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2 suspects keep flashy smiles
Seattle Times staff reporter
In their quest to seize the ill-gotten gains of suspected drug dealers, federal prosecutors have targeted cash, jewelry, cars and even homes.
You can now add gold-capped teeth to the list.
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."
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.
Grills, made popular by rappers such as Nelly, are customized teeth caps that are typically made of precious metals and jewels. The cost for a full set can run from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Some styles of grills can be snapped onto the teeth somewhat like an orthodontic retainer, while others are permanently bonded to the teeth.
Neal and Lewis had permanently bonded grills, their attorneys said. The attorneys for both men declined to describe their clients' grills.
Federal prosecutors, who presented the seizure warrant to a U.S. District Court judge on March 29, said they did not know that the grills were permanently bonded to the defendants' teeth.
"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.
Prosecutors often seize personal jewelry and other items from defendants if they are considered proceeds of a crime, such as drug dealing.
Court documents show that a permanent stay on the seizure was signed by Magistrate J. Kelley Arnold on Tuesday.
Calls to Arnold and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were not returned Thursday.
Schwartz and Zenon Olbertz, Lewis' defense attorney, worry what would have happened if their clients had been unable to reach them before the seizure.
"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.
Seizure warrants are typically sealed to prevent defendants from trying to move or hide valuables and evidence, according to Langlie and federal court clerks. They become public documents when the return — which records what is actually seized — is filed, according to the clerk's office.
However, Schwartz and Olbertz said they have never run into a forfeiture handled like this one. They said they are interested to see, once the documents are unsealed, what legal or evidentiary argument led the judge to sign the warrant.
"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?"
Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or email@example.com
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