Airjacked CONTINUED FROM COVER was all they needed. Melo took a commercial flight home to Brazil, where institutionalized chaos prevents the police from becoming so organized that they would haul off an entire jet plane. Spurlock was left in a country nominally committed to liberty, which garrisoned an army without uniforms that had been deployed to combat drugs but more and more was training its ordnance upon innocent civilians. “I thought we had a constitution in effect. I thought they would have to file charges against people to take their property. That’s not the truth anymore. We’re living in a police state,” Spurlock says now, chastened by cold experience. DURING THE NEXT NEXT year or two, the chambers of the Supreme Court and the halls of Congress will be important forums in the contest between civil liberties and the Justice Department campaign to replace the drudgery of criminal law enforcement with swashbuckling exercises in civil forfeiture. In some cases police simply stop people who fit the “drug smuggler profile” and seize any large amounts of cash they find \(see “Presumed Guilty,” TO, getting more press and some victims are winning in courts, creating momentum to curb the abuses associated with these extraordinary laws. Forfeiture laws started out in the 1970s as a tool to take the spoils of illicit trade such as fat bank accounts and luxury yachts from real live racketeers. Since then, like kudzu, forfeiture laws have multiplied and spread across federal and state lawbooks. Torqued to maximum efficiency during the 1980s, they have been increasingly used to seize the property of ordinary people such as Spurlock or his customers in what civil libertarians have called exercises of arbitrary, state-sponsored pillaging that would have been illegal 15 years ago. Civil forfeiture laws have expanded in scope to allow seizures in almost any enterprise involving transfer of value, creating a threat of forfeiture for an increasing number of Americans. Peter Cassidy, Boston correspondent to the National Mortgage News, is a writer on whitecollar crime and national affairs whose work has appeared in Bankers Monthly, The Progressive, the National Security Institute Advisor and Deja Vu Showgirls magazine. Texas has had its share of forfeiture abuses. Law enforcement officials of West Texas counties were being investigated for a wide range of abuses of forfeiture laws last year \(see “Drugs, Stings & Profits,” TO Hal Upchurch, former Ward County district attorney, was indicted by a grand jury in January 1992 on charges he misapplied almost $70,000 from a drug bust and tampered with government documents by underreporting the $275,000 seized in a 1989 marijuana “sting.” Felony charges were dismissed in the 143rd District Court in Monahans this past June as Upchurch pleaded guilty to Class A misdemeanor charges of official oppression and official misconduct and was sentenced to two years’ probation and a $500 fine, with deferred adjudication. The corruption that forfeiture engenders is almost beside the point, since so much of the terror that this genre of law unleashes is legally applied by law enforcement agencies that can act with relative impunity. Then-Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, in a 1990 memo, urged prosecutors to increase the income from forfeitures in order to meet Justice Department budget needs. But at least ‘recently it has become somewhat less difficult for victims to fight back. In the past year the U.S. Supreme Court has handed down three decisions that trashed the assumptions of law enforcement agencies performing forfeitures and provided litigants with important precedents to fight seizures. The decisions have put the cops on notice. Against the backdrop of these decisions, Congress is considering legislation that would impose limits on the forfeiture laws. If Congress doesn’t act to diminish civil forfeiture after a Rehnquist courtwhich never saw a police activity it didn’t likedecided the police had abused these laws, then Spurlock might have to join his client in Brazil to feel safe. 5 purlock began investigating the events leading up to Customs’ snatch-anddash operation in Fort Lauderdale almost as soon as he got off the phone with Melo. He fired off letters to Senator Phil Gramm’s office and made a number of calls to Customs. Gradually the seizure scenario came into focus. Someone “dropped a dime” on Spurlock and his customer, Pedro Muffato, a Brazilian mogul who owned and operated a chain of supermarkets and television franchises and occasionally drove race cars for fun and publicity. The call to Customs, Spurlock believes, was made by one of his competitors. A few days before Customs agents helped themselves to the Lear Jet, a competitor’s mechanic had faxed to Spurlock a copy of the titlesearch paperwork on the plane. This, and a warrant describing a tip from an unnamed informant, has convinced Spurlock that a disgruntled competitor unleashed on him the full police power of the federal government starting the whole process with a bit of cheap slander. Gramm’s office sent a query to Customs and then passed the agency’s blithe, dismissive reply on to Spurlock with little comment. This soured Spurlock on Republican politics a bit, convincing him that Gramm was a supporter of a law enforcement tactics that jeopardized his livelihood. “Basically, [Gramm] said, ‘Stuff it,'” Spurlock complained. While he was fighting to get his client’s jet back, Spurlock started rethinking the meaning of American liberty. When in April, 60 Minutes ran a lengthy segment on forfeiture, Spurlock saw the same fear and rage he felt in stories of apparently innocent people being stopped and their money being grabbed. On the program, the same DEA agents who grabbed $9,000 from one guy travelling through the Nashville airport to Houston also stopped a 60 Minutes producer after he. booked his own round-trip flight agents began hustling the network executive, asking if he had a lot of cash on him. When he identified himself as a 60 Minutes producer, they backed down like a couple of coyotes caught snacking on the prize lamb. PURLOCK SAW, in living color, what was happening in America. A kind of martial law was in effect. Anyone who carried cash could be suspect. Almost any pretext could be concocted for grabbing and stripping free men and women of their possessions. Somehow the constitutional right against unreasonable searches and seizures had been suspended and Spurlock felt like he had to do something. “That program made it very clear that whatever protections we thought we had under our Constitution had vanished. … Right then, I thought the most important thing was to get our Constitution back; the most important thing was getting our liberty for our children and grandchildren back. The only thing protecting us from our government is our Constitution. … Obviously they’d found a THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5
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