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Seizure Ruling to Affect Little, Says Law Enforcement

Some legal scholars say a Supreme Court decision this week limiting the government’s ability to seize property involved in a crime is an important landmark that could lead to more judicial scrutiny.

Federal agencies are trying to figure out what it means, but Orange County law enforcement departments don’t think it will have much impact.

The court ruled 5 to 4 Monday that Hosep K. Bajakajian could keep most of the $357,144 stuffed in his luggage on a trip from Los Angeles International Airport. He said he was taking the money to Syria to repay debts.

He had not told the U.S. Customs Service he was transporting the money, a violation of the law. Anyone taking $10,000 or more into or out of the country must file a report.

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The court said that by taking the money, Bajakajian’s constitutional rights against excessive punishment were violated because he received what amounted to a large fine for a minor paperwork offense.

Law professors were struck that the Supreme Court found the forfeiture excessive. “It opens the door to serious judicial scrutiny of forfeitures,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, a professor at USC.

Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor, said the decision could lead to some forfeitures and fines being set aside. But he said the courts probably will only overrule those that are especially egregious.

Janet Hudson, the assistant U.S. attorney who is chief of the asset forfeiture section in Los Angeles, said her office was awaiting guidance from the solicitor general in Washington to figure out what the decision meant.

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She thought the decision was only applicable when someone’s money was seized because the traveler did not report it, as opposed to a drug case in which property or money was seized.

“It’s not really clear from the initial reading just how broad the holding is and whether this means we can still do civil forfeitures,” she said.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Bajakajian’s favor in 1996, and since then has prohibited the government from seizing cash if someone failed to report it.

Hudson wondered if the Supreme Court had actually backed away a bit from the lower court ruling.

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Federal and local agencies have used forfeiture laws mainly to seize property from people who have been arrested for drug offenses. But there have also been complaints of authorities seizing property worth far more than the offense would warrant. Federal agencies seize hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Carl Ambrust, the Orange County deputy district attorney in charge of the narcotics enforcement team, said he thought the case wouldn’t affect county law enforcement because nearly all of their property forfeitures involve drugs.

The county seized $1.5 million last year.


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