Freeman

ARTICLE

The Government's War on Property

Civil asset forfeiture could spell the end of justice and liberty in America.

JULY 01, 1993 by JARRET B. WOLLSTEIN

Jarret B. Wollstein is a director of the International Society for Individual Liberty and the author of 300 published articles.

“A police dog scratched at your luggage, so we’re confiscating your life savings and you’ll never get it back.” In 1989, police stopped 49-year-old Ethel Hylton at Houston’s Hobby Airport and told her she was under arrest because a drug dog had scratched at her luggage. Agents searched her bags and strip-searched her, but they found no drugs. They did find $39,110 in cash, money she had received from an insurance settlement and her life savings, accumulated by working as a hotel housekeeper and hospital janitor for more than 20 years. Ethel Hylton completely documented where she got the money and was never charged with a crime. The police kept her money anyway. Nearly four years later, she is still trying to get her money back.

Ethel Hylton is just one of a large and growing list of Americans—now numbering in the hundreds of thousands—who have been victimized by civil asset forfeiture. Under civil forfeiture, everything you own can be legally taken away from you without indictment, trial, or conviction. Suspicion of offenses which, if proven, might result in a $200 fine or probation, are being used to justify seizure of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of property. Thousands of innocent Americans are losing their cars, homes, bank accounts, and businesses, based upon the claims of unidentified “informants” that illegal transactions took place on their property. Here are a few examples:

Thirty-year-old Ken Brown owned and operated Chemco, a small pool and gardening chemical supply company in Albuquerque, New Mexico. A few months after he opened his doors in 1986, agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) stopped by and told him to “get out of the chemical business.” A year later Ken found out why: His chief competitor in Albuquerque had an arrangement with the DEA, and neither the DEA nor the competitor wanted any competition. When Ken refused to close his doors in 1987, harassment from the DEA began and got steadily worse. First his UPS packages were opened and inspected. Then his deliveries were seized, his drivers were searched, and his suppliers were threatened. Next his house was searched by armed DEA agents. They found nothing. On November 19, 1991, the DEA arrested his manager and padlocked the doors to Chemco. The IRS was also brought in to investigate the company. The DEA charged Chemco with selling chemicals that could be used to manufacture drugs. On May 8, 1992, the DEA seized Ken Brown’s house and cars, and told him to sign an agreement to pay rent to the U.S. Marshals or “hit the street with my wife and eight-year-old son.” In May 1992 the DEA made Ken Brown an offer: “give us Chemco and we will give you all your personal belongings back.” Ken Brown refused and is still fighting.

Dr. Jonathan Wright operated the Takoma Medical Clinic in Kent, Washington. On May 6, 1992, nearly two dozen armed police and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agents broke down his clinic’s door and pointed their weapons at him and his 15-person staff, mostly women. For the next 14 hours, the staff was held at gunpoint while the FDA ransacked the clinic. Neither Dr. Wright nor any of his employees was ever charged with a crime. That didn’t stop the police and FDA from seizing Dr. Wright’s books, laboratory equipment, supplies, patient records, reference books, and computers. The raid was part of a national FDA crackdown on nutritional therapists.

Willie Jones owned a small landscaping service in Nashville, Tennessee. When he paid cash for an airline ticket at Nashville Metro Airport on February 27, 1991, the ticket agent acted strangely, and said she would have to check in back what to do with the cash. The ticket agent returned and gave Mr. Jones his ticket. Ten minutes later, drug agents stopped and searched him. They found $9,600 in cash, which Jones was going to use to buy plants for his business. Jones explained he pays in cash “because that’s the way the growers want it.” That didn’t stop the DEA from taking his money. Jones was not charged with any crime. But the government took all of his operating cash, and nearly put him out of business.

Legal rights and protections that Americans have cherished for hundreds of years have been increasingly violated during the last two decades. Most of what you learned in school about your legal rights and protections is no longer true. A combination of rising crime, the growing power of government, and increasing concern about drugs has done tremendous damage to the Bill of Rights and our heritage of liberty. Few Americans realize how grave and how ominous that damage has been. Today the government has the power legally to seize your bank account, your house, or your business, without trial, hearing, or indictment. Everything you have worked for and accumulated over a lifetime can now be taken away from you at the whim of authorities. Black or white, rich or poor, we are all potential victims. And unless the laws are changed, there is very little you can legally do to protect your property.

