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POLICE BANDITS

Sections I wrote Copyright 1999 By Ray Thomas

[This came from the MAP DrugNews service. I don't ordinarily post long articles by someone else who didn't specifically send it to me for publication. But this story is such an egregious example of police thievery and fighting over the loot that I had to offer it to you.

[My comments in square brackets. I have also added some emphasis that was not in the original. -RT]


Pubdate: Sun, 27 June 1999
Source: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (AR)
Copyright: 1999, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc.
Contact: voices@ardemgaz.com
Webform: http://www.ardemgaz.com/info/voices.html
Mail: 121 East Capitol Avenue, Little Rock, Arkansas, 72201
Note: Only accepts LTEs from Arkansas residents
Website: http://www.ardemgaz.com/
Author: Chris Osher Arkansas Democrat-Gazette


SEIZURE, FORFEITURE PRACTICES ARE LEGAL THEFT, VICTIMS SAY

Anastasio Ortiz Vega says that when he heard his mother had become ill in Mexico, he gathered up all his life's savings -- $23,600 he salted away from long hours pouring concrete slabs. Vega hit the road that November 1994, traveling from Nashville, Tenn., in a Dodge pickup, his money wrapped in a sock and stored in a spare tire for safety. But long before he reached his destination, he was stopped by a West Memphis police officer. The officer reported that it looked like there was marijuana residue in the spare tire and seized the thick wad of cash. Vega was free to go. But the money stayed. [Sounds like robbery to me. -RT]

Welcome to Crittenden County, smack at the high-pressure center of the nation's flow of drugs and dirty cash. A nervous gulp, the smell of air freshener or a shaking hand can cause police in this eastern Arkansas county to hand out consent-to-search forms which, if signed, allow them to tear apart cars in search of something illicit. Many, many times they come up with drugs. Other times they find guns. But they also find money. Lots and lots of money.

The seizures in Crittenden County have ended up paying salaries, benefits and travel for police and prosecutors, not to mention contributing to the running of a new jail when tax funds dried up. Last year local and state law enforcement agencies in Crittenden County raked in $1.36 million in cash. And that's not counting the $3.17 million tied up by authorities wrangling over what department had the jurisdiction to seize it. [Criminals fighting over who gets to keep the swag. -RT]

To the police, it's dirty money. They say they can smell the drugs coming off the cash, see the marijuana debris flying when they shake the bills. [Bullderm. -RT] But some who get stopped say they're caught in an Orwellian nightmare that gives police the right to take their hard-earned savings, even though they've committed no crimes. Similar complaints from throughout the nation prompted the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a bill last week that would make it harder for police and federal authorities to confiscate property before they file criminal charges. If the bill survives the Senate and becomes law, it'll be too late for many who've passed through Crittenden County, including Vega.

Back in the Nashville suburb where Vega lives, a general contractor who hires Vega to build houses says there was no reason for the seizure. "I assure you that was very hard-earned money," says Robin York, who estimates Vega often puts in as many as 80 hours working seven days a week. "We're talking sweat of the brow. He just works like a dog." The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette had FBI and state background checks conducted on Vega and found no criminal charges ever filed against him.

In challenging the forfeiture, Vega produced tax and payroll records showing he was paid more than $54,000 the year the money was confiscated. But concerned about mounting legal bills, Vega settled his case nearly a year later. The prosecuting attorney's office kept $7,100; Vega got $16,500 back. [What in HELL gives them the right to keep $7,100 bucks they STOLE from an innocent man? Why because it would cost the innocent man more than that to fight it, of course. He has to PAY for his legal bills while they have unlimited money for lawyers. -RT]

"I tell them what is true, but they just don't listen,'' says Vega, now 46. [Of course not. Not listening was worth $7,000 of Vega's money. -RT]

There was one final indignity. Before he could get the money, Vega had to sign a paper agreeing to release the police from any liability. [Naturally. When you hold all the cards it's easy to rip someone. -RT]

York still fumes about the treatment of someone he says is the hardest worker he's ever seen, someone far too busy to traffic drugs. "It's amazing to me,'' York says. "It's just like a police state, one where they can't prove you're wrong, but they can keep your money anyway.'' [Not "just like a police state." It is one. -RT]

DO YOU BELIEVE IN THE WAR ON DRUGS?

