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Hullabaloo


Saturday, December 24, 2016

 

And a Happy New Year

by Tom Sullivan

When 60 Minutes told Billy Munnerlyn's story (You're Under Arrest, Apr. 5, 1992) it was clear both the drug war's slippery slope and America's authoritarian bent had become slipperier and steeper. Munnerlyn ran a small air charter service in Las Vegas. One day a "banker" hired Munnerlyn and his Learjet to fly him and several boxes of financial records to the Ontario International Airport, outside Los Angeles. As the 1991 Pittsburgh Press account told it:

His passenger was 74-year-old Albert Wright, a convicted cocaine trafficker. The plastic boxes contained $2,795,685 in cash.

But Munnerlyn says he didn't know that until three hours after they landed and Drug Enforcement Administration agents handcuffed him and took him to the Cucamonga County Jail. Munnerlyn was charged with drug trafficking and ordered to pay $1 million bail. Seventy-one hours later, he was released without being charged.

When he went to get his plane, a drug agent told him "it belongs to the government now" -- a simple statement that launched a devastating legal battle that continues today.
Munnerlyn sued to fight what is known as civil forfeiture, the practice that allows the government to confiscate property involved even in a suspected drug crime. After a jury ruled the plane should be returned, Munnerlyn still had to buy back his own property from the government for $6,500 after $80,000 in legal fees. On top of that, the government kept the $8,500 in airfare.

The story comes to mind because George Will writes today that the practice is still in force:
The Sourovelises’ son, who lived at home, was arrested for selling a small amount of drugs away from home. Soon there was a knock on their door by police who said, “We’re here to take your house” and “You’re going to be living on the street” and “We do this every day.” The Sourovelises’ doors were locked with screws, and their utilities were cut off. They had paid off the mortgage on their $350,000 home, making it a tempting target for policing for profit.
A product of the drug war, civil forfeiture makes state and local law enforcement partners in dividing the booty, or as the government's extrajudicial confiscation is called in "Orwellian newspeak — “equitable sharing.” According to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, somehow "a crime had been committed by the house."

It's not Will's first attack on this travesty (nor mine). He has written what amounts to an ongoing series about the malpractice. But this time, a prominent member of the incoming Trump administration is slated to be the law's enforcer:
At a 2015 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on forfeiture abuses, one senator said “taking and seizing and forfeiting, through a government judicial process, illegal gains from criminal enterprises is not wrong,” and neither is law enforcement enriching itself from this. In the manner of the man for whom he soon will work, this senator asserted an unverifiable number: “95 percent” of forfeitures involve people who have “done nothing in their lives but sell dope.” This senator said it should not be more difficult for “government to take money from a drug dealer than it is for a businessperson to defend themselves in a lawsuit.” In seizing property suspected of involvement in a crime, government “should not have a burden of proof higher than in a normal civil case.”
Will teases until revealing in the end that the senator in question is Donald Trump's pick for attorney general, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions.

So with that, happy Hanukkah and a merry Christmas. Hug the ones you love a little tighter this year.

I'll have that eggnog now.

Make it a double.







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Happy Hollandaise everyone.

cheers --- digby