libertarians.
The complaints worry lawmen. Right now, US marshals have a huge storehouse of seized drug assets in custody that includes $64,453,093.32 in cash, 300 boats, 90 aircraft, 119 businesses, 14,000 automobiles, 4,903 pieces of real estate, and a king's ransom in jewelry.
Most of this cache will eventually be turned over to law enforcement agencies - federal, state, and local - to finance the battle against illegal narcotics. Loss of those resources could cripple the decade-long Reagan-Bush-Clinton ``drug war.''
Yet critics are growing louder. One of the most outspoken, Superior Court Judge James Gray of Santa Ana, Calif., says the unremitting effort to grab drug assets threatens Americans' First, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendment rights.
Nor is the all-out effort really effective. Judge Gray notes that in eight years of tough enforcement, police have gotten hold of less than 1 percent of the drug traffickers' booty.
``We're in worse shape [with drugs] than when we started,'' the judge concludes.
Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, a conservative Republican, reflects the mixed emotions some lawmakers have toward civil forfeiture.
He calls forfeiture a ``delicious irony,'' since hundreds of millions of dollars every year are confiscated from drug traffickers, then plowed back into law enforcement. Representative Hyde finds that ``wholly proper.''
But he continues: ``On the darker side, some of our civil asset seizure laws are being used in terribly unjust ways and depriving innocent citizens of their property.... This is wrong and it must be changed.''
Such criticism gets little support, however, out on tough city streets, where drug gangs rule the night. Many residents in Boston, Washington, Miami, Los Angeles, and New York cheer tough police action - the tougher, the better.
In Dorchester, on Boston's east side, blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asians live side-by-side under constant threat of drug shootouts. Alyce Lee, a community organizer, would like to see stronger law enforcement, even if some property owners are hurt.
Ms. Lee, who is executive director of the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation (CSNDC), says: ``It's a disgrace that we're not more aggressive about stopping the flow of drugs to our inner cities, where our urban poor live.''
She concedes that some people consider the drug laws ``un-American.'' But she declares: ``Drug trafficking is much worse, and much more un-American, than seizing a drug dealer's property.''
Jim Spencer, an aide to Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, who supports greater community involvement with forfeiture, says one's view of the drug war often depends on one's perspective. Listening to gunfire in the night can quickly turn someone into a strong supporter of the police.
``I don't hear the majority of people that live in the inner city complaining a lot about the civil liberty issues of drug dealers,'' Mr. Spencer says. ``Just to be brutally frank, I hear white, liberal people much more concerned about that than the normal person on the street.''
Reinforcing his point, Spencer says that when he moved into Representative Kennedy's new district office in the Roxbury section of Boston in January, a man was gunned down, ``execution style,'' just 20 feet from his first-floor window. ``I heard the shot, turned around, and it was over.'' It was 11 a.m., broad daylight. The killers wore ski masks. The execution was presumed to be drug-related.
``It's just out of control,'' Spencer says.
Linda Mandolini, senior project manager of CSNDC, says working, middle-class families in Dorchester are growing impatient with property owners who tolerate criminal activity in their buildings. They're saying to owners, in effect: ``If you're not going to ... contribute to this community, then we, the community, are going to get rid of you.''
That kind of public enthusiasm has helped police agencies increase the rate of asset forfeiture in drug-troubled neighborhoods.
Cary Copeland, director of the Justice Department's Executive Office for Asset Forfeiture, contends that instances of ``excessive enforcement'' criticized by Hyde, Gray, and others are extremely rare. The record is especially impressive because there are tens of thousands of seizures every year carried out by the nation's 17,000 local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, he says.
When critics charge that lawmen are trampling on the Bill of Rights, ``it is very frustrating to those of us who take an oath to defend the Constitution,'' Mr. Copeland says.
Copeland describes asset forfeiture as the kind of ``new remedy'' America needs in its war on crime. It strikes at the economic foundation of crime ``by removing the profits, proceeds, and infrastructure which support criminal organizations,'' he says.
Forfeiture also replenishes government budgets drained by rising prison costs, he says.
Per capita, the US already has more people in prison (542 of every 100,000) than any other nation. It costs $70,000 to build federal prison space for one person, and another $18,000 a year to keep each prisoner locked up. At those prices, the limit to US prison capacity may be approaching. Forfeiture offers a cost-saving, alternative form of punishment.
Copeland argues that unless the assets of a drug enterprise are taken away, just locking up one of its members is ineffective. Another criminal will carry on the business.
``Offenders can continue to operate their syndicates while in prison, or, once released from prison, can enjoy their ill-gotten gains or use them to finance new criminal enterprises,'' he says.
The solution is obvious, Copeland says. Grab everything a drug criminal owns, right down to his socks. Many Americans, especially in the inner-cities, would shout their approval.