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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.

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Original Post:

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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  • Re: Justice Dept. and ATF Sink to New Low (none / 0) (#1)
    by squeaky on Fri Apr 07, 2006 at 01:18:34 PM EST
    But Delay gets to keep his campaign money to use for his defense? No quesion about that.

    Re: Justice Dept. and ATF Sink to New Low (none / 0) (#2)
    by aw on Fri Apr 07, 2006 at 01:27:29 PM EST
    They can take hearing aids--digital ones are more expensive than gold teeth.

    Re: Justice Dept. and ATF Sink to New Low (none / 0) (#3)
    by Rational on Fri Apr 07, 2006 at 01:28:58 PM EST
    The thugs keep getting their illgotten pensions and priviledges as well. So remember your tax dollars are paying for Randy, Cunningham's, Tom Delay's andthe rest of those crooks pensions. Best way to balance budget make all of the thugs return every penny of thier illgotten gains. That includes any money they may have stashed for wifey thug and children thugs. No trust funds no property nothing clothes on thier back and a $10 watch.

    Re: Justice Dept. and ATF Sink to New Low (none / 0) (#4)
    by The Heretik on Fri Apr 07, 2006 at 01:35:08 PM EST
    "Is it safe?" Oy. Unbelievable.

    Re: Justice Dept. and ATF Sink to New Low (none / 0) (#5)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Fri Apr 07, 2006 at 01:35:50 PM EST
    Wow. I'm speechless. The drug war has once again reached a new level of insanity, and I'm losing track of how many times I've said that.

    Re: Justice Dept. and ATF Sink to New Low (none / 0) (#6)
    by kdog on Fri Apr 07, 2006 at 01:38:02 PM EST
    This is taking asset forfeiture, or as I like to call it "stealing", to scary new heights. Un-freakin-believable. I miss America.

    Re: Justice Dept. and ATF Sink to New Low (none / 0) (#7)
    by squeaky on Fri Apr 07, 2006 at 01:51:54 PM EST
    And to think that we used to think of Dr. Mengele as a freak. It turns out that his type is rather common.

    Re: Justice Dept. and ATF Sink to New Low (none / 0) (#8)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Fri Apr 07, 2006 at 02:37:56 PM EST
    Ya know, most people really only need one kidney. Perhaps prisoner's should be forced to pay for their stay in jail by donating kidneys.

    Re: Justice Dept. and ATF Sink to New Low (none / 0) (#9)
    by john horse on Fri Apr 07, 2006 at 02:54:50 PM EST
    J Pierpont, Yeah, it makes you wonder. Would a pound of flesh finally satisfy their greed? Everytime you think the Bush administration can't go any lower they prove us wrong by sinking to even lower depths.

    Re: Justice Dept. and ATF Sink to New Low (none / 0) (#10)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Fri Apr 07, 2006 at 03:03:32 PM EST
    The agents had to know that the grills were bonded to natural teeth. Based upon my knowledge, training and experience, I know that the Bureau of Prisons" Receiving and Discharge staff at FDC Seattle would not ever allow an inmate to retain a removable dental appliance. While dentures are allowed, any removable appliance such as orthodontic (i.e. "Saggital," "Bionator," retainer or space maintainer) would be taken from an inmate during processing and documented on a "Form 40." It would then be provided to the Health Services Department where a dentist would decide whether or not it could be authorized for retention by the inmate (this would largely be determined by its function). Disposition, whether issued to the inmate or sent "home" - would also be documented on a "Form 40." Howard O. Kieffer Federal Defense Associates Santa Ana, California 714-836-6031 x 250 www.boplaw.com hkieffer@dcounsel.com

    Re: Justice Dept. and ATF Sink to New Low (none / 0) (#11)
    by roy on Fri Apr 07, 2006 at 03:04:33 PM EST
    So if I have my assets surgically attached to my body, I'm immune to court-ordered forfeiture? Time to invest in platinum kneecaps and diamond gallstones...

    Re: Justice Dept. and ATF Sink to New Low (none / 0) (#12)
    by Sailor on Fri Apr 07, 2006 at 03:07:27 PM EST
    stand by folks, it takes awhile for the wrongwingers to get their talking points.