Dan Peruchi says he's one of the innocent.

He says he was headed back home to Texas from Indianapolis, happy with his purchase of a 1969 Oldsmobile Toronado, when he made the mistake of traveling through Crittenden County. He says he made the trip several times a year, always carrying cash to give him more buying power at the car auctions he frequented. But on that November 1992 day, a West Memphis police officer pulled him over just past the Arkansas-Tennessee border for going 10 miles over the speed limit.

First came the question: Do you believe in the president's war on drugs? Then came the consent to search form. And soon the $18,890 that Peruchi had tucked up in the springs of the car's back seat was gone. The officer who confiscated it said the cash looked like it had marijuana residue on it. [That's how they "justify" their robbery. -RT]

"I showed him the titles to the cars I had bought and taken back down,'' says Peruchi, now a 42-year-old father of four who lives in a suburb of Fort Worth. "It wasn't my first trip up there.'' He says he also pointed out the book he carried that listed all the cars built from 1946 to 1975 and how many parts were made for those cars.

None of it mattered. [Of course not. -RT]

No criminal charges were filed from that traffic stop. No evidence of drug dealing was ever produced. For all anyone knows, Peruchi is just a man who likes to buy and sell cars. But he lost his money and won't get it back. [Naturally. It wasn't a "traffic stop." It was a "robbery stop" by a bandit wearing a badge. -RT]

A friend of Peruchi's who lived in Indianapolis confirmed that Peruchi had visited him days before the seizure while on a car-buying trip. Peruchi's estranged wife also confirmed that he regularly traveled to Indiana to buy used cars with money saved up from construction jobs. An FBI background check showed no criminal record for Peruchi. [Is anybody surprised? -RT]

"They can go out there and do whatever they want to do and whenever they want to do it,'' says Peruchi, who never challenged the forfeiture. "And nobody can do anything about it. To me, it's communist.'' [Don't "dignify it" by calling it communist. It's simple theft by a robber wearing a badge, It's that simple. -RT]

But it's all legal under forfeiture laws.

Rooted in English common law, forfeiture first surfaced in America in 1862 when Congress authorized the seizure of the estates of Confederate soldiers. During Prohibition, from 1919 to 1933, Congress extended forfeitures to attack bootleggers. In 1970, forfeiture reappeared with the passage of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, which targeted the assets of convicted criminals. [It goes farther back than that. One of the things we fought the revolutionary war with Britain over was the Admiralty Laws that allowed the British to do the same thing to our shipping that police and federal agents now do to our citizens. And when we won the war, our fledgling government rushed to make laws to allow lour own government to rob our own shipping. The RICO laws merely extended the Admiralty Laws to the land. -RT]

But in 1984, the federal law was changed dramatically to allow federal authorities to take property without filing criminal charges, let alone getting convictions. And there was a bonus: Police got to keep forfeiture proceeds to help finance their war on drugs. [And then it was "Katie bar the door!" -RT]

Arkansas passed its own forfeiture law in 1971 [And why not, in our "chief crook's" state?], which gave local police enhanced seizure powers similar to those now used by the federal government. Nowhere in Arkansas have those forfeiture laws been put to more use than in Crittenden County, where three law enforcement agencies troll the highways in search of cars to stop [Read: rob. -RT].

There, motorists must travel Interstate 40 under the watchful eyes of the Arkansas Highway Police, the West Memphis Police Department and the Crittenden County sheriff's office. In all, $8.23 million and nearly 300 cars have been seized in the county since 1996. [It's big business. -RT]

"KILLING THE SNAKE"
Drugs course along I-40, considered by police a major pipeline for traffickers headed to the East Coast. Police see so much illegal trade that they've nicknamed the Interstate's lanes, calling those headed east the drug lanes and those headed west, on the route to Mexico, the money lanes. "That marijuana will fetch $100 a pound at the Mexico border," says Mickey Thornton, head of the Crittenden County sheriff's narcotics unit. "In Arkansas, it goes for $700 a pound. In New York, $24,000 a pound. That's a hell of a return on your investment." [Which would be fine if they just stuck to "sticking" real drug dealers and stayed away from honest people they rob. -RT]

