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Drug Agents Barred from Seizing Property from Innocent Owners

February 24, 1993

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday the government cannot seize the property of innocent citizens just because it was previously acquired with drug money.

The 6-3 decision in a New Jersey case said people or businesses who become owners of land, cars or anything else that was earlier financed by drug trafficking proceeds may keep it if they did not know about the past drug connection.

In other matters, the court:

-Was urged in two cases, from Arizona and New York, to give more public aid to parochial students and letting religious groups meet at public schools.

-Ruled unanimously in a Kansas case that some states share the federal government’s authority to prosecute ″major crimes″ committed on Indian reservations by or against tribal members.

The court’s dissenters in the drug profits case said the ruling ″rips out the most effective enforcement provisions in all of the drug forfeiture laws.″

But the ruling was praised by an array of critics of the government’s aggressive forfeiture policy.

″If the government had won, the ownership of everything in this country would have been clouded. You could never be certain you had clear title,″ said Michael Crotty of the American Bankers Association. ″The horror stories of forfeitures imposed on truly innocent people years after they acquired property should subside.″

Miami lawyer Neal Sonnett, a drug defense lawyer who heads the American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section, said the ruling offers ″some basic protections to people who are innocent.″

″Forfeiture can be a very effective tool, but it’s also a weapon that is subject to serious abuse, and there have been scattered abuses across the country,″ Sonnett said.

There was no immediate comment from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

″I think the federal government will now stop using the forfeiture laws against school boards and local governments,″ said Thomas Logue, an assistant county attorney in Miami.

″The federal government has forfeited property liens on drug dealers who don’t pay their taxes. There’s a lot of money involved - across the nation we’re talking about millions and millions and millions,″ Logue said.

″Forfeiture is a program that got out of control,″ he added. ″The federal government started using it as a revenue enhancement program rather than one aimed a breaking the economic backs of the dopers.″

Scott Bullock of the Institute for Justice, a conservative group concerned about property rights, said the case took on greater importance because Justice Department lawyers adopted a ″very extreme position.″

″The court rejected the frightening proposition that the government automatically owns all property that has ever come into contact with illegal activity,″ Bullock said. ″The ruling protects the rights of innocent property owners caught up in the vast net thrown by forfeiture laws.″

The decision left undecided whether the ″innocent owner″ defense is available to someone who was unaware of the illegal transaction when it occurred but learned about it before assuming ownership of the ″proceeds.″

And it did not spell out just how people trying to fight off forfeiture prove their innocence.

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the court’s main opinion. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Byron R. White dissented.

The case began when Beth Ann Goodwin bought a home in Rumson, N.J., in 1982 with $240,000 given to her by Joseph Anthony Brenna, who lived with her in the house until 1987.

The government tried to confiscate Ms. Goodwin’s home in 1989, saying the money Brenna gave her to buy it was an illegal profit from the sale of marijuana. Brenna was indicted on federal drug charges in Florida a year later.

Wednesday’s ruling means Ms. Goodwin will get a court hearing on her claim that she did not know the money Brenna gave her came from illegal drug sales.

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