Civil Asset Forfeiture

The seeds of social disaster were planted in 1970 when Congress enacted the federal Racketeering and Corrupt Influence (RICO) statutes (greatly expanded in 1984). Although the rhetoric supporting RICO focused upon defeating “organized crime,” the actual “crimes” targeted by RICO were rather vague. To be cited under RICO, all a person or firm need be suspected of are two instances of mail, wire, or securities fraud. “Fraud” is so broadly defined by RICO that the law covers virtually any offense involving mail, telephone, or stocks. Far from being limited to going after organized crime, RICO is now invoked in minor business cases, landlord-tenant disputes, anti-abortion protests, and even divorce cases.

Two aspects of RICO make it a particularly grave threat to civil liberties and justice: First, RICO effectively extended the jurisdiction of the federal government to nearly every conceivable property offense committed by anyone, anywhere in the United States. Second, RICO undermined our entire system of justice by giving the government the power to freeze or seize all of an individual’s or company’s assets based upon mere suspicion that an offense had occurred. No business can survive if its assets are frozen. A business that can’t pay its bills and operating expenses is a bankrupt business. Because RICO sanctions are so potentially devastating, the guilt or innocence of a business under investigation by government agents becomes immaterial. The mere threat of RICO sanctions is sufficient to force even the largest company to plead guilty and make a deal.

RICO was only the first of many statutes passed in the last 20 years enabling government agencies to seize property without indictment, trial, or conviction for any offense. The war on drugs and fear over growing crime have given us hundreds of new state, federal, and local laws, vastly expanding the government’s power to seize and forfeit property. Because most new seizure laws are civil rather than criminal, the government does not even have to charge the owners of property with a crime before making seizures. Even if you are charged with a crime and acquitted, everything you own can still be seized and forfeited. When your property is civilly forfeited, you have no right to a court-appointed attorney, no right to confront your accusers, no presumption of innocence, and no protection from double jeopardy. Even the Constitutional right to trial by jury is frequently denied in civil forfeiture cases.

In 1974 the Supreme Court issued a landmark civil seizure decision in Calero-Toledo v. Pearson Yacht Leasing Co. In 1973 a $20,000 yacht owned by the Pearson Yacht Leasing Co. was seized by and forfeited to the Customs Service in Puerto Rico. It seems that a group renting the yacht from Pearson used it to transport marijuana totally without Pearson’s knowledge or consent. There was no judicial hearing prior to the seizure, nor was Pearson given any advance notice of the seizure.

In court, the U.S. authorities admitted that Pearson was neither involved in nor aware of any illegal activity on board the yacht while it was being rented. Still the Supreme Court held 8-1 that the yacht could be seized and forfeited anyway because the owner had not proven that he had done “all that reasonably could be expected to prevent the proscribed use of his property.” The Court did not specify what Pearson would have had to do to protect his property from seizure because of activities of parties over whom he had no control. Should Pearson have searched his customer’s suitcases or stationed a detective on board while his boat was being rented? Such procedures obviously would not be tolerated by anyone renting a yacht. Yet in the absence of such police-state tactics, Pearson’s yacht was fair game for seizure.

Civil asset forfeiture is based upon the medieval doctrine that when property is involved in a crime, the property becomes “guilty,” and can be “arrested” and forfeited, regardless of the guilt or innocence of the property’s owners. Under civil asset forfeiture, property—not an individual—is charged with an offense. The modern power of civil asset forfeiture in the United States dates back to the Civil War, when the Supreme Court affirmed the civil seizure of rebel property. In 1921 civil forfeiture was extended to violations of alcohol prohibition. During the 1980s, forfeiture was extended to drug trafficking and possession, and a host of other crimes, through the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, the Drug Abuse Act of 1986, and other laws. The power of civil asset forfeiture is being extended to virtually all misdemeanors and felonies.

Kathy and Mark Schrama of New Jersey can tell you just how destructive and uncontrolled government’s seizure power now is. The police arrested the Schramas just a few weeks before Christmas 1990 at their home in New Jersey. Kathy was charged with taking a few UPS packages from neighbors’ porches. Mark was charged with receiving stolen goods. They had never been previously convicted of any crime. If found guilty in criminal court, they could expect to pay a small fine and possibly receive probation. But the day after they were arrested, before there was any indictment or trial, before even a seizure warrant was issued, their house, cars, and possessions were all seized by New Jersey police. For the alleged theft of $500 worth of packages, over $150,000 in property was seized from Kathy and Mark Schrama, virtually everything they owned. The police even took their clothes, prescription medicines, eyeglasses, and Christmas presents for their 10-year-old son.