James Hale III, the Crittenden County prosecutor who handles forfeitures, does what he can to cut into those profits. "To kill the snake, you take the head off," he says. "The head is the money. No doubt." [And it's so much nicer when you get to keep the money. -RT]

Since 1996, he's pushed 369 forfeitures through his county's courthouse, more than double the number in any other Arkansas county. "If I think it's drug money, I don't mind taking it from them," Hale says. "Not one bit." [Sanctimonious bastard. -RT]

Not all searches result in a seizure, and there are safeguards to protect innocent citizens, Hale says. Police must get permission before they can search a car, he says. [Try and not give them permission and they keep you there until they can get a warrant. Or they just go ahead and search anyway and claim you gave permission. Refusing to give permission, to them, is "prima facie evidence" that you "have something to hide." Not that you know your rights and refuse to "bend over and grab your ankles." Besides: after that recent Supreme Court decision, they don't need to evenask for permission any more if the cop "thinks" you have some contraband. -RT]

Hale says he's eager to give money back to those who can show it's legitimate. [Horse puckey. -RT] He says he's especially sensitive to truck-leasing companies and is quick to return trucks to those who can document ownership. But don't count on just any old receipt, paycheck stub or title convincing Hale that money is clean. "Anyone with half a lick of sense can gin out records on a computer all day long,'' Hale says. [A lie is as good as the truth when you'd rather lie than tell the truth. In actual fact, there is nothing they can't discount if it means they get to keep the money. -RT]

And don't expect to get a speedy trial in a seizure case; a forfeiture trial is civil, not criminal, and civil trials are a lower priority for courts. Just getting your day in court can take months, if not years. [Of course. And while you're waiting the money is in their bank account drawing interest, none of which you get if you ever do get your money back. It's not "civil trials" that are "low priority." It's anything that will give you your money back that is "low priority.". -RT]

"The bottom line is most people can show where their money is from,'' Hale says. [Yeah, right. -RT]

Carmelo Ramirez says that's just what he wanted do. When a sheriff's deputy found less than a hundredth of an ounce of marijuana with the $12,500 Ramirez had stashed in the dashboard of his friend's car, the money and car were seized in March 1995. Ramirez protested that he earned the money selling Amway products and begged the deputy for enough for a bus ticket to take him and his girlfriend back to Milwaukee. But the deputy told Ramirez he'd have to prove he was telling the truth before he'd get a dime. Ramirez was never charged with any crime. And he has yet to get any of his money back, even though a lawyer furnished receipts showing Ramirez regularly used cash to buy Amway goods. Now a porter who lives in the Bronx, Ramirez says that the experience devastated his business, that he gave up on fighting long ago. "It was all my money," Ramirez says. "All my money.'' [Not any more, it isn't. It now belongs to the cops who stole it. -RT]

"WAR ON THE CONSTITUTION"

Defense lawyers say cases like that of Darrell Verkeler are the untold stories of forfeiture laws. Verkeler saw his legal bills pile up after a Crittenden County sheriff's deputy found about 4.2 ounces of amphetamines on Verkeler's son, then 29, and impounded the 18-wheeler the son was driving. Days later the elder Verkeler got a chilly response when he drove the 100 miles down from Black Rock, in Lawrence County, to tell the deputy he had no idea his son was using amphetamines without a prescription and to get the rig back for the family's trucking firm. "You might as well forget it," Verkeler recalls a sheriff's employee telling him even after he produced receipts documenting that the truck payments had come out of his checking account. It took two months and the hiring of a lawyer before he could drive his truck off the impound lot.

"It wasn't right what happened," says the 55-year-old Verkeler, whose son ended up with probation for the drug charge. Defense attorneys agree. They say cases like Verkeler's demonstrate that the concept of "innocent until proven guilty" has vanished. "Forfeitures have fueled the war on drugs, and now they have made the war on drugs into a war on the Constitution,'' says Little Rock defense lawyer John Wesley Hall Jr.