    Re: Justice Dept. and ATF Sink to New Low (none / 0) (#13)
    by Patrick on Fri Apr 07, 2006 at 03:16:59 PM EST
    Sailor, What are the talking points we're waiting for. It's legal to seize assets from drug sales, the officers had a warrant, and grills are cosmetic. Sounds like they were trying to legally seize assets to me. Likening it to the Holocaust or some type of surgical removal is hyperbole

    Re: Justice Dept. and ATF Sink to New Low (none / 0) (#14)
    by Sailor on Fri Apr 07, 2006 at 03:40:03 PM EST
    Patrick, actually I don't include you with those waiting for taking points. I've come to respect you for your POV, even tho we usually disagree. I am a bit surprised that you would endorse cops moving beyond the terms of a warrant and enforcing surgery on suspects, (not convicted criminals.) BTW, the nazis stole gold teeth from people they had legally determined to be violating the law and in 'possession' of resources the state deserved. And where does it stop, can they haul off a gansta's girlfriend and remove her boobs? It's not a stretch, (tho that may have been the reason she had the surgery;-)

    Re: Justice Dept. and ATF Sink to New Low (none / 0) (#15)
    by Che's Lounge on Fri Apr 07, 2006 at 03:41:02 PM EST
    What an incredibly violent, arrogant ego someone must have to contemplate an action like this. These individuals should be hospitalized and kept away from the general public until they can deal with their violent tendencies. These people carry guns on them all the time. They are violent criminals carrying concealed weapons. They obviously have no qualms about torturing or, in the case of NYPD detectives, murdering us right in our cars a la Dirty Harry. That badge seems to give them unlimited power, and the SCOTUS will back that observation any day of the week. We let them walk the streets of our neighborhoods, ready to blast away at anything they deem "a threat", where we and our children live and play. For fifty years we've been taught that men like this are evil communists. We need to take our country back from these maniacs.

    Re: Justice Dept. and ATF Sink to New Low (none / 0) (#17)
    by scarshapedstar on Fri Apr 07, 2006 at 04:13:37 PM EST
    Furthermore, I am sure these people are getting the proper medical procedure when the "grills" are removed. What is the problem? How's that? Lots of people get gold teeth. If I knocked out some of your teeth and acted like it was the "proper medical procedure", would you agree?

    Re: Justice Dept. and ATF Sink to New Low (none / 0) (#18)
    by jen on Fri Apr 07, 2006 at 04:29:27 PM EST
    Furthermore, I am sure these people are getting the proper medical procedure when the "grills" are removed. What is the problem?
    None, unless we wish to remain a nation of moral people.

    Re: Justice Dept. and ATF Sink to New Low (none / 0) (#19)
    by Patrick on Fri Apr 07, 2006 at 04:49:23 PM EST
    I am a bit surprised that you would endorse cops moving beyond the terms of a warrant and enforcing surgery on suspects, (not convicted criminals.)
    Actually, I'm not supporting the surgical removal. However, if no surgery was required, (I have seen removeable grills), then I would have no problem with that. As for the defendant who had them while in the Navy, I think it would be very difficult for the Gov't to prove the were proceeds from drug sales in that case, and in my trainined would not then be seizable assets. Yes the Nazi's removed gold from their victims, however, I doubt their victims were wearing cosmetic grills, and that is far from the most sigificant difference in this case. IMO

    Re: Justice Dept. and ATF Sink to New Low (none / 0) (#20)
    by kdog on Fri Apr 07, 2006 at 04:50:36 PM EST
    So, by naruius logic, if a person merely suspected of dealing drugs purchased a pacemaker, the state should rip it out of the suspect's chest. Nice. I say again...I miss America and what it used to be. It may be gone forever. Freedom and Liberty must be going out of fashion.

    Re: Justice Dept. and ATF Sink to New Low (none / 0) (#21)
    by Patrick on Fri Apr 07, 2006 at 04:52:57 PM EST
    I do have to agree that there appears to be no release order in the affidavit, but that could have been separate order, and not part of the case on point. Until I hear they removed the defendants from custody improperly, which I'm sure will be thoroughly investigated, I'll have to believe they thought they were entitled to do it.