For anyone’s home, car or business to be seized in America today, all government agents have to show is that they have “probable cause” to suspect that the property “might have been” involved in an offense. Totally innocent third parties are being dispossessed:

• In December 1988, Detroit police raided a grocery store to make a drug arrest, but failed to find any drugs. After police dogs reacted to three $1 bills in the cash register, the police seized the entire contents of the cash register and a store safe, totalling $4,384. According to a seven-year study by Toxicology Consultants, Inc., “An average of 96 percent of all the bills we analyzed from 11 cities tested positive for cocaine.” If a drug residue is all that is necessary for police to seize cash, most currency in the U.S. could be seized tomorrow.

• In December 1983, Mary and Carl Shelden learned through a local newspaper article that a house on which they held a second mortgage in Moraga, California, had been seized. The Sheldens had been forced to sell the house a few years earlier when Carl broke his back and was forced to retire. The man to whom they had sold their house had been charged with running a prostitution ring. When the house was seized it was valued at $325,000, and most of the equity was held by the Sheldens. Income from the house and Mary’s job as a secretary was their only source of support. The person the Sheldens sold their house to ran several legitimate businesses and the Sheldens had no reason to suspect he was involved in any criminal activity.

Seizure of their house for the alleged crimes of another person began a 10-year ordeal for the Sheldens. While in the government’s “care,” the Sheldens’ house was nearly destroyed by water damage and vandalism. The Sheldens discovered they couldn’t foreclose against the federal government, and they had to go to court repeatedly to get authorities to keep up the mortgage payments. As a result of the continual battles with the U.S. government and fear of destitution, Mary was treated for depression and their 10-year-old daughter developed a borderline ulcer.

The Sheldens were lucky. They found a good attorney and were willing to fight. They eventually got their house back after it was nearly destroyed from neglect and water damage, and after they had incurred tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

No One Is Immune

During the last 20 years, civil asset forfeiture has evolved from a hook to snare organized crime to a broad net, trapping more and more middle-class Americans. Every Wednesday, USA Today newspaper publishes a list of Drug Enforcement Administration seizures. The vast majority of the items seized are not the luxury possessions of drug kingpins, but the modest possessions of ordinary Americans: small bank accounts, inexpensive cars, and modest homes.

In July 1991, the Pittsburgh Press completed “Presumed Guilty,” a 10-month investigation of 25,000 seizures made throughout the United States by the DEA. They interviewed 1,500 prosecutors, defense lawyers, policemen, federal agents, and victims. They found that seizures are taking place throughout America; that many innocent people are losing their cases, cars, and homes; and that 80 percent of the people whose assets are seized are never even charged with a crime.

An April 1990 Washington Post report demonstrates the extent of asset forfeiture. According to the Post, in 1990 the U.S. Marshal’s office had an inventory of over $1.4 billion in seized assets, including over 30,000 cars, boats, homes, and businesses. Asset forfeiture has increased from $27 million in 1985 to over $644 million seized in 1991. In 1992 seizures topped $1 billion. That’s an increase of over 3,700 percent in less than seven years!

Financially strapped federal, state, and local government agencies are increasingly turning to the seizure of property as a source of revenue. Agencies making seizures can keep what they take, giving them a tremendous incentive to expand seizures. Allegations of offenses that, if proven in court, might result in a $200 fine, are being used to justify civil seizure of tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of property from ordinary, hard-working citizens.

Today anyone can become a victim of civil asset forfeiture:

• In Washington, D.C., Portland, Oregon, and many other cities, police have started seizing cars of men accused of soliciting for prostitution. The cars are subject to forfeiture even if the men are acquitted of the charge. The arresting officers are frequently policewomen dressed to look like streetwalkers.

• In 1990 in California under Operation Green Merchant, dozens of legitimate agricultural supply houses and mail order businesses were seized because the DEA claimed they might have unwittingly sold supplies to marijuana growers. Both the DEA and California courts considered the merchants’ lack of control over how their grow lights and fertilizer might be used irrelevant.

• A new offense which can trigger total confiscation of your assets is the crime of “structuring.” The Money Laundering Control Act of 1986 requires that banks send the IRS a Currency Transaction Report of all cash transactions (deposits or withdrawals) of $10,000 or more. Section 5324 of the Money Laundering Control Act defines structuring as any action a person takes to avoid filling out a Currency Transaction Report. Penalties for violating this act include a mandatory five-year prison term, a $250,000 fine, and forfeiture of any funds involved. If you withdraw $10,000 from your own bank account in three withdrawals (rather than a single $10,000 withdrawal) you could be charged with structuring.

