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Congress to hear testimony on Volusia money seizures

Published Oct. 9, 2005

Volusia County Sheriff Bob Vogel's cash-seizure tactics, described by some as racial and unconstitutional but defended by Vogel as a needed weapon in the war against drugs, will be addressed Tuesday in a congressional hearing on police abuses.

U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., convened the hearings after an investigation by the Orlando Sentinel found that Vogel's deputies used the state seizure law to take money from hundreds of drivers, although they made an arrest in only one of four cases.

Conyers, chairman of the House Government Operations Committee, made it clear he believes the five-person drug squad exceeded its authority by seizing more than $8-million from motorists along Interstate 95 since 1989.

More than 90 percent of those whose money was taken, but who were not charged with a crime, were black or Hispanic. All were accused in sworn affidavits of being drug couriers.

Friday, a black woman from Charleston, S.C., sued Vogel in the nation's first class-action, discrimination lawsuit against seizures.

Saturday, Vogel said during a news conference that his agency will continue the policy of seizing money officers believe may be involved in drug trafficking.

"These members of our department are out there courageously fighting the drug war," he said. "I am very proud of the members of that team."

Also Saturday, NAACP national executive director Ben Chavis said in Orlando that his organization's attorneys will represent Selena Washington, the Charleston woman who had $19,000 seized by Volusia deputies in April 1990. Washington, 43, had no criminal history and was not arrested. No drugs were found.

"Sheriff Vogel has to know today that the full weight of the NAACP is going to challenge not only his attitude but his conduct, because his conduct is in violation of the law," Chavis said.

Chavis called for the U.S. Justice Department to investigate whether Vogel and his deputies should face criminal penalties.

"We are in discussions with the attorney general of the United States," Chavis said. "I cannot get into the specifics. We want it thoroughly investigated."

Tennessee attorney Bo Edwards, chairman of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and an expert on seizure laws, is a critic of the Volusia County cases. He will be one of the witnesses at the hearing Tuesday.

A Sentinel analysis of more than 1,000 traffic stops showed that 70 percent of the cars stopped were driven by black or Hispanic people; of more than 500 cars searched, 80 percent had minority drivers. Less than 1 percent of the drivers were given traffic tickets.

The seizures, 60 to 80 a year, virtually stopped after the adverse publicity began a year ago. When a gubernatorial task force held hearings to explore whether abuses had occurred, panelists cited the discontinuation of seizures as an indication that reforms weren't needed.

The congressional hearings this week are part of a growing concern about law enforcement seizures across the country.