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Legislators balk at approving forfeiture and seizure law


The Jefferson County Board of Legislators made synthetic drugs illegal within its borders Tuesday night, but then balked at a more sweeping proposal to allow authorities to take property from a broader range of drug and gun criminals.

Unable to come to an agreement over a series of proposed amendments to the so-called seizure and forfeiture law, the board sent it back to the committee process yet again. The Legislature was poised to set a Nov. 13 public hearing on the matter and then consider it for approval that same day, but the action Tuesday night puts that off unless and until it can reach an accord.

“I do not believe we should even be entertaining it,” said Legislator Michael W. Behling, R-Adams, who has been the most vocal opponent of the proposal.

The proposal would allow police to seize cash, cars or other property that is used in misdemeanor drug crimes, and then would allow the county to keep it, with court approval. The proceeds would go toward law enforcement activities. Right now, authorities can take property from felony criminals, but not from misdemeanor criminals. Misdemeanor crimes are generally less serious than felony crimes and are punishable by less than a year in prison.

Legislators, typically tranquil at their Tuesday meetings, have engaged in polite but spirited discussions since the proposal first came up at the last board meeting in September. Proponents, led by Legislator Scott A. Gray, R-Watertown, say the law would help crack down on the criminal element. Mr. Gray said it’s unlikely to be abused, because any forfeiture has to be approved by a court. Opponents, led by Mr. Behling, say that it goes too far and infringes on civil liberties. People who make one mistake might risk losing their car — or worse, Mr. Behling said, their parents’ car.

Legislators Anthony J. Doldo, R-Watertown, John D. Peck, R-Great Bend, Michael F. Astafan, D-Carthage, Robert D. Ferris, R-Watertown, and Philip N. Reed, R-Fishers Landing, had questions Tuesday night about the proposal. Mr. Peck said he would vote against it, in part because the town of Champion passed a resolution the night before in opposition.

Supporters discussed changing the law so it applies only to class A drug and gun misdemeanors, and not class B drug and gun misdemeanors. Class A misdemeanors are more serious than class B misdemeanors. Legislators also floated the idea of requiring a court to set a hearing within two weeks for someone whose property is taken and who wants to prove it wasn’t used in a crime. Those issues are likely to be addressed at the Finance and Rules Committee meeting, to take place in November.

“I don’t think it stretches the long arm of the law,” said Mr. Gray, who is the chairman of the Finance and Rules Committee.

Misdemeanor drug crimes range from the sale of small amounts of drugs to having scales that could be used to weigh drugs. Misdemeanor possession could include having one marijuana cigarette out in the open.

The synthetic drugs law makes Jefferson County one of the few local governments in the state that ban synthetic drugs, which mimic the effects of narcotics and marijuana. The federal government has made the substances illegal, but local authorities, like sheriff’s deputies, can’t enforce those laws. The state has been slow to act on passing its own law. The ban will take effect once the state Department of State receives it, which should happen in a matter of days or about a week, said David J. Paulsen, the county attorney.

Anita K. Seefried-Brown and Stephen A. Jennings, members of a synthetic drug task force, cheered the new law, saying that synthetic drugs were ruining lives. From January to August, they said, the task force noticed a spike in ambulance calls for psychotic events. That tapered off when Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and federal authorities started cracking down on sellers.

The task force now will pivot to other drug issues, such as narcotics, prescription drugs and overdoses, Ms. Seefried-Brown and Mr. Jennings said.

In other action Tuesday night, the board approved a $152,142 contract with Gouverneur Roofing, Siding and Sheet Metal to repair the roof on the Public Health building, which has been leaking. The project, originally estimated to cost $250,000, will start in the fall, County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III said.

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