Financial analyst Mark Nestmann tells this story in his book How to Achieve Personal and Financial Privacy in a Public Age:

In 1991, a 65-year-old Alabama physician had his life savings seized by the IRS because of alleged structuring in his bank account. Having experienced the Great Depression, the doctor kept his money deposited in several different banks . . . .

A long-time friend opened a bank nearby, and the doctor consolidated his life savings there . . . . a creative U.S. Attorney used Section 5324 to seize the entire account. The doctor, now a pauper, still faces five years’ imprisonment.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

What are your rights if your property is seized? The thinnest veneer of due process has been preserved by the courts in cases of civil asset forfeiture.

Unlike criminal cases, in which you are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, under civil asset forfeiture, justice is inverted. You are presumed guilty and you must prove your innocence before you can hope to reclaim your property. To take your property away from you temporarily, through legal seizure, a government agency merely has to claim that there is “probable cause” to suspect that you or the property were involved in an offense. To avoid seizure becoming permanent, legally sanctioned forfeiture, you have to be prepared to take on and prevail against the full power and resources of state and/or federal government.

What constitutes “probable cause” for seizure? Just about anything. Evidence accepted by courts as probable cause for seizure include: A car present in an area of “known drug trafficking”; suspicion of soliciting a prostitute; being accused by neighbors of stealing a UPS package; purchasing plant grow lights through the mail; a discussion about purchasing drugs overheard by government agents; employing a person who uses drugs; being among the first people to leave a plane; being among the last people to leave a plane; walking fast in a train station; walking slowly in a train station; a tip from an anonymous informant. In short, all “probable cause” means today is that some government agent has some reason to suspect you of violating some law or they just want to get you. By current legal standards, virtually any property in America could be seized.

Even comparatively good state asset forfeiture laws provide little protection. If you live in a state where the laws don’t permit seizure of homes without trial (such as New Hampshire), state agents can request that federal authorities adopt your case and for a percentage of the take seize your property under broader federal laws. This has the added advantage for the seizing authority of forcing you to fight the full legal and financial resources of the federal government, rather than “merely” the resources of a local or state agency.

Once your property is seized, all of the rules and procedures are slanted in the government’s favor. Seizing authorities have an unspecified period of time to notify you that your property is subject to forfeiture. Typically notice is sent out six months after property is seized. Once notice of forfeiture is mailed, you have usually 20 to 30 days to reply (in California, you have only eight days!). Notice is sent to your last known address, which is a neat trick if your house has just been seized and you have been evicted. For one reason or another, many victims of seizure never receive any notice. This is unfortunate, because failure to challenge a forfeiture notice within 20 to 30 days of its being mailed results in immediate and generally uncontestable forfeiture. If you do receive notice that your property is about to be forfeited, you are usually given two options to challenge: You can request an administrative hearing before the forfeiting agency or you can post bond and demand a trial.

The administrative petition “option” is basically a sham. According to District of Columbia attorney Brenda Grantland, government agencies seizing property, like the DEA, FDA, and police, never grant an administrative hearing and virtually never find for the victim. Once they take your property, they intend to keep it. If you make the mistake of requesting an administrative hearing, you generally have no further procedural rights, and your property will be gone forever.

What about the trial option? To get a trial you usually have to post a bond equal to 10 percent of the value of the seized property. This “fee” is used to finance the government’s legal expenses in fighting your lawsuit to get your property back. Where can you get the money once the government has seized your house and bank account? If you can’t beg or borrow the money, you have again probably reached a dead end, resulting in permanent forfeiture of your property.

To go to trial effectively against a government agency you must also be prepared to spend $10,000 to $100,000 in legal fees. The Supreme Court has ruled that in civil cases you have no right to a publicly financed, court-appointed attorney. All legal expenses come out of your own pocket, and can’t be recovered even if you win in court.

You have another major problem if you want to hire an attorney: If the government alleges that the money you use to pay your attorney was derived from illegal activity, the attorney’s fee is also subject to seizure, either before or after trial. Again the government need prove nothing to seize your attorney’s fee. Few attorneys work for free. Consequently, if the government doesn’t want you to have the counsel of your choice, authorities need merely hint that they may confiscate your attorney’s fee, and it will become nearly impossible for you to obtain legal representation.

