From a rustic ranch in eastern Orange County, Daniel James Fowlie ran an drug trafficking ring that bundled off bales of marijuana to cities across the nation.
But his drug dynasty began to crumble a decade ago when authorities filed a civil lawsuit to win possession of his Rancho Del Rio headquarters in the Santa Ana Mountains, while Fowlie sought refuge in Mexico.
After Fowlie lost his fight against extradition back to the United States in 1990, he was hit with criminal charges. Following his conviction, he was fined $1 million and sentenced to 30 years without the possibility of parole, virtually guaranteeing that the then-57-year-old drug kingpin would die in prison.
Now, however, Fowlie and other convicted drug dealers are entertaining hopes of walking free again--thanks in part to a controversial federal court decision declaring that the government cannot prosecute a drug dealer and seize his assets in separate court proceedings.
Ruling on a legal argument written by a prison inmate, a three-judge panel of the U. S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena said the double-barreled approach to justice, routinely used by prosecutors against drug dealers, amounts to double jeopardy and is barred by the U. S. Constitution.
With the force of a legal earthquake, the ruling has jolted the law enforcement community.
A top Justice Department official said that since the September 1994 decision, a few drug dealers have been released from prison, seized assets have been returned, and several hundred people--convicted of drug dealing, money laundering and other crimes--have asked judges to reverse their sentences or return their property.
Scores more have cited the ruling in asking courts to dismiss pending criminal charges against them. A few have been successful.
"For some, it's a get-out-of-jail-free card," said Stefan D. Cassella, deputy chief of the U. S. Justice Department's asset forfeiture and money laundering section in Washington.
Cassella and other federal prosecutors say the court's decision has hobbled the government's War on Drugs. They say it is probably one reason why the federal Asset Forfeiture Fund--where the proceeds from drug-tainted assets confiscated nationwide are pooled--declined from $550 million in 1994 to $488 million last year, an 11% decrease.
U. S. Atty. Nora M. Manella, the chief federal prosecutor for seven Southern California counties, said the ruling has made it more difficult to seize a drug dealer's ill-gotten goods, and has fundamentally altered the way law enforcement agencies prosecute drug dealers and organized criminals.
In some cases, accused drug dealers have offered to surrender their property in civil proceedings with the intention of preventing prosecutors from filing criminal charges, which would then amount to a "second" punishment.
In the Central District of California alone, more than a hundred people have challenged their sentences and indictments on double jeopardy grounds. With 16 million people, this federal court district, which stretches from San Luis Obispo to Riverside, is the most populous in the United States.
"If this decision stands, it will have an impact on many convictions that have already been secured, and on future criminal litigation nationwide," Manella said.
Miriam A. Krinsky, who heads the appellate section at the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, and other Justice Department officials have argued that the 9th Circuit decision--written by Judge Stephen Reinhardt--was wrong. They contend that confiscating a drug dealer's assets is not punishment, but akin to seizing a bank robber's loot. He or she never had a right to the stolen cash in the first place.
But a cadre of lawyers, and another federal appeals court, have sided with the Pasadena court's ruling, saying it merely reinforced the centuries-old American legal principle that the government cannot penalize someone twice for the same offense.
Richard J. Troberman, a Seattle lawyer who is co-chair of the National Assn. of Criminal Defense Lawyer's forfeiture abuse task force, said federal prosecutors who criticize the 9th Circuit's ruling were making "much ado over not so much. They are running around like Chicken Little, when very few [convicted] people" are going to be released from prison or have their property returned.
Troberman said a subsequent 9th Circuit ruling, also written by Reinhardt, declares that felons cannot claim to have been penalized twice if they never contested the seizure of their property in the first place. The second ruling effectively precludes about two-thirds of those whose property has been seized from succeeding in their appeals, Troberman said.