Are We Sure the Ends Justify the Means?

CARL T. ROWAN

July 14, 1993|By CARL T. ROWAN

Washington. -- A suburban businessman drives his $65,000 Mercedes-Benz into downtown Washington on one of these steamy nights and stops to talk to a less-than-sultry hooker.

A nearby vice-squad cop says he heard the businessman offer the prostitute money for sex. Goodbye, Mercedes! The city has seized it under a monstrosity called ''The Safe Streets Forfeiture Act.''

A man in South Dakota pleads guilty to selling two grams of cocaine. Authorities seize his mobile home and his auto-body shop under federal ''forfeiture'' laws.

What's wrong with these two scenarios?

In the District of Columbia case, the ''John's'' car is seized by a policeman who assumes the role of accuser, judge and jury on the spot. A citizen is stripped of his property without any of the ''due process of law'' that is one of an American's most cherished rights.

In the South Dakota case, the punishment was extremely disproportionate to the gravity of the crime, as the United States Supreme Court ruled June 28 in the case of Austin v. United States.

We Americans are surrendering too many of our liberties and constitutional rights in the gossamer pursuit of ''safe streets'' and ''a drug-free society.''

Federal officials have all but gone crazy in punishing people, through seizure of their property, for suspected crimes that could not be proved in court. One man had his life savings seized because federal agents merely surmised that he had taken a plane trip with the intention of purchasing drugs. Although never indicted or convicted of anything, the man couldn't get his money back.

By the end of 1992 the federal forfeiture orgy had snatched more than $2 billion worth of property from people suspected of smuggling drugs, laundering money or looting savings-and-loan institutions. Federal officials auctioned off billions more of seized properties.

The pity is that you and I never raised a stink because we were so angry at drug peddlers, crooked banks and S & L thieves that we were willing to see the suspects stripped of all constitutional protections. Some Americans felt such ''moral revulsion'' to prostitution, such a yearning for ''safe streets,'' that they blinked at the unconstitutional outrage of taking a man's vehicle because he allegedly asked a hooker, ''How much?'' or ''Your place or mine?''

In the Austin case the Supreme Court noted that the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits ''excessive fines'' as well as excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment.

The seizure of a horny suburbanite's Mercedes is worse than an ''excessive fine'' because punishment is levied without any fair trial or conviction. Taking someone's home and business for a single cocaine violation is an absurdity greater than anything that could have been feared by the framers of the Eighth Amendment.

But these forfeitures have put billions of dollars into the coffers of federal cops, and have benefited money-strapped cities under a share-the-loot arrangement with the feds. D.C. police will be seizing the vehicles of some ''Johns'' tonight, indifferent to the likelihood that this city's Safe Streets Forfeiture Act is a gross violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Our lawmen have produced nothing in the way of safe streets or control of drug abuse that justifies our toleration of these abuses of individual rights. It's time we spoke up for the binding down of all law enforcement operations with the wise restraints laid on by our Constitution.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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