Court to act on drug-case home seizure

January 16, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to rule on the constitutionality of the federal government's seizure of a man's home and his entire business because he sold a small amount of cocaine there.

A case from the small South Dakota town of Garretson, potentially a historic test case, reached the court amid the still-spreading controversy over the government's sweeping power under federal law to take ownership of property used in any way in trafficking in illegal drugs.

Reflecting the depth of that controversy, the federal appeals court in the South Dakota case said it was "troubled by the government's view that any property, whether it is be the hobo's hovel or the Empire State Building, can be seized by the government because the owner, regardless of his or her past criminal record, engages in a single drug transaction."

Even so, that lower court said it had no choice but to uphold the seizure of a mobile home and an auto body shop, together worth about $36,600, after a man in a single transaction sold one or two grams of cocaine to an undercover policeman.

Besides agreeing to rule on that controversy, the court yesterday also said it will consider an Illinois prison inmate's plea to revive a $20 million claim against the federal government for carrying out a disease-transmission experiment at the prison, putting him into a cell with a prisoner who had AIDS and from whom he caught hepatitis.

That claim was thrown out because the Joliet, Ill., inmate making it, William McNeil, did not follow the correct procedures in pursuing his claim.

The justices acted to put the two new cases on their docket yesterday, in order to make sure they are decided before next summer, when the current term ends. Those cases appear to be the last the court will accept for decision between now and the end of the current term.

In the South Dakota case, the government's seizure of the mobile home and body shop came after the shop's owner, Richard Lyle Austin of Garretson, pleaded guilty to a state charge of possessing drugs for dealing. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Austin's appeal to the Supreme Court contends that it is "cruel and usual punishment," in violation of the Constitution's Eighth Amendment, for the government to seize a "grossly disproportionate" amount of property, compared to the seriousness of the underlying crime.

The Supreme Court has never ruled on whether that amendment applies to anything except criminal sentences, such as fines and prison terms. The South Dakota case involves a noncriminal form of punishment, since the property seizure was directed only at the property, not Austin personally, on the theory that the property was the site of drug dealing.

In agreeing to hear Austin's appeal, the government rebuffed the Bush administration's argument that it should simply pass up the dispute.

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