It's a whole new world -- one where prosecutors don't have to charge people with crimes to take their cars or cash away. The burden is on the owners to prove their innocence to get their property back. And if they can't afford an attorney, the court won't furnish one on their behalf at taxpayer expense, as is done in criminal trials. "The result is that many, many innocent people end up having their money stolen by state and local police,'' says E. E. "Bo" Edwards, a Little Rock native who is chairman of a task force on forfeiture abuse for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Prosecutors and police argue that forfeiture strikes drug dealers in the pocketbook, where it hurts most. [Yeah, but it also hurts innocent people "where it hurts the most," too, when you callously use the law to rob them. -RT]

"I'm not going to say it's not abused sometimes,'' says Capt. Sam Williams, head of the special investigations division for the Little Rock Police Department. [No kidding. [RT] "But by and large, asset forfeiture was meant to take assets away from drug dealers. And it works." [Yeah, right. We believe you. -RT]

But while police tout their multikilogram cocaine busts and $3 million cash seizures, not all the cases bring in millions. Nearly 64 percent of the seizures in Crittenden County since 1996 involved cash amounts of less than $500, according to an analysis of court records. [Surprise, surprise! -RT]

"DON'T ENTER THIS STATE WITH MONEY"

Eliazar Cantu, 44, never got back the $6,000 he had wrapped up in duct tape and stored under the back seat of his car. The West Memphis police officer who stopped him in February 1993 reported that Cantu smelled like marijuana [Yeah, right. Can anybody prove that? -RT] and seized the cash. Cantu says he was headed to Oklahoma and planned to use the money to pay to breed his mare back in Fowler, Ind., with a stud with a good pedigree. Cantu, who also has no criminal record, says he never contested the seizure, figuring the rules were stacked against him. "By the time I get a lawyer, it will cost me another $2,000, and then they will postpone court, and by the time they end it, I will get nothing," Cantu explains.

Hale scoffs at those like Cantu who don't fight for their money. "Now, if someone took $19,000 of my money, by God I'd be back," the prosecutor says. [In many cultures, to fight the state is to die. People are deathly afraid of the police and of any authority. So when "the authorities" take their money, they're mostly afraid to fight. Hale blithely ignores that factor in his arrogant remarks. -RT]

Those who aren't drug dealers can get their day in court, Hale argues. [That's a load and he knows it. Unless you have a LOT of money besides what the police stole, there's no way you can "get your day in court" because the state has unlimited money to defend against you, and that's the whole purpose of the RICO laws: to deprive people of the money to mount a defense. -RT] But to get that day in court, they must act quickly. The rules allow 30 days after the receipt of a certified letter from the prosecutor's office to contest the charges. [Which is, in itself, a con. Often it takes longer than that just to get the attention of an attorney. There should be unlimited time for the contention of the theft of your property by a thief wearing a badge. -RT]

That law can be fiercely enforced in Crittenden County. [Why not? Thievery is obviously a big part of their budgets in Crittenden County. -RT]

Hale once pushed for a lawyer's secretary to take a polygraph test when she claimed she had mailed legal papers protesting a forfeiture on the 30th day.

Bobby Brummett found out just how hard it is to get seized cash back. Brummett hired an attorney to fight the seizure of $26,575 police found in a briefcase he had in the trunk of a rental car in February 1997. Brummett says he didn't know about the seven marijuana cigarettes his friend, Steve Larson, stored in a shaving kit for their trip from Grand Rapids, Mich., to Dallas. Brummett says he told the police where to find the briefcase [BIG mistake to tell a thief where to find the loot. -RT] and explained he planned to use the cash to buy a 1964 Corvette in Dallas. And Larson said he never told Brummett about the marijuana. But the West Memphis police officers who stopped Brummett decided the money was tainted. [Surprise, surprise! -RT]

