Operation: Beat Up On Cvilian Rights

Posted: May 26, 2001 12:00 AM
Oakland mayor Jerry Brown is a big booster of the city's "Operation Beat Feet" program that allows the city to seize cars driven by those who solicit prostitutes or try to buy drugs on the street. Said Dao Mayor, "We're going to keep it going as long as we have to, until these neighborhoods are safe." I'm all for safe Oakland neighborhoods too, but not if it means punishing innocent people, and not if it means the punishment far exceeds the crime. The program was started with good intentions. Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Russ Giuntini said he first suggested such a program to the city because predominantly black flatland neighborhoods were beset with white out-of-towners looking for drugs. It didn't seem fair. "To me, the ultimate question is, who's got the choice?" he explained. "Is it the person who's on a low- or fixed-income renting or owning a home in the flatlands, or is it the person who, on the way home decides, 'I'm going to buy some rock cocaine or look for a prostitute.'" That's the image the forfeiture folk like to leave you with: rich swell from Tiburon loses his luxury car after he's caught trolling Oakland for drugs or demeaning sex. City documents, however, don't support that stereotype. For one thing, the person who loses the car probably wasn't even in it. Only about 150 of the 351 vehicles seized were registered to the suspect, according to a KTVU-Chronicle review. Seizure of property from people who didn't do anything is "constitutional," Giuntini noted. Too true. In an outrageous 1996 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the seizure of a 1977 Pontiac co-owned by the wife of a man who solicited a prostitute in Detroit. As if the news about her husband's hobby wasn't bad enough, Tina Bennis had to bundle up all four of her children to walk the two eldest to school each morning because authorities had seized the family's first-ever second car. Shame on the Big Bench for supporting laws that punish innocent people. Despite the rhetoric, most of the cars seized in Oakland fit the Bennis Pontiac profile. KTVU Producer Roland De Wolk found that the average value of cars seized was $1,210 which, Mill Valley attorney Brenda Grantland noted, means that too often it is cheaper to buy back your clunker -- or allow the city to auction it off and buy another -- than it is to defend yourself. Grantland defended a man whose $5,000 truck was seized after he tried to buy $20 worth of marijuana. She successfully argued that because the criminal fine for trying to buy small amounts of marijuana is $50, the forfeiture violated the Eighth Amendment's excessive fines clause. One problem, she noted: "It cost us more than the value of the truck to litigate the case." (Plus, her client still had to pay $2,500 to Oakland to get back his truck, when the fine is supposed to be $50.) Oakland Deputy City Attorney Pelayo Llamas Jr. said the Grantland case proved "a perfect example of someone taking advantage of their due process rights." Due process rights? Ha. Tell that to a man who has to pay a fine 500 times the fine demanded of other violators. Tell that to the wife of a guy who got caught doing what he shouldn't be doing -- when she has to give up her car because she couldn't find a lawyer who would represent her for less than her clunker is worth.