    Re: Justice Dept. and ATF Sink to New Low (none / 0) (#22)
    by Patrick on Fri Apr 07, 2006 at 04:58:10 PM EST
    So, by naruius logic, if a person merely suspected of dealing drugs purchased a pacemaker, the state should rip it out of the suspect's chest. Nice.
    Well, let's be clear. These were not gold teeth, these were grills, cosmetic covers that are as often as not, removeable by the wearer. They were not fillings, or even necessary for health or dental reasons. However, by the same token, if they are glued to the defendants, they aren't going anywhere, so why not take the time and dot the i's and cross the t's. How

    Re: Justice Dept. and ATF Sink to New Low (none / 0) (#23)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Fri Apr 07, 2006 at 05:01:00 PM EST
    Patrick, I downloaded the documents from the court docket sheet. There are no other documents besides the application/affidavit, a seizure warrant for each defendant, and the stay order. Here is the seizure warrant. (pdf)

    Re: Justice Dept. and ATF Sink to New Low (none / 0) (#24)
    by Patrick on Fri Apr 07, 2006 at 05:06:12 PM EST
    TL, I reviewed the docs you linked to, (Having learned my lesson), I'll admit I'm unfamiliar with how your getting them, but I'm assuming your argument is there was no release order, and that if there was, it would have been discoverable in the search you did for these documents?

    Re: Justice Dept. and ATF Sink to New Low (none / 0) (#25)
    by Sailor on Fri Apr 07, 2006 at 05:15:14 PM EST
    As for the defendant who had them while in the Navy, I think it would be very difficult for the Gov't to prove the were proceeds from drug sales
    They don't have to 'prove it', they don't have to have a trial or a conviction, just a friendly judge. Patrick, I'm not trying to attack you with the above, but I would like your opinion.

    Re: Justice Dept. and ATF Sink to New Low (none / 0) (#26)
    by kdog on Fri Apr 07, 2006 at 05:59:48 PM EST
    Granted, I've got a problem with asset forfeiture prior to conviction to begin with...but I see a distinction between confiscating a rolls royce and sticking "state" fingers in somebodies mouth for a couple hundred dollar set of gold teeth. It's distasteful for a civilized society.

    Re: Justice Dept. and ATF Sink to New Low (none / 0) (#27)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Fri Apr 07, 2006 at 06:30:26 PM EST
    It's a recoverable asset? I know nothing about grillz, but is there a market for used grillz? How much gold is recoverable from them? What are the costs to the taxpayer to pay for removal of the grillz, any required restoration to the teeth, and recovery of the gold? Personally, I suspect it would be far more profitable to sell kidneys.

    Re: Justice Dept. and ATF Sink to New Low (none / 0) (#28)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Fri Apr 07, 2006 at 06:37:47 PM EST
    I suspect it would be better for the prosecution's case to get an injunction against the defendant's disposing of the grillz and hope they show up in court wearing them, than to have the defendant show up in a nice new suit and a nice grillz free toothy smile.

    Re: Justice Dept. and ATF Sink to New Low (none / 0) (#29)
    by Patrick on Fri Apr 07, 2006 at 08:13:49 PM EST
    They don't have to 'prove it', they don't have to have a trial or a conviction, just a friendly judge.
    Sailor, Actually they do have to prove it. Asset forfeiture is separate process from the criminal case and has to be proved by a preponderance of the evidence as opposed to beyond a reasonable doubt in the criminal case. The warrant linked to by TL was a warrant to seize the property pending a court case, not for the forfeiture of the property. Kdog is absolutely right and hits on one of the more contentions aspect of civil forfeiture. It can take place absent a conviction for the actual crime since the burden of proof in the civil case is lower.
    I know nothing about grillz, but is there a market for used grillz?
    Well I doubt there is, unless it's Nellys or some other celebrities,(still kinda gross), but since the gold is completely fungible, it does have value. I suspect there was more than just a desire to forfeit assets in this instance, but there was a potential that they were valuable, based on the information used in the affadavit.