JUSTICE has been well-served by a Dec. 13 United States Supreme Court decision that curbs the power of federal agents to seize property of people suspected of possessing or selling illegal drugs.
But the closeness of the 5-to-4 decision indicates both reluctance to weaken an anticrime measure that has been at least somewhat successful, and the acknowledgment that seizure by law enforcement agencies of assets even suspected to be contraband may have been carried out in some instances with too little regard for basic civil liberties. This was documented in a five-part Monitor series (Sept. 28 - Oct. 25).
Last February the High Court rejected a US Department of Justice policy of seizing the property of people who are ``innocent owners'' of illegal substances. In June it upheld the constitutional right of individuals to challenge some penalties for minor drug crimes as excessive. The Dec. 13 ruling guarantees the right of owners to protest seizure in court before their property is confiscated. It also clarifies the responsibilities of those who have the onerous task of trying to stem illegal drug trafficking. The time the process takes for those affected by asset seizures can in itself amount to punishment prior to the establishment that a crime has been committed.
Such was the ironic situation in the case just decided. In the decision written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a slim court majority ruled that the government deprived convicted drug dealer James D. Good of his right to due process of law when it took possession of his house in Hawaii while he was away. He was not apprised of the seizure. In fact, Mr. Good's house was seized four years after he had been convicted of drug possession, had paid a fine, and had served a year in prison. Now he will appeal.
In another forfeiture case a California couple took back a $160,000 mortgage on the $340,000 house they had sold. When the buyers were indicted under a federal racketeering law, the government seized the house. One federal district court denied government liability, but another ruled that the couple should be compensated under the Fifth Amendment prohibition of taking private property without ``just compensation.''
The latest Supreme Court ruling does not come near to settling all the individual-rights questions spawned in drug cases, but it does move toward the establishment of clearer, more equitable drug-control laws.