by Andrew Schneider & Mary Pat Flaherty
THE PITTSBURGH PRESS
Copyright 1991 The Pittsburgh Press Co.
Reprinted with permission.
SUNDAY DECEMBER 22, 1991 Page A1
By Mary Pat Flaherty and Andrew Schneider
The Pittsburgh Press
Sheri and Matt Farrell, whose Missouri farm was seized by the government for 10 months, have their land back after federal prosecutors suddenly dropped the case against them, without explanation.
To get back their land, though, they had to sign an agreement saying they would not sue the federal government or any of its agencies for damages.
The land was originally seized under drug forfeiture laws, although neither of the Farrells was ever convicted of a crime.
The Farrells of Kirksville, Mo., were featured in an August series by The Pittsburgh Press on people from across the country who have lost property to powerful state and federal forfeiture laws. The laws, which were intended to strip major drug dealers of their assets, often are used to take property from people who have never been convicted of, or even charged with, a crime.
Although forfeiture cases can take years to resolve, action has been taken on some of the property owned by people featured in the series. Several have won rounds with the government, while one has been convicted of drug charges.
Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is considering whether property owners whose assets are seized are entitled to a jury trial. The right to a jury trial is a protection guaranteed to anyone facing a criminal charge but is not explicitly guaranteed to anyone facing a civil forfeiture case. The state high court heard arguments on the issue this month stemming from a drug case in Northumberland County in which a car was seized.
The forfeiture laws are a legal curiosity because they accuse a piece of property of being tainted by a crime. The property, not the owner, is named as the defendant, and most action takes place in civil court, where many of the constitutional proner to prove his innocence. The government does not have to prove the owner's guilt.
In the case before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the attorney for the car owners contends government is forsaking a ``constitutional right to a jury trial'' because of a problem of ``practicality'' and ``result-oriented justice.''
The government argues in its filings in the case that the Pennsylvania constitution's guarantee of jury trials does not extend to civil forfeiture cases. Adding that guarantee, the prosecutors argue, would clog the legal system and slow the punishment of drug dealers.
But The Pittsburgh Press review cast doubt on whether those ensnared by forfeiture are dealers. The review showed that 80 percent of the people who lost property to the federal government in civil forfeiture were never charged with a crime. And its analysis of Drug Enforcement Administration data showed that most of the seized items weren't the luxurious playthings of drug barons, but modest homes and simple cars and the hard-earned savings of ordinary people.
Once a property is forfeited by the government, it can be sold, with the proceeds usually returning to the law enforcement agency that developed the case. Since 1986, the federal law has returned nearly $2 billion to police departments. That tally doesn't include money police may have made through forfeitures that occurred at the state or local levels.
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The Farrells endured ``some damage to our reputation'' and paid nearly $3,000 in attorneys' fees fighting the seizure, said Farrell, 38.
``We're happy we have the land back in our names, but the way these laws are written, you'd better get yourself a lawyer fast, because if you wait to act until you get a chance to say you're innocent, it will be too late. The government doesn't have to prove you're guilty, and you'll have lost your property before you ever get a chance to say anything,'' says Farrell.
Farrell was one of 35 people who himself had a drug record and had been through drug rehabilitation.
All of the criminal cases were dropped after police learned that the alleged dope brought in by the informant, who was earning $4.65 an hour working for police, was fake and that the informant couldn't recall the names, dates and places where he claimed to have made drug deals. Farrell who has no criminal record, was the only county resident whose home and land were seized.
The federal government continued to pursue the forfeiture of the Farrells' property, even after the criminal case was dropped last August. At the time, Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Meuleman said he was proceeding because the standard of proof needed to take the land was less than what was needed to convict someone of a crime.
On Friday, his office refused to discuss why it dropped the case against the Farrells and returned the land in an agreement signed Sept. 12.
Christy Marshall, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney in St. Louis, said, ''We'll pass on this one. We decline to comment.''
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Judy Mulford, a 31-year-old Florida woman who lost her home after drug agents claimed her husband used for drug deals, has won a new trial after a Florida appeals judge declared the government was unfair when it would not allow her to refute testimony given by paid government informants.
In his opinion, Judge Norman C. Roettger Jr. said Mrs. Mulford's trial had been unfair and that the government was ``less than forthcoming ... which seemed to hamper the defendant.'' Roettger noted in his opinion that Mrs. Mulford was only the second person to whom he's granted a new trial in 19 years on the bench.
Mrs. Mulford's husband, from whom she now is divorced, has never been charged or indicted on his alleged cocaine deals, nearly three years after the government seized the home. The house in Lake Park, Fla., was in Mrs. Mulford's name, paid for with an insurance settlement she received after a 1982 car accident that injured her.
``Getting the new trial makes things go a little easier, but there's still a ways to go,'' said Mrs. Mulford, who has remained in her house with her twin 13-year-old sons, paying rent to the government.
