Fri Apr 7, 3:07 PM ET
TACOMA, Wash. - Talk about taking a bite out of crime.
Government lawyers tried to confiscate the gold tooth caps known as "grills" from the mouths of two men facing drug charges, saying the dental work qualified as seizable assets. They had them in a vehicle headed to a dental clinic by the time defense attorneys persuaded a judge to halt the procedure.
"I've been doing this for over 30 years and I have never heard of anything like this," said Richard J. Troberman, a past president of the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "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."
Prosecutors had a warrant to seize the gold dental work, according to documents and lawyers involved in the case. But they eventually abandoned the effort, saying they mistakenly thought the grills were removable.
The customized tooth caps, popularized by rappers such as Nelly, are made of precious metals and jewels and can cost thousands of dollars for a full set. Some can be snapped onto the teeth, while others are permanently bonded to the teeth.
Flenard T. Neal Jr. and Donald Jamar Lewis both have permanently bonded grills, their lawyers said.
Neal and Lewis, both charged with several drug and weapon violations, were taken Tuesday from the Federal Detention Center to the U.S. marshal's office, where they were told the government had a warrant to seize the grills. They called their lawyers as they were about to be taken to a dentist, said Miriam Schwartz, Neal's public defender.
A permanent stay of the seizure order was issued that day by U.S. Magistrate J. Kelley Arnold, court documents show.
"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.
The defense lawyers criticized what they said was a clandestine attempt to have the grills removed.
"It's shocking that this kind of action by the federal government could be sought and accomplished in secret, without anyone being notified," said Zenon Peter Olbertz, who represents Lewis. "It reminds me of the secret detentions" in terrorist cases.
Langlie and court clerks said seizure warrants are typically sealed to prevent defendants from trying to move or hide valuables and evidence. They become public with the filing of a return that shows what was seized.