A DARK highway. A speeding car. Suddenly, flashing blue police lights. A roadside stop. A quick search turns up a briefcase stuffed with cash. Sheriff Bob Vogel's anti-drug squad has struck pay dirt again along Interstate 95, America's No. 1 narcotics pipeline.
Night after night, a five-man team of deputies patrols a lonely stretch of interstate here on Florida's East Coast. The road carries drugs from south Florida to the rest of the nation, and funnels drug profits, usually cash carried by couriers, back to Miami.
Sheriff Vogel is a man with a mission: Break that pipeline. Seize that cash. Confiscate those vehicles. Destroy the drug trade. In three years, Vogel's men have stopped hundreds of cars, and grabbed about $8 million in suspected drug money.
A hero to some, a scoundrel to others, Vogel has come under heavy fire. A governor's task force on forfeiture has probed his methods, but found nothing wrong. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is interviewing ``victims.'' The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is suing in a trial that may start in January.
The sheriff's drug war in Volusia County has drawn national attention, both to himself and to civil forfeiture laws. It has prompted loud demands from attorneys, newspapers, and scholars to reduce the power of police to seize private property without a criminal trial.
Detractors say Vogel's single-minded attack on drugs has trampled individual rights, targeted blacks and Hispanics, and taken cash from innocent people.
Charles Burr, an attorney working with the NAACP to halt the sheriff's program, says: ``I don't doubt that Vogel honestly believes he is in a tough war against crime. He is using what he thinks is the most effective means. But [those means] also happen to violate the Constitution.''
Wrong, says Vogel. ``We don't seize money from legitimate people,'' he insists. Couriers, cash, and cars intercepted on the highway are involved in ``criminal enterprise,'' he says.
Mr. Burr counters that if Vogel really wanted to stop drugs, he would halt drug ``mules'' on northbound I-95 as narcotics move toward northern markets.
``They're out there to seize cash,'' Burr says. ``They work the southbound lanes because that's where the cash is. Drugs are too messy.''
Vogel sees nothing wrong with that. ``Dealers ... can't buy drugs on a credit card,'' he observes. ``It hits the drug dealers right in the pocketbook.''
The arguments will eventually be played out in court, and at the United States Justice Department. Attorney General Janet Reno has ordered an investigation of Vogel's policies. The most explosive charge: that Vogel has singled out blacks and Hispanics as the most likely drug couriers. Charges of racism
In a series of articles, the Orlando Sentinel surveyed 262 seizure cases involving Vogel's I-95 team. The newspaper claimed that 90 percent of the cases involved minorities. The sheriff says it was actually 74 percent.
The racism charge perturbs Vogel. The commander overseeing his Special Enforcement Team (SET) is Maj. Leonard Davis, who is black. The problem of black and Hispanic involvement in crime is ``a societal problem,'' Vogel notes. ``We can't change those numbers.... We catch them as they come.''
Major Davis says: ``The majority of those transporting drug money are black, as are the sellers of crack cocaine. That's just the way it is.''
A former Vogel deputy disputes that, however. Donald McCormick, who was dismissed June 21, was a deputy for 11 months. He made a sworn statement for Burr, saying:
``I believe that members of the SET unit routinely target dark-complexioned motorists.... [They] park their patrol cars perpendicular to the roadways at night so the patrol car headlights shine directly on the faces of passing motorists. In this way, the deputies are able to see whether a car is being driven by a dark-complexioned person.''
Ed Dunn, a Daytona Beach attorney, was head of the governor's task force that probed charges of racism against Vogel. The task force failed to criticize the sheriff.
``We ducked,'' Mr. Dunn admits. ``We didn't feel we had the competence to further investigate it the way it ought to be.'' When shown McCormick's affidavit, however, he says: ``I think if we'd had something like that, that's a smoking gun right there.''
Vogel and his staff say the tell-tale signs they look for when stopping motorists include: expensive cars, young drivers (20 to 40), extreme nervousness, denial of ownership, and conflicting stories between driver and passengers.
But is race also a factor? Critics say ``yes,'' and point to cases like that of Selena Washington. Mrs. Washington, a black South Carolinian, was driving through Volusia long past midnight on Aug. 24, 1990, when a Vogel deputy stopped her.
Washington and her cousin were ordered out of their car, questioned, and locked in the police cruiser. Then, as the deputy searched their automobile, he secretly recorded their conversations.
The highway stop was the beginning of a legal nightmare for Washington. The deputy found $19,000 in cash in her briefcase and purse. ``Drug money,'' he called it.
Stunned, Washington protested that the money was to buy building supplies in Florida to repair her Charleston, S.C., home damaged by Hurricane Hugo. The deputy was unconvinced. Without giving her a receipt, he sped off into the night.
In a quavering voice, Washington told a congressional subcommittee how she was treated. ``I said [to the deputy], take me back to the station and clarify this. And he said to me, `No.' He did not take my name, he did not take any information at the scene. But he took the money.''
When the deputy left, Washington took off in pursuit. ``It was very frightening because it was dark and the roads he was going down [were] dark, and he was just going so fast.... When we got to the station, he said, `You are one of the few to follow.' '' Cheaper to settle
Her attorney told her to settle. Washington got back $13,800. The sheriff kept $4,000, the attorney $1,200. Many cases end that way. It's often cheaper to settle a forfeiture suit than to fight.
Vogel's policies frustrate some lawmen. South Carolina Sheriff Johnny Mack Brown, president of the National Sheriffs' Association, says his own policy is: ``You don't find drugs, you don't seize.'' Vogel will confiscate cash, with or without drugs.
Vogel can't comment on the Washington case. It's in litigation. But he points proudly to another:
One evening, Sheriff's Sgt. Robert Jones stopped a Nissan mini-van. He searched and found a ``mother lode'' - $695,599 in a hidden compartment. The cash was seized. The driver claimed he didn't know who's money it was.
When large bundles of cash are found, ``most of these persons deny ownership of it,'' Vogel says. ``They feel it's going to be used against them.... They don't [even] want receipts.''
That's what makes Vogel think he's on the right path, even though his critics insist he's on the wrong road.