Felon's frequent flier miles sought 'Ingenious' use of seizure laws targets Md. drug trafficker

March 31, 1996|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

An article in yesterday's editions about federal prosecutors seeking a drug trafficker's frequent flier miles incorrectly identified one of the prosecutors. His name is Richard Kay.

The Sun regrets the error.

For running drugs along the East Coast, Robert Michael Pate figured he lost just about everything.

First, he went to prison. Then federal prosecutors seized his house in Florida and his bank accounts in Baltimore. Now they want one last thing from the marijuana smuggler -- his frequent flier miles.

In what appears to be the first case of its kind in the country, federal prosecutors are claiming that the 117,705 miles Pate racked up while flying between Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark, and Toronto on USAir were earned in the course of his bustling drug business.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Prosecutors say that, instead of benefiting Pate, the miles -- enough for three trips to the Caribbean -- should be converted into plane tickets and used to help local law enforcement agencies pursue other drug traffickers.

"I think it's ingenious," said U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia, whose office filed the forfeiture claim for Pate's frequent flier miles in U.S. District Court in Baltimore a few weeks ago.

Pate won't put up a fight to keep his miles.

"He's in prison," said his attorney, David B. Irwin. "He's not going anywhere."

For years, the Justice Department has been pursuing drug traffickers, mobsters and other criminals after their convictions, seizing everything tied to their trades -- boats, planes, cars, homes, cash and the contents of their bank accounts.

Emboldened by recent court rulings upholding the seizures, prosecutors are expanding their use of forfeiture laws created during the Reagan administration to punish criminals and reward law enforcement agencies, which share seized cash and property.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution permits police and prosecutors to seize property used in a crime -- even when the owner was not a participant.

Ever since Pate pleaded guilty to drug charges two years ago, federal prosecutors and detectives in Baltimore County have been wondering whether they could seize his miles. They sent electronic messages to U.S. attorneys around the nation, asking other prosecutors for guidance.

The response: No one ever tried to seize frequent flier miles.

Prosecutors made Robert Michael Pate their test case.

The case against Pate, 49, began four years ago, when Baltimore County detectives, and agents with the Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Customs Service began tracking a huge marijuana and hashish smuggling ring operating out of Sparks in Baltimore County.

Flights from 1987 to 1993

Over the years, tons of marijuana and hash were shipped from Texas and the West Coast to Baltimore County. Pate hopped onto USAir flights between 1987 and 1993 to arrange dope deals for the ring, according to court files and drug investigators.

Investigators followed Pate up and down the East Coast -- back and forth from Maryland and Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Canada. In 1993, investigators searched a locker Pate was renting at Fullerton Mini Storage in Baltimore.

Inside, they found 2 pounds of marijuana, $5,695 in cash and Pate's financial records.

Arrested on possession and conspiracy charges, Pate confessed to everything -- including how he used the flights to carry out his trade. As part of his plea deal with federal prosecutor Jefferson Gray, Pate agreed to cooperate with investigators and forfeit most of his belongings.

A federal judge will decide whether the miles should be considered as assets and confiscated under forfeiture laws.

Pate pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy charges in September and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. He is expected to be released to a halfway house sometime this summer.

Pate racked up miles in two USAir accounts: 110,663 miles under his real name, another 7,042 miles under one of his many aliases, Raymond Douglas Freeman. Together, the miles are enough for four domestic flights, or three trips to the Caribbean, Mexico or Canada.

'Piqued my interest'

"It's something that's never been tried before, and it piqued my interest," said Baltimore County Detective Keith Gale, the lead investigator in the case, who came up with the frequent flier idea.

"We were discussing strategies, and I started to think: 'Why should he get to keep those frequent flier miles?' "

Detective Gale said he contacted lawyers for USAir. They told him the miles were not worth anything without being converted into awards. The lawyers said they would transfer the miles from Pate's account into awards if the airline was ordered to do so by a judge.

"We will do whatever the courts tell us to do," USAir spokesman Paul Turk said.

Mr. Turk said the airline has been previously asked to turn over frequent flier miles in divorce cases and bankruptcy proceedings because they are considered assets in those civil proceedings. This request, stemming from a criminal case, seems to be a first.

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