In September, the Arizona Attorney General's Office made headlines.
Early that month, its lawyers won what it called a major battle in the state's ongoing drug war by securing a judgment against reputed drug kingpin Isidro Ibarra Chaidez. The verdict allowed the state to confiscate $1.8 million in property and cash Ibarra allegedly earned from the sale of cocaine and marijuana.

Federal and state agents claimed that Ibarra controlled an octopuslike network of drug importers and distributors, through which he moved 13,000 pounds of cocaine, valued at $100 million, from Mexico into California and Arizona. Working with the Yuma County attorney, the attorney general used a state forfeiture law that permits confiscation of property bought with drug money--or of property used to contain, transport or sell illegal drugs--to seize mounds of cash, vehicles and a luxury estate belonging to Ibarra and his family. The seizures, announced in a triumphant press release, were among the largest in state history; proof, officials said, that the war on drugs was hitting major drug traffickers where it hurts most--in the pocketbook.

But later that same month, the powerful drug-war machine, utilizing the same forfeiture law it brings to bear on coke lords like Ibarra, focused its might on a much smaller fish--a middle-aged busboy named Juan, who works in a Phoenix cafeteria. This time there were no press releases, no headlines.

Instead of seizing mansions and suitcases full of greenbacks, the state grabbed Juan's 1968 Chevrolet Impala, valued at less than $300, and auctioned it off. The profit from the sale was returned to the Phoenix Police Department, which had busted Juan the previous year for possessing a vial containing "trace amounts" of cocaine (hardly enough to register on the most sensitive of scales) and a pipe--tossed casually in the back seat of his car-- which contained marijuana residue.

Because his employers don't know about the bust, Juan asked that his real name not be used. "They took away my car for drugs that were worth nearly nothing," he says. "And along with it I nearly lost my job because I couldn't get there. I know I broke laws, but were the drugs I had in my car really worth what they took from me?"

It's a question defendants and their attorneys are asking more often, as the practice of seizing the assets of those in possession of even the smallest amount of illegal drugs has become common police procedure--so common that the task of processing the forfeited property has spawned a mushrooming multimillion-dollar business in Arizona. For both Blue Chip Realty, the Phoenix company that holds an exclusive state contract to manage and sell the forfeited assets, and police departments themselves, many of which benefit directly from the confiscated items they seize, forfeiture has truly become a growth industry.

It's a little-known branch of the drug war, miles beyond the spotlight of high-dollar busts of millionaire narcotics dealers. Here, the spoils of the war, rather than yachts and Lear jets, are common cars and trucks driven by casual drug users. While big-money busts like Ibarra's have netted millions for police agencies, so, too, have the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of forfeitures obtained from drivers who often are caught during routine traffic or speeding stops with relatively small amounts of drugs in their vehicles.

"What people don't realize," says defense attorney Greg Clark, who has represented several defendants in forfeiture cases, "is that if the police can prove you've got any illegal drugs in your car, they can take it. Kiss it goodbye. And for most people, there isn't much they can do about it. It happens all the time."

But does the punishment fit the crime? Is it, in legal jargon, "proportional"?

Law-enforcement officials say forfeiture is a powerful deterrent, a vital club with which to beat drug traffickers. Cameron "Kip" Holmes, an assistant state attorney general in charge of the attorney general's Forfeiture Support Project and primary architect of the state's forfeiture statute, defends the practice as "one of the only ways to get the job done."

The Harvard-educated Holmes is one of a new breed of prosecutors and law-enforcement officers that is trained to fight the drug war using calculators and account ledgers as well as handcuffs and guns. He says an emphasis on financial assault is likely to become the trend.

"Drugs traffickers are into big business, maybe the biggest," Holmes says. "We've got to start meeting them on their own terms, and that means understanding the money end. And it means being able to take the fight to them financially."

Defense attorneys reject Holmes' analysis. They view forfeiture as a draconian measure akin to robbery, inflicted more on "average guys" than big-time drug dealers. Moreover, they maintain, forfeiture injects a corrupting profit motive into the criminal-justice process. Consequently, police officers are turned into bounty hunters with a potential financial interest in each and every bust.

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Darrin Hostetler