Justice Dept. and ATF Sink to New Low
Update: I just accessed the court documents, now unsealed. The case was filed by the Government as USA v. Removable Cosmetic Dental Appliances. Here's the Application and Affidavit for Seizure Warrant. Here's the order granting the stay. Here's the actual seizure warrant. Scroll to the bottom of the post for my conclusion after reading the documents. The ATF agent who submitted the affidavit knew the grills might not be removable. There was no authority in the warrant to remove the defendants from the jail to take them to a dentist.
If this wasn't reported in a national paper like the the Seattle Times, I wouldn't believe it, but it's true.
A defense expert and the attorneys for two men facing federal drug charges in Tacoma are crying foul over efforts by federal prosecutors and officials with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to have the gold-capped teeth -- commonly called "grills" or "grillz" -- removed from their clients' mouths.
"I've been doing this for over 30 years and I have never heard of anything like this," said Richard Troberman, past president of the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and an expert on forfeiture law. "It sounds like Nazi Germany when they were removing the gold teeth from the bodies, but at least then they waited until they were dead."
The "grills" were permanently bonded to the clients' teeth.
According to court documents and attorneys involved in the case, Flenard T. Neal Jr. and Donald Jamar Lewis -- who were both charged in U.S. District Court with several counts of drug and weapon violations in January -- on Tuesday were taken from the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac to the U.S. Marshal's Office in Tacoma. There they were told the government had a warrant to seize the grills from their mouths and that they were being taken to a dentist in Seattle for removal.
Both made hasty calls to their attorneys, but were loaded into a vehicle and on their way to Seattle when their attorneys were able to persude a judge to stop the seizure, according to Neal's federal public defender, Miriam Schwartz.
The Justice Department says they didn't realize the grills weren't snap-ons:
"Asset forfeiture is a fairly routine procedure, and our attorneys were under the impression that these snapped out like a retainer," said Emily Langlie, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle. Langlie said that as soon as federal prosecutors understood that removal of the grills could damage the defendants' teeth, they abandoned the seizure attempt.
What would have happened if the men hadn't been able to reach their lawyers? Or were held in secret detention?
"It's shocking that this kind of action by the federal government could be sought and accomplished in secret, without anyone being notified," said Schwartz. "It reminds me of the secret detentions" of suspected terrorists.
Why on earth would a judge have signed the seizure warrant in the first place? Some documents remain under seal. As Rick Troberman says,
"This is especially egregious because these two had not been convicted and are presumed to be innocent," added forfeiture expert Troberman, who is not involved in the case. "What are they going to do next? Start taking artificial limbs from amputees?"
Update: After reading the documents, here's what may have happened. The agents took the warrant to the detention center and said something like "OK. We have a warrant give us the grills." When the defendants said they couldn't because they were bonded to the teeth, the agents on their own decided to take them to a dentist. Thank goodness their lawyers were able to intervene.
Here's what the ATF agent wrote in the affidavit:
"Based on my knowledge, training and experience, I know that drug traffickers commonly invest their illegally acquired money in items which seek to further their criminal activity and portray their status as "drug dealers." I know that the cosmetic dental appliances known as "Grills" are one of those status symbols which drug traffickers purchase to portray their status in the criminal community. Based upon my research on the Internet website www.gangstagold.com and an article printed in the Tacoma News Tribune on March 6, 2006, I know that "Grills" can from [sic] cost from $1000.00 up to anywhere in excess of $25,000.00. Grills are wholly cosmetic and are not intended to be a dental aid like braces or a retainer. They can either be a removable type similar to a retainer or attached to the teeth with dental cement similar to braces."
The warrant did not authorize the defendants to be removed from the FDC and transported to a dentist. This must have been done by the agents executing the warrant, on their own. No one has explained yet how these defendants were removed from the FDC. An agent can't simply take someone out without proper authorization. This is a mystery.
The Judge may not have contemplated this, but he was at least made aware that the grills might be cemented to the teeth.
To make this even worse, I'm told by someone with knowledge about the case that at least one of the defendants had the grill placed in his mouth years ago when he was in the Navy, long before he was ever involved in drug trafficking.
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