Thieving and Reprehensible Government

Daniel J. Mitchell
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Posted: May 23, 2012 12:01 AM

I hope you’re a libertarian already. But if you’re not, I hope you’ll be one after you finish reading this post.

And if you’re not a libertarian after reading this post, I suggest you emigrate to Zimbabwe, or some other place where government has unchecked and arbitrary power to steal. You’ll feel right at home.

This post is about the disgusting practice of “asset forfeiture,” which is basically a scheme that allows government to steal people’s property and money.

I’ve already posted a great video from the Institute for Justice about this topic, and I also suggest you read this horror story and this nauseating episode to see how asset forfeiture works in the real world.

Now let’s look at two new examples of theft by government.

Let’s start with some excerpts from a George Will column.

Russ Caswell, 68, is bewildered: “What country are we in?” He and his wife, Pat, are ensnared in a Kafkaesque nightmare unfolding in Orwellian language. This town’s police department is conniving with the federal government to circumvent Massachusetts law — which is less permissive than federal law — to seize his livelihood and retirement asset. In the lawsuit titled United States of America v. 434 Main Street, Tewksbury, Massachusetts, the government is suing an inanimate object, the motel Caswell’s father built in 1955. The U.S. Department of Justice intends to seize it, sell it for perhaps $1.5 million and give up to 80 percent of that to the Tewksbury Police Department, whose budget is just $5.5 million. The Caswells have not been charged with, let alone convicted of, a crime.

Is Will’s language over the top? Hardly, as you can see from this excerpt. The government is trying to steal the hotel because a tiny percentage of guests engaged in victimless crimes.

Since 1994, about 30 motel customers have been arrested on drug-dealing charges. Even if those police figures are accurate — the police have a substantial monetary incentive to exaggerate — these 30 episodes involved less than 5/100ths of 1 percent of the 125,000 rooms Caswell has rented over those more than 6,700 days. Yet this is the government’s excuse for impoverishing the Caswells by seizing this property, which is their only significant source of income and all of their retirement security. The government says the rooms were used to “facilitate” a crime. It does not say the Caswells knew or even that they were supposed to know what was going on in all their rooms all the time. Civil forfeiture law treats citizens worse than criminals, requiring them to prove their innocence — to prove they did everything possible to prevent those rare crimes from occurring in a few of those rooms. What counts as possible remains vague.

Amazing. You’re guilty until you prove yourself innocent, even though you’ve done nothing wrong.

The government officials should be the ones arrested and thrown in jail.

Now let’s look at a Huff Post column by Radley Balko.

When the Brown County, Wis., Drug Task Force arrested her son Joel last February, Beverly Greer started piecing together his bail. She used part of her disability payment and her tax return. Joel Greer’s wife also chipped in, as did his brother and two sisters. On Feb. 29, a judge set Greer’s bail at $7,500, and his mother called the Brown County jail to see where and how she could get him out. “The police specifically told us to bring cash,” Greer says. “Not a cashier’s check or a credit card. They said cash.” So Greer and her family visited a series of ATMs, and on March 1, she brought the money to the jail, thinking she’d be taking Joel Greer home. But she left without her money, or her son. Instead jail officials called in the same Drug Task Force that arrested Greer. A drug-sniffing dog inspected the Greers’ cash, and about a half-hour later, Beverly Greer said, a police officer told her the dog had alerted to the presence of narcotics on the bills — and that the police department would be confiscating the bail money.

You probably can figure out the rest of the story. Radley’s column has a lot of additional details, but here are a couple of passages to whet your appetite.

The Greers had been subjected to civil asset forfeiture, a policy that lets police confiscate money and property even if they can only loosely connect them to drug activity. The cash, or revenue from the property seized, often goes back to the coffers of the police department that confiscated it. It’s a policy critics say is often abused, but experts told The HuffPost that the way the law is applied to bail money in Brown County is exceptionally unfair. It took four months for Beverly Greer to get her family’s money back, and then only after attorney Andy Williams agreed to take their case. “The family produced the ATM receipts proving that had recently withdrawn the money,” Williams says. “Beverly Greer had documentation for her disability check and her tax return. Even then, the police tried to keep their money.” …Civil asset forfeiture is based on the premise that a piece of property — a car, a pile of cash, a house — can be guilty of a crime. Laws vary from state to state, but generally, law enforcement officials can seize property if they can show any connection between the property and illegal activity. It is then up to the owner of the property to prove in court that he owns it or earned it legitimately. It doesn’t require a property owner to actually be convicted of a crime. In fact, most people who lose property to civil asset forfeiture are never charged.

It’s probably worth noting that this is another example of government stealing when the underlying offense was a victimless crime. I reckon this must be a turbo-charged version of Mitchell’s Law.

P.S. Just in case you’re pro-Drug War, here are some examples of government thuggery that don’t involve persecution of victimless crimes. This post shows how the IRS can run amok, engaging in brutal persecution. And here’s a story of the government targeting a low-level person for inexplicable reasons.

Both these stories should turn you into a raving libertarian. In which case, welcome to the club!