When Brummett, now 46, showed up for a trial in Crittenden County Circuit Court months later, he learned the paperwork hadn't been completed and he would have to make a return trip. "They keep tying you up in courts," Brummett says. "And finally I just gave up on it." [Which is part of the con. They figure if they "run you around" long enough, you will give up and they can keep the money they stole. -RT]

Worried about the legal bills and the cost of another trip to Arkansas, Brummett agreed to let the prosecuting attorney's office keep half. "It was pretty much my life's savings they ripped me off of down there," Brummett says. "I wish I could put up a big sign that says, 'Don't enter this state with money.' "

Federal forfeitures are even tougher to challenge. To seize property under federal law, the government has to show probable cause, a standard no greater than what is needed to get a search warrant. But to get the property back, its owner must establish by a "preponderance of the evidence'' that the property wasn't used in a crime. The window for contesting a federal forfeiture is smaller: 10 days. [The feds are better at stealing your money. -RT] Plus the property's owner needs to put up the lesser of $5,000 or 10 percent of the seized item's value to file those papers. [That's to guarantee that you will pay their legal costs, win or lose. -RT]

Regardless of the differences in federal and state laws, both generate plenty of money for law enforcement. [Is anyone surprised? -RT] Last year, the U.S. Justice Department took in $449 million from forfeitures, nearly five times the amount it collected in 1986. "We think it's vital to law enforcement,'' says Robert Sharp, the U.S. Justice Department's deputy chief for the asset forfeiture laundering section. "It's one of those tools Congress has approved, and we try to maximize it to the best we can. It's been very effective so far.'' [Boy, what honesty from a bureaucrat! "Vital?" Of course. It gets them a lot of money. "Try to maximize it?" Naturally. Since these thefts finance everything, they put pressure on their agents to steal as much as they can, by any means possible. -RT]

A TROUBLED HISTORY

Forfeitures might rake in cash, but they haven't done much to promote cooperation among Crittenden County law enforcement agencies. [Naturally not. Thieves commonly fall out over who gets the biggest share of the loot. -RT]

In 1993, the county's drug task force became a hotbed of backbiting and accusations, with the Arkansas State Police investigating possible misuse of seized property. Eventually, the state police issued a report that culminated in improved record-keeping but no criminal charges. ["No criminal charges? Now there's a surprise. -RT]

"Apparent improper or nonexistent bookkeeping procedures were utilized by the drug task force,'' says a synopsis from that report. "No forfeiture property, with exception of vehicles, has been listed on Drug Task Force inventories or audited as project income. A petty cash fund apparently was maintained and was unaudited for a lengthy time.'' [Wow! -RT] Public auctions of seized properties also were held without proceeds going into the proper account, according to the report. [Wow again! -RT]

The state police also investigated an allegation that Lt. James Sudbury of the West Memphis Police Department took $260 in seized food stamps and hired a criminal informant to buy steaks for a task force barbecue. Sudbury denied the allegation, but three officers, who were not named in the report, stated that they had heard partial conversations about the alleged event. Donna Kane, a drug task force secretary, who admitted using drugs in the past, told the investigators that Sudbury gave her a portable stereo and a purse, along with three seized guns. And Sudbury told the state police that he took home a seized refrigerator for a while when his own refrigerator conked out. Sudbury's former wife and children also reported that Sudbury had given them a radar detector, an answering machine, a telephone and a $300 fishing rod that allegedly had been seized. [That's right, go after the "small fry" while the "big shots aren't even mentioned. -RT]

Sudbury, now a captain with the West Memphis Police Department, says he was made a target by a disgruntled state trooper who was a member of the task force and by an ex-wife who wanted to make him look bad for a custody battle. [Thieves arguing over the loot. -RT]

"There was no criminal wrongdoing by anybody," Sudbury says. [Yeah, right. Except for stealing the property in the first place. -RT]

Kane says she regrets her past drug history and that she returned the items Sudbury gave her. Sudbury says he gave the secretary one of the guns for protection while the officers were away and allowed her to take another gun home for a couple days to show her child. [To show her child? -RT] He couldn't recall the third gun. [He's stolen so much he can't remember it all. -RT] Sudbury says he gave the secretary the other items when she asked for them when he was taking them out to a trash bin.

