Monday, August 16, 2010

How much is an ounce of pot really worth?

NBA player Udonis Haslem has been arrested for possessing more than 20 grams of pot, a third degree felony in Florida.  (Oddly, his passenger, who has claimed owning the drugs, was charged with possessing less than 20 grams.)  The basic fact pattern raises some interesting questions: 1) How do you prove possession when more than one person has access to the place the drugs were found?  2) If you had drugs and your friend got busted with you, would you 'fess up to get your friend off the hook?  3) If your friend had drugs, a high-profile career, and lots of money, how much would he have to pay you to get you to take the fall?  (No, I don't really think that's what's going on here, but I've already seen that theory floated.)  But none of these questions are what I want to talk about.

Here's the part of the article that caught my attention:   "Haslem's car, worth more than $100,000, may face forfeiture, according to court records."

Seriously?  So because somebody, whichever one of them it was, had 3/4 of an ounce of pot in this car, the state might claim the right to seize a $100,000 vehicle?  Sure, a $100,000 car is an entirely proportionate fine for less than an ounce of pot.

I don't have any actual experience with these forfeiture actions because I've never done any trial level work on drug cases, so I'm not very aware of the ins and outs of when cars or other property (especially cash) can be seized.  The idea being that an owner who uses property, or allows property to be used, in the drug trade  has forfeited his/her right to that property.  Use your car to smuggle drugs?  That car is part of the problem and will be seized by the government.  I remember reading a horror story maybe 7 or 8 years ago about some family in Minnesota having their home seized because their dumb 19 year-old son was passing out pot to his friends out of the family basement. 

One of the biggies is cash.  Because any and all cash must be proceeds of a drug sale.  I have seen lots of stories of people ultimately not convicted of drug charges, either through dismissal or acquittal, who still have a dickens of a time getting back the money they'd had in the car at the time of the stop.  And, of course, by the time they do get their money back, they have to turn over half of it to the lawyer who handled the matter.

I doubt that Udonis Haslem will really lost his $100,000 luxury sedan.  But, boy, if he does, that would be a big statement by the state of Florida about their claimed power to take any property that has anything to do with drugs.  But even if Haslem is deemed to have "forfeited" his car, he won't suffer all that much.  I'm guessing an NBA star has more than one car.  And if he doesn't, he can afford to buy another one.  It's all the other schmucks who can't afford to buy a new car who get screwed by this forfeiture nonsense.  Imagine going somewhere with your friend and ending up in a year-long court battle to get your car back because your friend likes to light up. 

Like I said, I don't really know much about the way forfeiture actions actually work, but everything I've read about them makes me think they're pretty messed up.  It really ought to be impossible for the state of Florida to even raise the specter of seizing a car (especially one valued at 6 figures) because the car contained less than an ounce of pot.


larry allred said...

I read a federal case recently in which a guy was convicted of having child porn on his home computer. Forfeiture of his 119 acre farm was affirmed on appeal.

S said...

Oy. Forfeiture is such a racket.

Transplanted Lawyer said...

It's even more egregious in the case of pot, something which in a rational world would be decriminalized.

Isn't punishment proportional to the crime a factor in Eighth Amendment caselaw? I've no time to do the research right now. But losing a $100,00 luxury sedan for having a couple of joints seems so obviously disproportionate that it constitutes a substantive abuse of governmental power. Maybe a due process violation, or something like that.

But Larry's story is frightful. Those sorts of arguments had to have been raised on the appeal, and it was still affirmed. Scary.

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