If you do manage to go to trial, you will discover that you have been placed in the position of being required to prove a negative: namely, that your property was never involved in any illegal activity. The Supreme Court has ruled that once authorities have shown “probable cause” to seize your property, you have the burden of proving the property’s “innocence.” To establish your property’s innocence, the courts will demand that you prove that all of the income you ever earned to pay for the property was legally acquired; that all taxes due have been paid; that neither you nor any members of your family ever engaged in any illegal activities on your property “with your knowledge or consent”; and so on. Failure or inability to provide any of the information demanded by the court is usually regarded as proof of your property’s guilt. What if your business records have also been seized along with the rest of your property? The seizing agency may or may not return your records to you in time for you to meet legal deadlines to stop forfeiture of your property.

The very absurdity of the forfeiture laws makes it difficult to win in court. The government does not have to show the seizure was reasonable, but merely that it was “not inconsistent” with existing laws. When you contest a civil seizure you find yourself in a distorted Alice-in-Wonderland world where logic and justice have no force.

Should you demand a jury trial to contest seizure, the presiding judge has the power to declare that there is insufficient cause to hold a trial, and issue a motion for summary forfeiture of your property. Should you actually get a jury trial and the jury appears sympathetic to you, the judge can summarily decide that no “issues of fact” are involved in your case, dismiss the jury, and issue a directed verdict for your property to be forfeited. Even if you win a jury trial, the forfeiting agency can still appeal, since in a civil forfeiture case double jeopardy doesn’t apply. So you can be forced to spend $10,000 to $100,000 each for trial after trial, until you give up or are impoverished.

Judy Osburn, whose California ranch was “arrested” on September 20, 1988, and who went through two trials to get her property back, summarizes the “justice” you can expect if your property is forfeited by the government, in her 1991 book Spectre of Forfeiture:

Most of the protections afforded by the Constitution to individuals do not apply in civil forfeiture suits. The Fifth Amendment’s due process requirement of “innocent until proven guilty” is reversed. Under most civil forfeiture statutes, upon the government’s showing of probable cause to initiate proceedings, the property is presumed guilty until the owner proves its innocence. Because it is not a criminal proceeding protection from double jeopardy and cruel and unusual punishment are side stepped along with the defendant’s right to counsel. An incarcerated owner does not necessarily have the right to be present at the forfeiture proceeding. And the right to a jury trial is automatically waived without notice unless demand is made within the specified time. If the property was seized on navigable waters there is no right to trial by jury.

The End of Justice

If civil asset forfeiture continues to spread, it will mean the end of justice in America. Already government agencies and police are beginning to concentrate their activities on cases where there are appreciable assets available for seizure. Police, DEA, and FBI forfeiture squads are being created. Government agents can even take a three-and-one-half day course offered by the Jefferson Institute on how to maximize asset forfeitures. Indeed, why should law enforcement agents engage in expensive and dangerous activities like apprehending murderers, thieves, and rapists, when seizing the property of ordinary, defenseless citizens is so much safer and more profitable?

Laws already on the books are just a preview of worse to come. Enhanced asset forfeiture laws are now pending before Congress and in most states. The 1991 Omnibus Crime Act already passed by Congress, but vetoed by George Bush for being “too soft” on crime, increases the time government agencies have to return improperly seized property from six months to six-and-one-half years after final court proceedings. California State Assembly Bill 1705 allows the seizure of restaurants, bars, ranches, hotels, and apartment buildings if a single person claims that illegal drugs were ever used or sold on the premises “with the knowledge or consent” of an owner or manager. This bill, already passed by one house of the California legislature, even permits the police to create a secret list of property to be seized once the law goes into effect in 1998. Then all listed property can be seized, in a rapid government sweep.

Another indication of the spread of asset forfeiture is expanding use of the “relation back” doctrine. This is a bizarre legal doctrine which asserts that any property used to commit a crime really belongs to the government from the moment an offense was committed, even if the property involved was never seized and the “crime” was not detected until many years later. Under the “relation back” doctrine, not only is “guilty property” subject to forfeiture, but any income or profits earned from the property is also subject to forfeiture, from the time the property was “guilty” of the crime.

Here’s how the “relation back” doctrine works: Suppose that in 1994 the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) claims that in 1988 you allowed illegal drug use in an apartment building you owned. Under “relation back,” HUD could not only seize your apartment building, but it could further demand you forfeit any apartment rent you received between your offense in 1988 and the present. Not only would you end up impoverished, but HUD could also put a lien on all of your future earnings and possessions, effectively making you an indentured servant to the state for the rest of your life. Under the “relation back” doctrine, even stockholders’ shares and dividends could be seized based upon allegations that the parent company committed an offense. The National Association of Attorneys General says the “relation back” doctrine has “great promise” for the future of law enforcement in America.

