Santa Ana police and federal officials arrested 200 people on drug and other charges and seized 36 cars worth more than $250,000 over the weekend in Orange County's first use of the federal "zero tolerance" law.
Dubbed Project Customer Service, the sweep was designed to crack down on drug sales in several Santa Ana neighborhoods. It was conducted by the city's police in conjunction with the U.S. attorney's office, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Marshal's Service.
The seizures and arrests, which were primarily on charges of possession of small amounts of marijuana and cocaine, followed similar efforts in Los Angeles, New York, and Detroit, police officials said in a news conference in Santa Ana on Monday.
U.S. Atty. Robert C. Bonner explained that the zero-tolerance law dictates that motor vehicles can be impounded if any amount of illegal drugs is found inside.
Police said that after they allegedly observed occupants from the cars purchasing drugs in a Santa Ana neighborhood, they followed the cars, stopped and searched them. They said the autos were seized only if the owner drove the car knowing that drugs were in the vehicle.
"This is one of the most effective programs to give drug users accountability. . . . They are as responsible as anyone else for the murders (and violence) that go along with drug traffic," Bonner said.
The crackdown stems from a survey of residents, who said they want to clean up drug dealing on their streets, among other crimes, and are acting as informants for the police.
"We want to retake those areas for the people who live there," said Santa Ana Police Chief Clyde L. Cronkhite, adding that while police were making their arrests "people were coming out of their houses cheering."
Cronkhite said most of those arrested were expecting just to be cited and released, but when they were brought to a command post and told that they were going to lose their cars, several became "excited . . . then almost violent," he said.
Officials noted that those arrested ranged from a medical doctor who recently bought a new sports car and was allegedly buying marijuana to a 16-year-old girl allegedly buying cocaine in a BMW.
"We did return a number of cars leased or owned by people who didn't know it was being used for (drug purchasing)," Cronkhite said.
Police confiscated 303.5 grams (about 11 ounces) of marijuana and 22.6 grams (less than an ounce) of cocaine.
The operation was conducted in the 1200 block of West Brook Street and on Walnut Street between Pacific Avenue and Bristol Street. Of those arrested on drug charges over the weekend, only 15% were Santa Ana residents, police reported.
"There are a number of things we need to do to cut down on the demand for illegal drugs, and we do by attaching some sort of legal consequences . . . even for personal use quantities," Bonner said.
The zero-tolerance policy began as a method of putting teeth into a law passed by Congress in the early 1970s to attack the demand side of the drug problem.
It started as a pilot project by U.S. Atty. Peter K. Nunez in December, 1986, and later was adopted by federal agencies, particularly the U.S. Coast Guard and Customs Service.
Originally, the law allowed only for seizure of property from people discovered with a considerable amount of illegal drugs. But in March of 1987, Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III presented a round of sweeping drug measures to allow the Coast Guard and Customs Service to seize boats and cars on the basis of minute amounts of illegal drugs. It was later amended to allow for seizure of boats only if they appeared to be used for smuggling drugs.
Seizures recently have been made on land. In January, Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies and officers arrested 41 people involved in sales of rock cocaine and seized 23 automobiles at a Lancaster motel. Then in March, Los Angeles officers and federal officers arrested 46 people in South-Central Los Angeles and seized nearly $160,000 in cars and cash.
Bonner explained that the car seizure and drug charges are two separate matters. The car seizure is handled administratively by the DEA and the drug charges are brought through the Orange County district attorney's office.
If the car owner wishes to fight the seizure, then the U.S. attorney's office will file a civil complaint and it will go to court. Bonner said this procedure could take as long as six months to a year, during which the car would remain in police custody.
The vehicles are turned over to the U.S. Marshal's Service, which sells them at auction. Bonner said the city will receive about 90% of the proceeds.
The American Civil Liberties Union has maintained that authorities are convicting people by seizing their property without a trial.
"What's wrong with it is the same thing that's wrong with shooting someone or hanging someone, and then saying, 'We're going to give you a trial to see if you're guilty,' " ACLU national legal director James Powell has said.
Of those arrested, 37 were allegedly drug dealers, who were identified by hooded, undercover witnesses after the arrest of the buyer. Cronkhite said the police informants masked their identities so they can be used in future operations.
He said Santa Ana has about 1,000 neighborhood "captains"--residents who help set up a network to locate drug activity.
Some of those arrested on drug charges are illegal aliens who have applied for amnesty with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Bonner said the charges could put those amnesty requests in "serious jeopardy" and could be grounds to deny the request
"If you're going to go out and buy drugs, especially in Santa Ana, you better bring bus fare because you're going to need it after you're arrested and after you get out of jail," Bonner said.
Times staff writer Floyd Whaley contributed to this report.