Seized Assets Are a Bitter Harvest

CARL and Mary Shelden could hardly believe the headlines in their morning newspaper - the couple who purchased their former California home had been arrested on federal racketeering charges.

The news was worrisome. The Sheldens had lent the buyers $160,435.65 on a second mortgage to buy their house. Now the government had not only arrested the couple, but had seized their house.

Mr. Shelden, who is disabled, was counting on the $1,602.41-a-month mortgage payments to pay the bills for him, his wife, and their two children. Suddenly, their financial future was in limbo.

Ten years later, it still is. Federal attorneys have fought the Sheldens in district court, claims court, and appeals court to prevent them from recovering their mortgage money.

Brenda Grantland, the Sheldens' attorney, fumes about the government's attitude. ``It's just sheer evil because the Sheldens didn't do anything wrong,'' she says.

Critics say the Shelden case is further evidence that government forfeiture programs are out of control. In America today, you don't have to be convicted of a crime to lose your car, your home, your farm, or your bank account to law enforcers.

Cash-strapped law enforcement agencies welcome forfeitures. Most of the proceeds are used to buy new police cars, radios, and weapons, and even pay a portion of officers' salaries. Washington, desperate for revenue, strongly supports forfeiture.

Civil forfeiture law, however, doesn't provide the same ``beyond a reasonable doubt'' protections as criminal law. In scores of cases, attorneys say innocent people, like the Sheldens, are being gravely hurt.

Government property seizures have created a widening circle of embittered, hard-working Americans who feel they've been ripped off by aggressive government prosecutors.

In Connecticut, where Paul and Ruth Derbacher's home was seized and sold after police found narcotics there owned by their grandson, Mr. Derbacher says he and his wife are ``disenchanted'' with America.

``For all our lives, we have been living as honest, respected, and exemplary citizens, but now we are being blamed for the misdoings of our grandson,'' he says. Derbacher blames the ``greed'' of government officials, and says: ``It might be summed up as a revival of Nazi justice.''

Not far from the Derbachers' house, West Haven police grabbed the home of Walter McHugh after his brother brought drugs into his house. Walter McHugh, who is physically and mentally impaired, claimed he knew nothing about the drugs. A doctor testified that Mr. McHugh ``was incapable of being aware of any alleged drug dealing that his brother may have been performing on the premises.''

Yet prosecutors allowed McHugh to keep his home only after worried relatives passed the hat and paid the government $15,000 to ``settle.'' Robert Casale, his attorney, says of the government: ``They're after the cash. They don't want the real estate.'' As for McHugh, he was guilty of ``nothing, absolutely nothing,'' Mr. Casale says.

Here in California, Robert Higginbotham, a $600,000-a-year eye surgeon, has even worse problems with drug enforcers. Dr. Higginbotham owns a beautiful, 10-acre site on a hill south of San Luis Obispo, where he planned to build a home.

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