There Is Some Reason for Hope

As appalling as the present situation is, there is some reason for hope.

In the fall of 1992, Representative John Conyers of Michigan held Congressional hearings on civil asset forfeiture. After the hearings, he pledged to oppose the more outrageous elements of forfeiture.

In February 1993, the Supreme Court rejected the Department of Justice’s position that the government could confiscate the assets of innocent people if some of the money used to purchase the asset came (in whole or part) from illegal activities. The Supreme Court has also agreed to hear several cases challenging forfeiture.

In California, an anti-forfeiture coalition led by FEAR (Forfeiture Endangers American Rights) successfully prevented two new draconian asset forfeiture bills from passing.

More and more organizations are now fighting asset confiscation, including FEAR, the International Society for Individual Liberty (ISIL), Stop Forfeiture of Children’s Homes, the Drug Policy Foundation, and the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation.

If civil asset forfeiture is not stopped, it will mean the end of justice in America, the end of liberty, the end of America as we know it.


Last October 2, a drug task force composed of Los Angeles police, sheriff’s deputies, DEA men, National Park personnel, and National Guard troops burst into the home of Donald Scott and shot him dead. The agents said they had come looking for marijuana but found none. The raiders’ real motive was different.

The federal government had been attempting to acquire Scott’s 200-acre ranch as part of its expansion plans for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. But Scott, wealthy heir to a European chemical fortune, refused to sell. Then some officials decided to make an offer Scott could not refuse.

After the raid and killing, Scott’s lawyer Nick Gutsue charged that the motive for the raid was to seize the ranch under federal forfeiture laws, which allow property to be confiscated even before a defendant is convicted. Police vigorously denied the charges, which many considered outlandish, until now.

On March 30, Ventura County District Attorney Michael Bradbury released a report which said that the drug investigators were motivated “at least in part, by a desire to seize and forfeit the ranch for the federal government.” The raiders used an invalid search warrant based on false and misleading information. In fact, shortly before the raid, Border Patrol agents (how many federal agencies are needed on such a project?) twice searched the property for marijuana and found none. It turns out that Scott was staunchly anti-drug and regularly combed his property for plants which others may have placed there.

K. L. Billingsley


Last year heavily armed men burst into a house in Oakdale, California and pinned 64-year-old retired ranch foreman William Hauselmann to the floor, bruising his back and cutting his face. They also held his 61-year-old wife, Marian, at gunpoint on the bathroom floor while they ransacked the place. “It was like they were on drugs,” Hauselmann said.

Which was odd, because these were not criminals but Stanislaus County drug agents. They were acting on a tip that proved “180 degrees wrong,” according to one officer. At least in this case no one was seriously hurt, as in another incident in Poway, California.

Last August 25, on a raid planned by the U.S. Customs service, a heavily armed DEA squad raided the house of Donald L. Carlson. Without announcing who they were, the agents began battering on Carlson’s door. This roused Carlson from sleep and, thinking he was being robbed, he armed himself.

The agents smashed through the door and lobbed a concussion grenade. There was an exchange of fire. The agents hit Carlson three times. One bullet shattered his femoral vein, another hit him in the arm, and another entered his lung. The victim spent six weeks in intensive care, hooked to a ventilator. Carlson suffered permanent paralysis of the diaphragm. He will also lose some lung functions, and will suffer chronic pain and circulatory problems.

The agents found no drugs in the house, which was no surprise. Carlson is a vice-president of Anacomp, a Fortune 500 micrographics company. He has no criminal record and neighbors describe him as a “totally conservative” family man. The agents had been acting on the tip of a discredited informant known only as “Ron.” According to federal sources, Ron had been kicked out of an anti-drug operation called Operation Alliance because his reports lacked truthfulness.

After the shooting, neighbors heard one agent tell the others: “Now get the story straight. He shot first.” Carlson and his attorney have alleged a conspiracy to cover up the botched raid and filed suit for damages.

Criminals who kill and steal are often convicted and sometimes even executed. But government gunmen operate under a cloak of immunity. D.A. Bradbury said he didn’t have enough evidence to charge anyone in Donald Scott’s death. Likewise, no one has been charged for the shooting of Donald Carlson. Both cases were much more serious than the police beating of Rodney King.

K. L. Billingsley

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July 1993

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