He says the state police investigation prompted improved bookkeeping and the elimination of the drug fund's petty cash account. The Police Department no longer seizes any items other than drugs, money or vehicles, Sudbury says, because the other items generate too much paperwork and are too difficult to track. [Poor baby. It's just too much work to steal that other stuff. -RT]

Thornton, now head of the sheriff's drug task force, also was investigated that year. Thornton told the state police he put $33 in a vest pocket during the execution of a search warrant at a home and forgot to turn the cash in as evidence. He later told the state investigators that he had found the money in an envelope in his camera bag. [He steals so much it was too small an amount to remember. -RT] Thornton also told the state police he gave a seized .38-caliber pistol to his father. The gun eventually was returned. "It was all on the up and up," Thornton says now. [Oh, giving your father a gun that belonged to the person you stole it from is "on the up and up? Gimme a break! -RT]

HANDS IN THE TILL

The same year that state police investigated the task force, it split in two, with one faction becoming part of the sheriff's office and the other falling under the West Memphis Police Department. The state investigation certainly added to tension at the task force, Sudbury says. But he says the real reason for the split was money. [No kidding. -RT] "The drug task force was extremely successful, and we seized [Stole -RT] a lot of money, and there were some politicians who couldn't get their hands on the money, [Poor babies. -RT] and the only way they could get their hands on it was to dissolve the task force,'' Sudbury says. [Thugs being robbed by other thugs. -RT]

Even with the task force divided, forfeitures continued to generate big bucks. [Naturally. They're not going to stop stealing. -RT] Last year the West Memphis Police Department got $505,096 in forfeiture cash, nearly 17 percent of its operating budget. The Crittenden County sheriff's office took in $532,829, about 11 percent of its operating budget. The prosecutor's office got $223,597. Of that, $172,289 went to salaries in the prosecutor's office, including all of Hale's annual $32,000 salary. [Would he have been paid if they hadn't stolen that much? -RT] A bookkeeper was paid $46,510.

The forfeiture fund ponied up the $1,961 for Hale's father, James Hale Jr., another prosecutor, to attend a conference on gangs held in the resort town of Jackson Hole, Wyo. [Pays to be related to another thief. -RT] Forfeitures also paid for new video-imaging equipment for presentations to juries. There will be even more to divvy up once authorities resolve a $3.17 million case, which has wound its way from a weigh station off I-40, where the money was seized, to the Arkansas Supreme Court. [Oh durn! The state owned by the biggest crook, Clinton! The locals won't see any of that loot. -RT] The Arkansas Highway Police, which made the seizure one spring night last year, turned the cash over to federal authorities, in part to keep a greater share. Under federal procedures, the seizing agency can keep up to 80 percent of the money. Hale has argued the money belongs in the state system, which limits agencies to $250,000 of a forfeiture and requires any excess to go to the state.

The Arkansas Supreme Court in March sided with Hale. The money hasn't been distributed, though, because the highway police are considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The argument, Hale says, boils down to money and who gets to keep it. "We've created a monster [No kidding. -RT], and I don't know if we can curtail it or not,'' says Mike Everett, a Democratic senator who represents Crittenden County in the state Legislature. "Everyone has their hands in the till, [That's the way it is with thieves. -RT] and they're hollering and screaming to stop us from doing anything about it."

No one knows how many other agencies have tried to dodge the state's $250,000 limit. For years, state officials failed to monitor forfeitures even though state law 5-64-505 requires police agencies to file reports with state officials on how much forfeitures generate. Millions of dollars have flowed to hundreds of law enforcement agencies throughout Arkansas with almost no state supervision. [Gotta keep track of the loot so the "big shots" can get theirs. Better get on the stick. -RT]

"When you start dealing with money and drugs, everyone knows you have to have accountability [Accountability? That's what thieves don't want. -RT] and double accountability," says Bill Hardin, the state drug director. "I have none now." Last June, Hardin finally got an assistant, a staff member on loan from the Arkansas National Guard, to help him round up some of the reports state law requires prosecutors and police to file on forfeitures.

Continued

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