On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being legally best, the federal government’s “zero tolerance” approach in its war against drug sales is aptly named; it’s a zero.
That was demonstrated again last weekend when federal agents applied the drug seizure law in Orange County for the first time.
Working to crack down on drug sales that have been plaguing several Santa Ana neighborhoods, police and federal officials arrested 200 people on drug and other charges--and seized 36 vehicles valued at more than $250,000. Police also confiscated about 11 ounces of marijuana and less than an ounce of cocaine.
Local and federal law enforcement officials should be cracking down on drug sales and attacking the demand side of the problem by going after users. No one can quarrel with that. Nor can we criticize vigorous police activity to protect residents against the sellers and buyers who invade neighborhoods, dealing drugs in the street and making residents fearful of even venturing out of their homes.
But what can be questioned, and criticized, is using the misguided approach of “zero tolerance” in instances where there is no evidence of possession of drugs on a sizable scale. When it comes to making the punishment fit the crime and following the bedrock principle of a person being innocent until proven guilty, seizing someone’s car in cases involving quantities of drugs as small as a single marijuana joint is like hunting an ant with an elephant gun. It is legal overkill that is not only way out of proportion but, as some critics have maintained, amounts to little more than convicting people by seizing their property without a trial.
When first used in the early 1970s, the “zero tolerance” policy was directed at seizing the property only in cases involving a considerable amount of illegal drugs. The policy was amended two years ago by Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III to allow the seizure of boats and cars if any amount of illegal drugs is found, no matter how small. The cars and boats are then sold at auction.
The police arrests on drug charges and the seizure of the cars by federal officials are handled as separate matters, which means that anyone who wants to get his car back must go to federal court in a process that could take six months to a year or more to resolve. In the meantime, the car remains in police custody. That means people who subsequently might be found innocent of any charges or auto owners whose passengers may have violated a drug law are denied the use of their property without being convicted of any wrongdoing. That is an especially uneven application of punishment, considering that many drug possession charges involve only the issuance of a citation and a fine if found guilty. Police don’t seize and sell vehicles for minor traffic offenses or for alcohol possession. They shouldn’t in cases where someone is merely charged with a drug offense involving minuscule amounts.
Directed against larger quantity drug deals, the “zero tolerance” approach should be used and could help reduce demand. Misdirected, the indiscriminate impounding of autos involving minute amounts of drugs is little more than police harassment.