Monday, April 10, 2006

By the skin of their grills

It's come to this, ladies and gentlemen. Your Justice Department is eager to enforce laws against drug dealing and corruption, so eager, in fact, that it will stop at nothing to prosecute evildoers to the full extent of the law. Nothing. Not even your teeth.

In what may be the stupidest prosecutorial gambit in a long time, officials with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives recently moved to have the "grills" -- gold-capped teeth favored by rappers and the hiphop crowd -- removed from the mouths of two suspected drug offenders, as a way to achieve asset forfeiture against two people seen as having profited from the drug trade.

The Seattle Times reported the story on April 7. If not for two attorneys who raised a huge stink about the proposed action in the literal nick of time, the two men -- charged with "several counts of drug and weapons violations in January" -- might well have found themselves on the receiving end of something out of the "Is it safe?" scene from "Marathon Man."

On April 4 -- yet another grim anniversary of the passing of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. -- the two men, Flenard T. Neal Jr. and Donald Jamar Lewis, were moved from the federal "Detention Center" in SeaTac, near the airport, to the U.S. Marshals office in Tacoma, a short drive south.

"There they were told the government" -- the United States government! -- "had a warrant to seize the grills from their mouths and that they were being taken to a dentist in Seattle for removal."

Speaking to the Times, Richard Troberman, former president of the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, got it just about right: "It sounds like Nazi Germany, when they were removing the gold teeth from the bodies, but at least they waited until they were dead."

Neal and Lewis called their attorneys but they were bundled into a van and whisked to Seattle. Their lawyers managed, in the time it takes from Tacoma to Seattle, maybe forty miles, to convince a judge that this was a toweringly bad idea.

Turns out the grills Neal and Lewis were flashing were part of their permanent dentition. "Some styles of grills," the Times reported, "can be snapped onto the teeth somewhat like an orthodontic retainer, while others are permanently bonded to the teeth."

But by then the feds saw the public-relations handwriting on the wall. They claimed not to know whether the grills were or weren't permanently bonded to the teeth of the two men, which shouldn't have mattered anyway. But when they found out, the seizure attempt was vacated. A permanent stay on the seizure was signed by a judge later on April 4, the Times reported.

Setting aside the abundant weirdness factor in this case, there's a sobering dimension to the plan, who it targeted and their status in the criminal justice system. "This is especially egregious because these two had not been convicted and are presumed to be innocent," Troberman observed for the Times.

Maybe U.S. Attorney General Alberto VO5 Gonzalez has it in mind to both prosecute domestic evildoers and help the American economy at the same time; perhaps it's all part of a Forensic Dentists' Full Employment Act to be introduced in Congress.

Whatever. Score one for common sense, a winner by the skin of oral precious metals.
Image credit: Bottom: Calliopejen, through Wikipedia licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license

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