``I felt good enough about it to put fresh paint on a couple of rooms, but I know that I don't have my home back yet.''
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It has taken 26 months, but Billy Munnerlyn was told Wednesday that he can get back his Lear jet.
The one-time pilot, who with his wife Karon ran a small, four-plane air charter service out of Las Vegas, has been driving truckloads of food across the country to earn a living since DEA agents seized his plane in 1989.
The undoing of the Munnerlyn's charter service began with a flight from Little Rock to Ontario, Calif., just outside Los Angeles. Munnerlyn said his passenger, 74-year-old Albert Wright, a convicted cocaine trafficker, had posed as a banker and used a pseudonym when he chartered the flight, said Munnerlyn.
Soon after landing, police and DEA agents arrested Munnerlyn, seized his plane and $8,500 in cash that Wright had paid for the charter. The pilot was released three days later without any charges being filed.
But without the 23-year-old jet, the pride of his fleet, Munnerlyn and his wife, both 53, watched their business be sold off piece by piece. In October 1990, the plane went on trial.
The jury, after hearing the case of alleged drug trafficking, said they did not believe the plane was tainted by a crime. It found the plane innocent.
Nevertheless, for the next 14 months, the government said Munnerlyn would have to pay to have his plane returned and dickered with him over the amount. The first suggestion was that Munnerlyn pay $66,000 to the government.
During that same period, a federal judge ordered a new trial, saying that he did not agree with the jury's verdict.
On Wednesday, just as Munnerlyn was about to testify in the new trial, the judge announced that an agreement had been reached.
``Mr. Munnerlyn agreed to accept an offer of settlement,'' says Assistant U.S. Attorney Alejandro Mayorkas.
The government got $7,000 for the plane from Munnerlyn, and he agreed to let them keep the $8,500 in cash that Wright had paid for the charter.
``We just gave up. It was obvious that there was no way that we were going to win, so we took the government's offer,'' says Mrs. Munnerlyn. ``We owe thousands of dollars in legal fees and face thousands more in getting the plane back in shape to fly again. This exposure to the judicial system has ruined our lives and taught us how little protection the constitution really offers citizens of this country.''
The Munnerlyns also had to sign an agreement never to sue the government.
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The DEA has kept the $9,600 police seized from Willie Jones at the Nashville Airport Feb. 27. But it has yet to arrest Jones or file criminal charges against him, despite repeated assertions by the government that the landscaper is a drug courier.
Jones, 42, was stopped after an American Airlines ticket agent told police that ``the large black man'' paid cash for a round trip ticket to Houston.
Jones' race and the fact he paid cash for tickets are two of the characteristics common to ``drug courier profiles,'' a set of often conflicting, racist and poorly defined traits that The Pittsburgh Press found drug agents use to seize money from travelers.
Jones said he was headed to Texas to buy shrubs for his small business, a buying trip identical to ones he'd made over the previous three years, according to receipts reviewed by the newspaper.
Police said Jones had a ticket that showed he planned to return the same day from Houston -- another suspicious activity, they claimed.
But, Jones countered, he also had a change of clothes with him and had made overnight arrangements in Houston.
The plane booking, Jones said, was a mistake that occurred when a family member made the reservation, but since it was a full fare ticket that could be changed at any time, he hadn't worried about fixing it.
The drug agents seized his money. To get his day in court, Jones was told he would have to pay a $960 bond. He couldn't afford the bond, and his attorney now has filed a federal civil rights suit against the DEA and the three Nashville police officers involved in seizing his money.
``The bond requirement is clearly unconstitutional. It's contrary to the provisions of the Fifth Amendment, which guarantees due process,'' said Jones' lawyer, E.E. ``Bo'' Edwards. ``A citizen should not have to pay the government in order to have a day in court to get their property back.''
Edwards said he is angered by reports he's received from national media who are following up on Jones' case. Edwards has been told top federal officials are insisting that they can prove that Jones is involved in drug trafficking.
``It is outrageous for responsible government officials to make serious statements of that nature against Willie when they're not willing to come forward and present the evidence in court so we can see it and respond to it,'' Edwards said.
Affidavits from the arresting officers filed Nov. 22 -- nine months after they seized Jones' money -- make no mention of any new evidence or allegations against Jones, whose only arrest involved drag racing 15 years ago.
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In Indiana, Don Churchill was found guilty of one charge of dealing marijuana and one count of failing to destroy marijuana discovered on a section of his farm in Crawford County.
A sentencing hearing is set for Jan. 16 and Churchill has filed an appeal.
An informant had told police he saw Churchill and his son tending marijuana plants on the land. Acting on that tip, police arrested Churchill, 54, and his 34-year-old son, David. Drug agents also seized the farm, the first step toward forfeiting it to the government.
Action on the forfeiture still is pending. A second trial for Churchill is set for February in Harrison County, Indiana, the county in which part of the Churchill farm also sits.
(Andrew Schneider is now assistant managing editor/investigations for Scripps Howard News Service.)