ACLU Says Rhode Island Woman is Victim of "State-Sanctioned Piracy" by Drug Task Force

October 14, 1999 12:00 am

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Rhode Island ACLU
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PROVIDENCE, RI — The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island is entering court today on behalf of a woman wrongfully accused of drug dealing who has spent more than three years seeking the return of $860 confiscated from her by a narcotics “Strike Force.”

The ACLU called the Attorney General’s refusal to return the woman’s money “nothing less than “state-sanctioned piracy.” The Strike Force, created by the state’s former Attorney General, was disbanded in 1996 after evidence surfaced of numerous false arrests.

Providence resident Luz Rivera was one of those falsely accused. In 1996, she spent more than three months in jail awaiting trial on a drug dealing charge, which was dismissed after she provided proof that she was at work at the time she was allegedly conducting a drug deal at her apartment.

In July 1996, a few months after the charges were dismissed, Ms. Rivera obtained a court order requiring the state to return the $860 that was seized from her home when police searched her apartment. After numerous unsuccessful attempts to reclaim her money, Rivera contacted the ACLU.

But when ACLU volunteer attorney Thomas Mirza threatened to file a contempt motion against the state if it failed to comply with Rivera’s 1996 court order, the Attorney General’s office responded last week by filing a motion to have the 1996 order declared null and void.

The state’s position, Mirza explained, is that Ms. Rivera’s money was lawfully forfeited under state law — before the charge against her was dismissed and before the judge issued his 1996 order. The state noted that it had sent a letter to Ms. Rivera’s address in February, 1996 advising her of her right to appeal the forfeiture of the money, but no response was received.

But Ms. Rivera never got the letter, Mirza said, because it was sent only a week after her release from jail and she had lost her lease on her apartment as a result of being behind bars for three months.

“The state’s present actions in this case could serve as the dictionary definition of unmitigated gall,” said ACLU Executive Director Steven Brown. “Here is a woman who went through the trauma and humiliation of arrest and spent months in jail on a bogus drug charge filed by the state. All she seeks is the money that a three-year-old court order says should be returned to her.”

Brown noted that Rivera’s case serves as a reminder of the incredible danger of the civil asset forfeiture laws, which give the police the right to keep and spend any “drug-related assets” they seize, even if the property is seized from someone who hasn’t been arrested or charged with a crime.

Although the ACLU and other advocates have mounted challenges to forfeiture laws in court, (including Oakland, California and Maryland) litigation opportunities in this area are limited, because the U.S. Supreme Court has held, in a series of cases, that civil forfeiture does not violate due process or any other constitutional right.

The best hope for change lies in Congress, where the ACLU applauded House passage of the “Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act.” This proposal, which passed by an overwhelming margin and received broad bipartisan support, would go a long way towards curing many of the constitutional flaws inherent in civil forfeiture, the ACLU said. The Senate has yet to act on civil asset forfeiture reform legislation.

In her 1997 testimony supporting the reform act, ACLU President Nadine Strossen stated: “It is not an overstatement to say that this law has turned both local and federal police agents into the equivalent of bounty hunters.”

For more information on the issue of civil asset forfeiture, visit the national ACLU’s website at /features/nytimesad121198.html.

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