Zero-Tolerance Policy Alive and Well, and In Effect Along the Border

Times Staff Writer

Adam Kramer, 23, was coming back across the border at Calexico last week with two friends after a mountain-climbing trip in Mexico wheS. Customs agents seized his 1975 Plymouth Valiant. Inspectors said they found a 10th of a gram of marijuana--barely a pinch--in the pocket of one of his friends.

Two days earlier, the Thomas Washington, a Scripps Institution of Oceanography research ship, was seized in Honolulu after Customs agents said they found a gram of marijuana hidden in a crew member’s berth.

The Thomas Washington was allowed to sail on after of few days of legal wrangling. But Kramer, an art student at San Diego State University, has been without his car for more than a week, bumming rides from the friend who was caught with the pot. He is uncertain whether he will ever get his car back.

The two incidents underscore the confusion that continues to characterize the government’s implementation of its “zero-tolerance” anti-drug policy, which permits authorities to seize boats, cars, planes and trucks if even minute amounts of drugs are found on board. The policy came under fire about a year ago when authorities began a nationwide crackdown, threatening to seize cars and boats permanently.


Much of the current confusion arises from the differing policies that apply to boats and cars. But owners also say they get conflicting information about whether, and how, they get their vehicles back.

Seizures of boats are now relatively rare, but, with little fanfare, Customs has continued to seize cars at a steady pace at the California-Mexico border.

Kate Thickston, a lawyer in the Federal Defenders office, said the seizure process is explained improperly to many motorists and, as a result, people like Kramer are unsure about how to petition for the return of their cars.

“It’s apparent that the Customs agents at the border take the opportunity that zero tolerance offers them to harass people at the border. It’s not that I condone bringing any amount of a controlled substance into the country, but it seems people at the border are not given accurate information,” she said.


“Confessions are taken from them . . . and some of the agents will say things like, ‘If you don’t admit it’s yours, we’ll just arrest you,’ ” Thickston said.

Said Kramer: “I spoke to several of the officers there, and one of them said that usually the property is returned if the petition is valid. Two others said it was unlikely.”

Paper work handed to him by Customs agents reads, " . . . in appropriate cases, administrative relief may be considered. It should be noted that you will not be granted relief in the form of return of the seized property. Relief may be granted in the form of a monetary refund from the proceeds of sale of the property after it has been forfeited.”

To Kramer it was “fairly unclear exactly what you’re supposed to do,” Kramer said. The car, given to Kramer by his grandmother, has 30,000 miles on it.

Should Get Car Back

But Thickston said Kramer would probably get his car back if he could prove to Customs that he did not have any knowledge of the drugs being in his car, and after he pays a fine, probably about $300.

“If he tried to prevent the controlled substance from getting into his car, he’ll get his car back. He’ll still pay towing and storage,” Thickston said.

Kramer’s friend, who was allegedly in possession of what Customs agents at the border called “pipe scrapings,” was released after being assessed a $150 administrative penalty, the Customs Service said, confirming Kramer’s account.


Although the Customs Service relaxed the controversial policy for commercial fishing vessels last year to keep from penalizing innocent owners unaware of the actions of crew members or guests, authorities have been less lenient with car owners--who form the bulk of people stopped under zero tolerance. Even though the Scripps vessel was not a fishing boat, Customs applied the relaxed policy in that case and allowed Scripps to continue operating the ship while the legal case is pending.

But Customs agents continue to seize cars, refusing to return them even to “innocent” owners until the cases are resolved, which at best can take several months. Some lawyers label the policy a waste of taxpayer’s money, an injustice to “innocent owners” and a burden on the court system.

But Allan Rappoport, district director of the Customs Service in San Diego said the program seems to be operating smoothly.

‘Running Pretty Well’

“Basically the zero-tolerance program for cars seems to be operating without a great deal of animosity or without much media visibility,” Rappoport said. “I can only assume people for the most part have a better understanding of the program. It seems to be running pretty well.”

Three years ago, then-U.S. Atty. Peter K. Nunez arranged with the Customs Service to start the zero-tolerance policy in San Diego because “the notion had gained credence in the community that it was OK to use drugs in the community, just don’t sell them. We had to dispel the notion that we had tacitly approved of using drugs.”

But, a year ago, a toughened policy created a backlog of cases and threatened to disrupt the functioning of federal courts and prompted an outcry against the crackdown.

Since then, new guidelines have given more of the program’s administrative duties to the Customs Service, lessening the burden on the U. S. attorney’s office. Despite confusion in the minds of their clients, lawyers say the situation has reached “equilibrium,” with most cars eventually being returned.


U. S. Atty. Bill Braniff, who succeeded Nunez, says the program remains an important symbol in the fight against illegal drugs and is running smoothly.

“I think you can’t fight the war on drugs and say there is a safe haven for the personal use of drugs, that this is not criminal, that this is bad taste or otherwise, and expect everyone else to take it seriously . . . where (the federal government) has exclusive jurisdiction, we should show we’re doing our part at all levels,” Braniff said.

‘Just the Principle’

“The amounts that are seized aren’t significant; it’s just the principle.”

Compared to a year ago, the situation has improved, Braniff said. He has no plans to change the existing procedures.

Figures from the U. S. attorney’s criminal complaints section shows a slight decrease in zero-tolerance arrests since the program began in December, 1986. Braniff said there are 20 to 30 seizures a week at the border under the zero-tolerance policy.

There were 49 such arrests this January, 54 in January, 1988, and 58 in January, 1987, a spokeswoman for the criminal complaints section said.

Alleged offenders typically plead guilty to misdemeanor charges of possession of a controlled substance in order to have felony charges of importation of a controlled substance dropped. Generally, their cars are returned after they pay a fine.

But the system nearly ground to a halt last May when the Customs Service refused to return cars and people refused to plead guilty.

Customs Service spokesman John Miller in Los Angeles said that, although he is aware of challenges to the zero-tolerance policy “working their way through the court system,” the program is working well now that the Customs Service had returned to its original policy of issuing fines instead of focusing on forfeiture.

“There really is not a problem anymore . . . in most cases people can get their cars back--with a hassle, I’ll admit--but it’s a reasonable one,” Miller said.

Kramer disagrees.

“They detained us for an hour and a half. They said, ‘Are you a calm person? Good, because we are taking your car.’

“I’m furious, but what good does it do to be angry?” said Kramer. “I’m going to petition and do whatever I can to get back that car.”