The Law Enforcement Center That Seized Assets Built

DEEP in a South Carolina piney woods, workers are constructing a million-dollar law enforcement training center - thanks to a local drug lord.

The Greenville County sheriff's department, using military personnel and equipment, is transforming a 62-acre wooded site into a major training post for local, state, and federal lawmen.

``It's going to be a showcase,'' boasts Sheriff Johnny Mack Brown. It will include a 20-lane pistol range, a high-speed driving course, and classrooms in what was once a drug trafficker's home.

None of this would have happened without asset-forfeiture laws. Following months of investigation, sheriff's deputies busted a big-time, 23-year-old cocaine and heroin trafficker who was operating from this beautiful property near Greer. The trafficker got a long stretch in federal prison. Greenville got the land and the house.

Lawmen like Sheriff Brown warmly embrace forfeiture laws, which turn over autos, airplanes, boats, real estate, and cash owned by drug dealers to authorities.

This rich bounty has enabled police to expand significantly their war on drug criminals. But now even supporters of drug-related forfeitures, like Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, are asking: Should law enforcement agencies get all the benefits? Or should the assets be more widely shared?

It's a timely and urgent question to people living around Codman Square, in Boston's depressed Dorchester section. Police there seized a business known as the Smoke Shop, which occupies a prime corner.

The Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation, a nonprofit group, asked: What will happen to the property? CSNDC has developed 600 units of housing around Codman, as well as adjacent business property. It saw the government's forfeiture of the Smoke Shop as an opportunity to piece together an entire block.

Linda Mandolini, senior project manager at CSNDC, ran a quick evaluation of the Smoke Shop. Her conclusion: With property prices falling, it was worth about $30,000. CSNDC contacted the US marshals, hoping to buy it, only to learn that the shop, without being advertised, was already under contract - at a whopping $175,000.

JIM SPENCER, an aide to Representative Kennedy, says neighborhood leaders wondered whether the bid was either from ``a gangster or a slum lord.''

The $175,000 bid was eventually withdrawn when the seizure was challenged in court, but not before Kennedy and his aides decided that the forfeiture law was flawed.

Kennedy's new goal is finding ways to give neighborhood groups access to seized property to create new housing and businesses.

Ms. Mandolini, who still hopes her neighborhood group will get the Smoke Shop, calls forfeiture ``a great program'' in Boston. But she wants alternatives to the current system, which automatically sells seized property to the highest bidder and turns the proceeds over to police.

Sometimes, as in Codman Square, seized property could become a fulcrum to bring dramatic changes to neighborhoods, she says.

Kennedy's office is working toward several changes in the law. Mr. Spencer calls them the ``three D's'' - disclosure, distribution, and disposition.

* Disclosure: Too often, neighborhood leaders cannot learn what US marshals plan to do with a forfeited property.

* Distribution: More money from forfeited properties should go into drug-treatment programs or into rebuilding neighborhoods damaged by drugs.

* Disposition: Neighborhood groups want the right of ``first refusal'' when properties are put up for sale.

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