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Paul V. Coates--Confidential File

June 12, 2007 |  6:34 pm

Paul_coates June 12, 1957

"Marijuana," you don't say out loud.

You whisper it.

Because, in the last few years, it has become a hysterical word.

And the hysteria has reached a point, today, whereby guilt can be decided by association.

But the danger of any tight control is that it can envelop innocent people.

People like Al Hoffman, a licensed radio engineer whose story was brought to my attention yesterday.

On April 24 of this year, Hoffman's car was taken by an actress friend. And while he was sleeping, she was arrested with a friend of hers on charges of violating the State Health and Safety Code.

They were several miles from Al's house when picked up, but they were in Al's car. Police say that the actress' friend was smoking marijuana. Both the actress and her friend were booked.

It happened at 5 a.m., and by 6 detectives were at Al's home.

They woke him up, he says, and searched his place. Then they took him to the station for questioning.

Here's what has happened to Al Hoffman since then:

1957_0612_ad His car, a 1953 Lincoln, has been confiscated by the state of California. There's a good chance that he won't get it back.

He is no longer a Miami, Fla., special deputy constable. His credentials were revoked, Al says, when police here contacted the Miami constabulary and explained that he was "mixed up in a narcotics mess."

His automobile insurance was revoked. "I notified my insurance company about what had happened and they immediately canceled my policy."

Al's story sounded slightly incredible to me.

But I checked it out with the attorney general's office and it adds up.

Section 11610 of the State Health and Safety Code states that if an occupant of a vehicle, or the vehicle itself, possesses narcotics, the vehicle will be seized and turned over to the Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement.

It will be kept by the bureau until forfeiture is declared or release ordered.

That the owner permitted his car to be borrowed in complete innocence makes no difference.

The state can legally steal his car.

Hoffman's car was taken seven weeks ago. He has been trying, vainly, to get it back ever since.

Yesterday, I discussed the case with an agent of the attorney general's office forfeiture section.

He said that a forfeiture complaint was being issued against Hoffman's car and that such complaints usually took between eight and 12 weeks. "I think Hoffman's forfeiture is being issued today," he said. "But understand, it's not against Hoffman. It's against the car."

After the complaint has been issued, Hoffman has 20 days to interpose an answer. To say why his car shouldn't be seized.

If he doesn't, he loses his car. If he does, the case must be tried within 30 days.

But even then he stands a good chance of losing his vehicle to the state. He wouldn't be the first person to do so.

He could appeal, of course. But by carrying his case up to the Supreme Court, he'd soon find that legal expenses were running twice the value of the car itself.

There's a good possibility, I've been told, that such forfeiture is unconstitutional.

But so far, no public-spirited citizen has been willing to invest a couple grand to find out if he could win back a thousand-dollar car.

Economically, it's unsound.

The forfeiture law was effected because narcotics traffickers were moving around with frightening ease.

But it's webbing innocent bystanders, and even car dealers--conditional sellers.

I asked a narcotic agent yesterday what effect it was having on the movement of the pushers themselves.

He shrugged. "Now they drive $50 clunks. Cars they can afford to lose."