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Drug Houses Getting a New Lease on Life

Crime: Law allows police to resell homes where illegal activities have festered. Some claim rights abuses; to neighbors, it's a godsend.

February 24, 2002|JIM IRWIN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

DETROIT — The bungalow on Blackstone Street isn't much to look at. The porch roof sags, the shrubs are a wild tangle and the security bars on the windows make it look like a jail.

But to Suzanne Purzycki, who lives across the street, it is a diamond in the rough--now that it is no longer a drug house.

"It'd be a great home for somebody with children, or a retired couple," Purzycki, 66, says. "It's just a nice, little, cozy, cute house. We're looking forward to having a homeowner there that is a nice, quiet, law-abiding citizen like most of the people on this block."

Wayne County Prosecutor Michael Duggan shares Purzycki's hope.

That was why he went to court to obtain the title to the wood-frame house and put it up for auction: Minimum bid, $4,500. The prosecutor's office Web site describes it as "the perfect starter home."

Since August, seven months after he took office, Duggan has moved to seize more than 200 houses where drugs were bought, sold and used. So far, his office has obtained title to 33 of those homes, including the bungalow on Blackstone, and sold 11 of them for prices ranging from $1,200 to $56,000.

"We are going to make sure these houses go into the hands of law-abiding families," he said. "We are going to do this over and over."

The federal government routinely seizes houses and other drug traffickers' assets and sells them at auction. Duggan's crackdown targets lower-level offenders who might otherwise escape federal attention.

Critics of civil forfeiture say the practice tramples on people's rights.

"The laws authorizing it are sweeping and intrusive," said Lawrence W. Reed, president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative organization based in Midland, Mich. "The threshold of evidence required before an asset is seized is so low that the law represents a significant threat to the rights of all people, not just the guilty."

In civil cases, authorities need only prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence. That is less strict than the criminal standard, which requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Because the authorities often get to keep the proceeds from assets they seize, Reed said, "there is inordinate incentive for authorities to push the forfeiture laws to their limits and beyond."

Bay County Prosecutor Joseph Sheeranh's office has seized and auctioned off a half-dozen drug houses and used the proceeds to support a regional anti-drug law-enforcement coalition. He conceded that forfeiture should not be pursued "just for the sake of the money," but said it is a justifiable weapon against chronic drug activity.

"People in neighborhoods get awfully tired of it when the police make an arrest, the prosecutor prosecutes and the drug activity continues," he said. "The homeowner-drug trafficker is entitled to his or her day in court."

He added: "If they're using the house for a drug supermarket, it only makes sense to take the instrumentality of the crime out of their hands."

Duggan said the bungalow on Blackstone Street, the 200th forfeiture case handled by his office, was typical. Detroit police had raided the place five times in the past year, making three felony arrests and confiscating marijuana, cocaine and heroin. "This time, it's shut down for good," Duggan said.

Purzycki, who lives side-by-side with her daughter in houses built in 1919 by her father and uncle, welcomed the prosecutor's vigilance.

"When people move into this neighborhood, my daughter and I go over and introduce ourselves to them," she said. "I tell them, 'I grew up in that house right over there. This neighborhood means something to me.' "

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