Seizing drugs, Seizing property

Journal of Commerce July 8, 1996 Page 7A

By Sidney Zion

During the 1920s, H.L. Mencken observed that the only part of the Bill of Rights not violated by the government was the Third Amendment proscription against quartering troops in peacetime. The Sage of Baltimore lived in an Age of Innocence compared with what the Clinton administration is doing.

The Marines aren't in your living room yet, to be sure. But why bother, when the government can take your house. Just be criminal enough to get caught with marijuana seeds in the kitchen, and Janet Reno owns the joint.

If you think I'm kidding, check recent Supreme Court reports. In an 8-1 ruling, the court upheld the Justice Department's forfeiture of a Michigan man's home where the dreaded pot was found. The feds grabbed his house and then Michigan authorities convicted him of growing marijuana in the woods nearby.

He claimed that he was being punished twice for the same crime - double jeopardy. And of course he was. But the court said no, in thunder. Forfeiture is not a punishment, said the court, and so the Bill of Rights does not apply.

The government takes your house, throws your children on the street and it's not punishment. Then we're told by Bob Dole that Bill Clinton is soft on crime and the courts coddle criminals.

For those liberals who cling to the notion that Mr. Clinton must be elected to preserve the Supreme Court, this case is instructive. Both Clinton justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, voted with the majority. And they have supported the gutting of the Bill of Rights by the Rehnquist Court on nearly all criminal cases.

Justice John Paul Stevens, a Ford appointee and the lone dissenter, hit the nail on the head. If during Prohibition, he wrote, Congress had authorized the forfeiture of "every home in which alcoholic beverages were consumed," the reasoning of today's court would have allowed it. The whole country would have been owned by the government. Of course, the country would have revolted.

The war against drugs is nothing but Prohibition, though nobody will call it that. Say "Prohibition" and the American people say "No!" Say "War on Drugs" and they say "Yes!" Or at least the politicians and the press say yes, and tell us that's what the people say.

The War on Drugs has produced a bottomless pit of crime and corruption, a litany of muggings, robberies, burglaries, murders and mayhem. The only answer from law enforcement and the pols: More war.

Those who suggest legalization are pilloried as softhearted libs who don't know reality.

Nobody hears the music louder than the Supreme Court. Even in the civil-libertarian days of the Warren Court, the cliche that drug cases make bad law was all too true. But the idea of turning civil forfeitures -- typically and legitimately meant to seize contraband and the direct fruits of crime -- to do an end run around the Bill of Rights never would have sold then.

Indeed, it didn't sell to the Rehnquist Court, until recently. ln 1993 the court threw out as an excessive fine under the Eighth Amendment a forfeiture of a mobile home where cocaine was sold. In the recent case, the marijuana was not sold to anyone, yet they took the house.

"The court was reining in the madness of forfeitures," says New York defense lawyer Gerald Lefcourt. "Now they've retreated, probably because of all the heat about crime and junk justice." My definition of junk justice: They take your house for a coupIe of joints and tell you you haven't been punished.

Sidney Zion is a columnist for the New York Daily News.

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