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Court Extends Hope to Jailed Drug Dealers

Appeals: Hundreds of convicts seek sentence reversals or return of property after ruling. It found that prosecution and seizure in separate proceedings amounts to double jeopardy.

February 05, 1996|DAVAN MAHARAJ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

From a rustic ranch in eastern Orange County, Daniel James Fowlie ran a 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 to the United States in 1990, he was hit with criminal charges. After his conviction, he was fined $1 million and sentenced to 30 years without 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--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 said the double-barreled approach to justice, routinely used by prosecutors against drug dealers, amounts to double jeopardy and is barred by the Constitution.

With the force of a legal earthquake, the ruling has jolted the law enforcement community.

A top Justice Department official said that after 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 Justice Department's asset forfeiture section in Washington.

Cassella and other federal prosecutors say the court's decision has hobbled the government's war on drugs.

U. S. Atty. Nora M. Manella, the chief federal prosecutor for seven Southern California counties, said the ruling has altered the way that law enforcement agencies prosecute drug dealers.

In the Central District of California, which stretches from San Luis Obispo to Riverside, more than a hundred people have challenged either their convictions or indictments on double jeopardy grounds.

"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 of the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, has argued that the 9th Circuit decision--written by Judge Stephen Reinhardt--was wrong. He contends 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-- has sided with the 9th Circuit'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-chairman of the National Assn. of Criminal Defense Lawyer's forfeiture abuse task force, said federal prosecutors who criticize the appeals court's ruling are 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.

Two weeks ago, the U. S. Supreme Court waded into this double jeopardy debate, agreeing to review the 9th Circuit ruling and a similar decision by the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati court, which reversed the conviction of a Michigan marijuana grower, said the man already had been punished when the government seized his entire $13,250 net worth in a civil proceeding.

With the Supreme Court's decision several months away, top prosecutors nationwide say the unresolved issue has cast a cloud over civil forfeiture actions, which they see as one of the most potent weapons in the government's anti-drug strategy.

For centuries, the government has seized ill-gotten property, ranging from smuggled goods to pirate ships. But during the past decade, prosecutors have used a 1984 federal forfeiture law to step up such actions, raking in more than $4 billion worth of cars, cash, airplanes and other property in civil and criminal forfeitures.

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