Even if the owners of 31 cars and trucks seized by law officers last week avoid convictions on charges of buying or selling small amounts of drugs in the San Fernando Valley, they will still lose their vehicles, authorities said.
The vehicles were taken under the federal forfeiture law, a civil action independent of the criminal proceedings in which the suspects are involved. Prosecutors and police said the suspects' vehicles will become government property even if charges are dropped against them or they are diverted into drug programs that keep convictions off their records.
"It is not necessary to have a criminal conviction for a car to be forfeited," said U.S. Atty. Robert C. Bonner. "It doesn't even matter if there is a prosecution."
Drug Buyer Beware
Bonner said the seizure of the vehicles during an Oct. 27-29 police and federal Drug Enforcement Administration operation represents an attack on street-level drug activity in the area that for the first time enlists civil action in criminal prosecution. The forfeiture law allows police to seize cars in which the drivers are found to be carrying any amount of an illegal drug.
He said the seizures will serve as punishment and a strong deterrent to drug possession and sales--even if criminal prosecutions go no further than the suspects' arrests.
The federal forfeiture law is routinely used in large drug cases to seize the cash and other assets of drug suspects. But authorities said the seizure of cars belonging to drive-up buyers and street peddlers during last week's operation was the first time the law had been used against those on the bottom level of the drug business in Los Angeles.
Bonner said the operation was designed to send a "buyer-beware" message to those who cruise through known drug sales areas looking to make small purchases of cocaine and marijuana.
"I think that part of the overall drug problem facing the Los Angeles area is that it is widely perceived that there aren't any legal consequences attached to this level of drug activity," Bonner said.
"The very reason we are embarking on this program is to show there are some consequences. When you get right down to it, the buyers are breaking the law and creating the demand. There ought to be some significant attachments to that."
Law-enforcement officials concede that arresting purchasers of small amounts of drugs often does not lead to serious consequences for the suspects. Under California law, suspects arrested for possession of cocaine on first offenses can be placed in drug programs that allow them to avoid jail or avoid even having convictions on their records. Repeat offenders also can avoid jail in many instances by being placed on probation.
"People making small buys on the street usually don't get much in the way of sentencing," said Lt. J. R. Schiller of the Los Angeles police narcotics division. "But losing their car is going to hit them in the pocketbook. Now they know that, when they purchase a $15 rock, they risk losing their $40,000 Mercedes," he said, referring to cocaine in rock form.
Nobody actually lost a Mercedes-Benz in last week's operation, but there were a few $10,000 cars and two classic Ford Mustangs taken from owners. In all, 55 people--more than half of them suspected buyers--were arrested on suspicion of various drug violations and 31 cars and trucks with a value of $100,000 were seized on streets in Canoga Park, Van Nuys, Panorama City, North Hollywood and Pacoima, police said.
Bonner said the federal forfeiture law was used during the operation instead of California's forfeiture law because it is less "cumbersome," carrying no restrictions on minimum amounts of drugs required to be found in a vehicle and allowing agencies to keep and use the vehicles seized.
"Any vehicle used to transport drugs can be forfeited" under the federal law, Bonner said. "Quantity is irrelevant--it can be a small quantity for personal use only. Transporting it just a few feet will suffice."
After the vehicles are seized, federal officials file claims against them and a U.S. district judge must approve any confiscation. Bonner said the owners can appeal the forfeiture, but they would need to retain an attorney to do so, and, unlike in criminal proceedings, the government does not provide an attorney for someone who can't afford one.
Because the forfeiture is a civil procedure, Bonner noted, less evidence is required for the forfeiture of a vehicle than would be required to win a criminal conviction for possession. A criminal conviction requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt. A civil forfeiture case requires only that a preponderance, or a majority, of the evidence show the vehicle was used to transport drugs. Therefore, it is conceivable a suspect could be found not guilty of a drug possession charge but still lose his car.
Bonner, however, was quick to maintain that those differences do not matter in the 31 current cases. "This is not a situation where there are proof problems," he said. "For gosh sakes, there was surveillance and the cars were stopped and (the evidence) was found."
Bonner said that, when forfeiture proceedings on the cars seized last week are completed, they will be turned over for use by Los Angeles police and DEA agents. In cases where the vehicles have liens against them, they either will be sold and the liens paid or turned over to the finance companies with the stipulation that they not be returned to the original owners.
Although use of the federal forfeiture law against small-time drug buyers is somewhat new, the law has been upheld several times in challenges to appellate courts, Bonner said. The Los Angeles operation, he said, was similar to a multiagency operation in New York City that recently resulted in the forfeiture of about 250 cars belonging to drug buyers and peddlers.