The federal Government Printing Office (GPO), acting at the behest of the Justice Department, has ordered libraries nationwide to destroy a series of Justice Department pamphlets that are a prosecutor's manual for asset forfeiture cases. The pamphlets were sent to some 1,300 "depository libraries," which are libraries designated by Congress to receive and make available to the public nearly all documents the federal government publishes. Each congressional district contains at least two depository libraries.
In a one-paragraph memo, GPO listed the pamphlets, which included such scintillating reading as "Civil and Criminal Forfeiture Procedure" and "Select Federal Assets Forfeiture Statutes," and instructed librarians to "withdraw these materials immediately and destroy all copies by any means to prevent disclosure of their content." The directive ended by saying "the Department of Justice has determined that these materials are for internal use only."
The pamphlets, which date from 2000 to 2004, are a step-by-step guide for prosecutors from "the drafting of the forfeiture allegation... to post-trial phases of a criminal forfeiture case." They contain detailed legal research on asset forfeiture law, including statutes and case histories of how to go about legally seizing cash, cars, houses, and other property of alleged drug dealers and other criminals.
The pamphlets contain detailed legal research on asset forfeiture law, including statutes and case histories on the legal means of seizing cash, cars, houses, boats, and other property of convicted drug dealers and other criminals.
"As you can see, these materials would be of use to forfeiture victims in their fight to get their property back," said attorney Brenda Grantland, board president of Forfeiture Endangers American Rights (http://www.fear.org). "Because they had been released into the library system for some time, they were all public documents. Many of the publications are comprised of statutes and court opinions which are in the public domain."
FEAR is not the only group concerned. The American Library Association (ALA) has said it does not know why the pamphlets were ordered destroyed and has vowed to challenge the order as infringing the guarantee of public access to unclassified documents published by the federal government each year.
Patrice McDermott, ALA deputy director of governmental affairs, told the Boston Globe that only 20 or 30 times in the past century has the federal government ordered documents pulled, and most of those cases were for materials that were found to be outdated or contain factual errors.
"We are going to push the Department of Justice on this," she said. "This material is already out there. Some of these documents are merely compilations of federal statutes. You can find this stuff in law offices and law libraries across the country. We just don't know the rationale for this."
The Justice Department provided one rationale. Casey Stavropoulos, a spokeswoman for the department, said the pamphlets were written by Justice Department attorneys who intended them to be law enforcement tools for federal prosecutors. She told the Globe the pamphlets "were never intended for public distribution. They were developed for internal use."
Bernard A. Margolis, president of the Boston Public Library, told the Globe the order to destroy the pamphlets "came out of the blue." Margolis added that he sought an explanation from an official in the Office of Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering. That official told him information in the pamphlets could disclose legal strategy, but he also conceded that much of the information had been available for several years, Margolis said.
Margolis said he was keeping the pamphlets available as the library challenged the order. A challenge was necessary, he said. "There is a precedent danger that if a handful of documents that appear innocuous -- the forfeiture statutes -- if these become subject to a casual or cavalier yanking, then what is next? Maybe it's things that are really critical and primary to people's livelihood, to their safety, or to their health," he said. "I think at a minimum we are entitled to know the process, how these determinations are made, and whether excluding something is truly in the public interest," he said. "The public should get its day in court."
FEAR is urging concerned citizens to fight the pamphlet removal order by writing their representatives. (Visiting http://www.house.gov and http://www.senate.gov is one way to find out who represents you in Congress and how to reach them.) The group also suggests calling depositary libraries and asking them not to destroy the materials. A list of such libraries is available at the US GPO web site, http://www.gpo.gov online.