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Property-Seizure Law Gives County Edge in Drug War

June 08, 1989|WILLIAM OVEREND | Times Staff Writer

In the aftermath of the biggest seizure of suspected drug profits in Ventura County history, law enforcement officials said this week that scattered groups of Colombian cocaine dealers are using the county as a base of operations.

"We don't have a problem on the scale of Los Angeles or Orange County, but we are going to be seeing more Colombians," said Lt. Paul Anderson, head of the Ventura County Sheriff's Department narcotics squad. "As we develop our own resources, we'll be uncovering more and more."

Anderson and other local and federal drug officials discussed the scope of Ventura County's drug problems following the arrest of three Colombian nationals and one Guatemalan national and the seizure of $2.5 million by the Simi Valley Police Department.

Officials identified the suspects as members of Colombia's Medellin cartel, the drug ring suspected of distributing virtually all the cocaine smuggled into Southern California. In the Los Angeles area alone, 4,000 Colombians are involved in the cartel's operations, authorities estimate.

While police said they didn't have enough evidence to charge the Colombians who were arrested in Simi Valley, the cash was seized under a state forfeiture statute that no longer requires prosecutors to obtain criminal convictions before confiscating cash and other property believed to be the proceeds of drug dealing.

Termed Effective Tool

Officials this week cited the use of that law by the Ventura County district attorney's office in the Simi Valley case and 80 others during the first half of 1989 as one of the most effective tools in keeping local drug problems at manageable levels.

Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Vincent O'Neill Jr. said Ventura officials have aggressively used the law--which was amended as of January to make it easier to seize houses and small amounts of cash--primarily against low- and mid-level dealers.

O'Neill said the district attorney's office has one prosecutor, Stephen J. McLaughlin, assigned full time to forfeiture cases and is considering adding another.

"I can't imagine anybody doing any more to use the new law than we are," he said. "We were obviously lucky to get such a large amount this early, but we expect to get a lot more in the coming months. We already have investigators running down leads from the Simi Valley case."

Under the state law, according to McLaughlin, 10% of the confiscated money goes to the state for a variety of mental health and drug education programs. About 76% goes to the police agency making the arrests and the remainder goes to the prosecuting agency.

U.S. Law Was Model

McLaughlin said the state law, modeled after a federal forfeiture statute adopted in 1984, enables county officials to move more swiftly in seizing the assets of suspected drug dealers, even when they are not charged with criminal activity. He said the standard of proof required to keep confiscated assets is lower than that needed to obtain convictions.

In the Simi Valley case, legal sources said the courts probably would require only the facts that the suspects were Colombians in possession of a large sum of cash and that trained police dogs detected cocaine at several locations during the investigation.

The state law recently was challenged in Monterey by Cesario Moraza, a laborer who protested that police illegally confiscated $28,000 from his pickup truck while investigating a domestic quarrel. A Superior Court judge initially ruled in Moraza's favor, but on May 15 the 6th District Court of Appeal overturned that ruling, saying cocaine residue on a razor blade in Moraza's house was sufficient to link the money to drug dealing. State and local prosecutors throughout California have hailed the ruling.

While agreeing that there is increased activity by Colombians in Ventura County, local officials stressed this week that the primary thrust of the country's drug enforcement activity continues to center on local dealers.

Problem Said Worsening

They said the problem remains manageable in comparison to the cocaine epidemic in Los Angeles and Orange counties, but added that drug trafficking is clearly on the increase.

"We don't have it as bad as they do for a lot of obvious reasons," said Lt. Anderson. "For one thing, Westlake and Thousand Oaks and Agoura make a nice buffer area to Los Angeles. I think education levels on the whole are higher here, and that helps. Another thing is we have more community participation in anti-drug programs.

"We're not having our streets overrun and our parks shut down, but we do have a drug problem that is severe, no doubt about it," he added. "What we're seeing now is a lot of local dealers who are pure profiteers. A few years ago, most of the dealers were users. Now there are more and more who are just in it for the money."

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