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September 18, 2005 - Las Vegas Review-Journal (NV)

Editorial: Asset Forfeiture Abuse

Boulder City Official Goes Overboard

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Nevada -- Southern Nevada has a new general in the drug war: Boulder City Attorney David Olsen. And Mr. Olsen isn't concerned about sacrificing freedom to wage his campaign.

Mr. Olsen is attempting to use the state's civil forfeiture laws to seize the home of Cynthia Warren, a Boulder City resident who pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor drug charge for possessing six marijuana plants.

Although Ms. Warren has not been convicted of selling illegal drugs, Mr. Olsen is convinced she's a six-figure drug dealer with a home-based operation that threatens his community.

So why isn't Mr. Olsen making sure this 55-year-old woman is locked up with pushers from the Rollin' 60s and the Kingsmen? Why didn't the city orchestrate a sting to ensnare this dealer during a big sale?

Because the evidence wasn't there. Although Ms. Warren initially was charged with felonies of manufacturing and conspiring to sell a controlled substance, the district attorney's office offered her reduced charges in a plea agreement.

No matter. Mr. Olsen wants her house. "I'm not concerned about the criminal charges against her," he said. "This doesn't have anything to do with her criminal case."

Some civil forfeiture laws limit government confiscations to property purchased with criminal proceeds. But Nevada law allows authorities to also seize property merely used in the commission of a suspected crime.

And, under Nevada law, Mr. Olsen said the city can keep up to $100,000 from the forfeiture for narcotics enforcement, with the balance going to the state. Ms. Warren's attorney, John Lusk, believes she has more than $300,000 worth of equity in her home.

Unlike criminal proceedings, which place a high burden of proof on the prosecution and presume defendants are innocent until proven guilty, civil forfeiture cases force defendants to prove their property is innocent if they wish to get it back.

"It's a terrible law," said Allen Lichtenstein, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada. "Here you have a situation where the government can seize property by alleging criminal activity, yet he (Mr. Olsen) says he's not concerned about the criminal charges? . The place to prove these allegations is in a criminal case, where the defendant receives due process and reasonable doubt."

Forfeiture laws have been abused in Nevada and elsewhere for years, allowing authorities to grab homes, cash, cars and other valuable property from innocent citizens who have never been found guilty of a criminal offense.

In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court held that civil forfeitures are no different from criminal fines, and financial penalties that are disproportionate to a crime violate the Eighth Amendment protection against excessive fines.

The notion that Ms. Howard, guilty only of a misdemeanor pot possession charge, should lose her home and forfeit more than $300,000 is abominable.

Mr. Olsen should drop the civil case. If he won't, District Judge Michael Cherry should shred it for him. Then lawmakers should reform state forfeiture laws to prevent such blatant abuses in the future.

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