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Court Widens Power to Seize Criminals’ Assets : Law: Justices rule prosecutors can take possession of defendant’s property, even if it was obtained legally, as part of guilty plea.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the power of federal prosecutors to take possession of all assets of a criminal who agrees to give them up as part of a guilty plea, even property and money that were obtained legally.

In an 8-1 decision, the high court said criminals who plead guilty can choose to forfeit everything in exchange for a lighter sentence.

In the case decided Tuesday, a Wyoming drug trafficker gave up assets worth $400,000--including a high school coin collection and small childhood savings account--as part of his guilty plea. He was sentenced to the minimum 20 years in prison for his crimes, rather than the possible 50 year-term that prosecutors could have sought.

The ruling in Libretti vs. U.S., 94-7427, adds a new wrinkle to the law of forfeitures. Defense lawyers worried that it could encourage “overreaching” by prosecutors.

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They argued before the high court that judges should not allow the government to seize property that was obtained lawfully.

In this case, they said, Joseph Libretti’s high school coin collection was his long before he took up a life of crime. Therefore, it should be off-limits to a forfeiture order.

But the justices refused to draw a sharp line between tainted assets and those that were untouched by crime. Instead, they stressed that the defendant had voluntarily agreed to give up “all” of his assets.

“Because Libretti agreed to this forfeiture and waived his right to a jury trial, he cannot now complain” that the outcome is unfair, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote.

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In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said that the “outer boundaries of a permissible forfeiture” should be set by law, not by what prosecutors can obtain from the defendant.

“There is a great potential for harm here,” said Duke University law professor Sara Sun Beale, “if they [prosecutors] read this as giving them a green light” to seize as much as possible.

Since the mid-1980s, when Congress authorized expanded forfeitures as part of the war on drugs, the seizure of assets has grown vastly, as has controversy over the practice.

The high court has reined in the government somewhat in recent years. It ruled that defendants are entitled to a hearing before losing their property, and that forfeitures cannot be grossly disproportionate to the crime committed.

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A major unresolved question is pending on appeal before the justices in a separate case. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the government violates the ban on “double jeopardy” when it seeks a civil forfeiture of a criminal’s assets after he is sentenced to prison.

Clinton Administration lawyers, saying that decision could upset scores of cases, have asked the justices to take up that issue and to reverse the ruling. The court will likely act on the appeal this month.

However, unlike the “double jeopardy” case, which concerns a broad constitutional issue, Tuesday’s ruling focused narrowly on the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. The justices showed no sympathy for Libretti, a college graduate who worked as an accountant but also became a major cocaine dealer in Colorado and Wyoming.

Libretti “voluntarily and knowingly” agreed to forfeit his assets and “received a favorable plea agreement” in return, O’Connor said. Justice requires nothing more, she said.

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