Schools, Police Spar Over Felons' Assets in North Carolina
The North Carolina Supreme Court will hear arguments next fall in a case that will determine whether assets seized from convicted drug dealers and other felons will go to local school boards or to law-enforcement agencies.
The legal battle centers on the state's two-year-old Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO, which authorizes the police to seize assets obtained or used during a felony.
Under the law, which was enacted for a three-year trial period, law-enforcement agencies are authorized to keep the funds.
A conflicting passage in the state constitution, which dates from the Reconstruction era, provides that such funds must go to the school board in the county where they are collected.
The RICO assets can provide a substantial addition to the budgets of whichever agency gets them: In a 1987 case, federal authorities seized a shopping center in Shallotte, N.C., valued at $1 million.
The case before the North Carolina high court involves the Alamance County school board's claim to some $52,000 in cash and a luxury automobile seized in a 1986 drug arrest in the county. A superior-court judge had ruled that the proceeds belong to the board.
State officials have appealed the lower-court ruling directly to the supreme court.
"To maintain such an absolute position would mean that all civil forfeitures and penalties--and there are many, many--would all be swept into the county school fund,'' said Harold M. White Jr., an associate state attorney general. "The question is whether this is really wise policy.''
Even state-imposed regulatory and environmental penalties could be construed as belonging to local boards under the decision, Mr. White said.
Criminal Penalties Only
The state will argue that school districts are entitled only to monies from criminal penalties and assets seized in criminal cases, he said.
Assets seized under RICO, he said, are considered civil, as opposed to criminal, penalties.
Local law-enforcement agencies have lined up on the state's side in the case because they say it takes time and effort to do the legal work necessary to seize property and then auction it off. They contend they deserve the money for their efforts.
But Paul H. Ridge, the lawyer representing the Alamance County board, said that while the RICO law utilizes civil procedures for seizing property, it is penal in nature in that it is designed to punish drug dealers and other criminals.
"We think the way the trial judge ruled is correct,'' Mr. Ridge said.
The North Carolina School Boards Association has voiced its support for the county board, but it does not plan to file a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, said Edwin E. Dunlap, the group's associate executive director.
"We think the constitution is very clear on the issue,'' Mr. Dunlap said.
The state supreme court is expected to hand down its ruling by early next year, before the legislature begins its reevaluation of the RICO law, which expires Sept. 30, 1989.--M.W.