It was called the poster case for asset-forfeiture overhaul by public policy experts in 1997.
But the more than decade-long fight for freedom by Joseph Puertas, a Clarkston businessman whose family's $5 million in assets were seized in a high-profile and widely criticized drug case -- one where no drugs were ever found -- is to come to an end next month after his sentence was commuted by the governor.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm granted the commutation Friday and the paperwork was delivered Tuesday to Oakland County.
Puertas, 81, suffers from bladder cancer and congestive heart disease. He is expected to leave the Florence Crane Correctional Facility in Coldwater sometime in July after serving 15 months of a 2- to 40-year sentence.
"We are delighted," said defense attorney Robyn Frankel, who has been handling Puertas' appeals since his conviction in 1999. "He can go home and be with his family where he belongs."
Puertas, she said, maintains his innocence.
A commutation is not the same as a pardon because the conviction stays on the person's record. Puertas, who will likely live with family members in north Oakland County, is to be placed on parole for four years.
Oakland County Prosecutor David Gorcyca, whose office prosecuted Puertas, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. Gorcyca's staff opposed Puertas' release during a December hearing before the parole board, where more than 70 people appeared, many of them Puertas supporters.
Puertas' long, winding trip through the justice system began in 1997 when 100 drug officers, with drug-sniffing dogs, raided the MegaBowl, a bowling alley owned by the Puertas family in Orion Township, and several other family businesses. They found no drugs, no record of drug dealing and no drug paraphernalia. But they did locate $1.9 million in cash the family had in safes.
Gorcyca's office charged Puertas with drug dealing, contending the cash was proceeds from the drug business, and sought to seize the money under the state's controversial drug forfeiture laws.
The case against Puertas rested mostly on the testimony of Joseph Sweeney, a drug addict and twice-convicted felon police recruited to investigate Puertas, who had served time in prison in the 1980s for drug dealing.
Sweeney testified during Puertas' 1999 trial that he bought cocaine from Puertas at the bowling alley six times in late 1997.
But police, using hidden cameras and audio surveillance equipment, never were able to document a sale, nor did undercover officers inside the bowling alley ever witness a sale.
A jury convicted Puertas of delivery of a controlled substance and running a criminal enterprise.
But trial Judge Colleen O'Brien overturned his conviction in 2000 after the Free Press reported that prosecutors never turned over a confidential report by the Michigan State Police questioning the veracity of some of the investigators in the case.
The Michigan Court of Appeals later reinstated the conviction, and Puertas' attorneys began the appeals, including an unsuccessful attempt to have the U.S. Supreme Court hear the case.
He was sent to prison in April 2007.
The Puertas family, meanwhile, filed suit to regain the money seized from the family safes, plus more than $3 million from the sale of the bowling alley the police and prosecutors also sought to seize.
The family eventually regained the money, but paid the IRS back taxes and fines.
The seizure was criticized by several groups, including the Mackinac Center of Public Policy, which called it "the poster case for asset-forfeiture reform,"
Now, Puertas' family is planning a quiet homecoming celebration.
"It's been a long time, 10 years, that we've been fighting this," said Puertas' son, Joseph Puertas Jr., owner of the Shark Club, a pool hall and restaurant in Waterford. "It was always a worry that he might die in prison. He was never going to say he did it, because he didn't."
Contact L.L. Brasier at 248-858-2262 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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