Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Property Forfeiture, Cops, and the War on Drugs: More Than Just a Bust

When they pull you over, it's not your world anymore. It doesn't have to make sense.

A first-year law student would give me an argument concerning the above caption. Unfortunately, the 4th Amendment stops when a cop wants it to, especially if there are no witnesses. That puts us in a difficult position when we're pulled over. Law-student-guy would say, "But you have rights." Okay, fine.

(Requisite disclaimer: Of course there are good cops and bad cops. The laws discussed in this blog post just let a lot of cops be bad, IMO.)

The property forfeiture laws featured in the three-part story concluding today in the Washington Post are another deal altogether. Innocent until proven guilty is flipped on its head. If you've got a lot of cash, that cash can be considered evidence that you're up to no good. That fact that you're not doesn't give you the right to get your cash back.

That's just wrong. Arguments like "It's another tool in the toolbox to fight the war on drugs" drive me bananas. Randomly shooting people because "the dude looked like a drug courier" makes about as much sense. Sorry, here's your life back, oh, I guess I can't make that happen. Well, you shouldn't have been born black or looked like a biker or acted nervous because you had a lot of cash in the car. Having $17,000 in my pocket would make me insanely nervous.

(One time back in 1990 while living and working in Japan, I carried $33,000 in cash from one bank to another in a belly bag because it took ten days to get a cashier's check in Japan. I was a little wigged out, to say the least. And that's Japan where crime is low and it's generally a cash economy. Example: The cashiers where I asked for the cash and then later redeposited it took no notice of my actions at all. In America, I think I or they have to notify the Feds if such a transaction occurs.)

Many of those cited in the WaPo series did have their lives severely messed up by the "legal" seizures of their cash stash. And the idea that it's weird to be in a cash economy and thus it's their own damned fault, haven't they heard of banks and cashier's checks, and so on, is a specious argument. The government printed the damned money, and it's a crime that you even have it in your possession?

The seizure laws say yes, that's it. You got it, we think it's weird, we take it. It's legal. And we'll keep it as long as we can and cost you big time to get it back after your life's messed up. We'll even offer you half back as a common bargaining position. You didn't do anything wrong, we couldn't prove a damned thing, but we say "Okay, but we keep half. Deal?"

I've known about this for a long time, and I've stewed over it. But when you add it to the "cops can stop blacks and screw them over, even shoot them" scenarios that are evident everywhere -- except in my near-lily-white Sonoma County where my friends think "it's somebody else's problem, why are you so upset?" -- and add it to the Patriot Act and NSA "legal" snooping, and all the rest that you see so much nowadays, including "fine bankers for stealing your money but never send them to jail that's crazy," we should be all getting the sick feeling that justice is not just blind but dumb, as well.

I have a good life, and mostly my run-ins with the law have been reasonably benign ones, and I've known for a long time that carrying a lot of cash was a recipe for the kinds of disaster that befell the citizens in the WaPo series. Which, of course, begs the question: Where have these people been living without learning about these laws?

I think it's because these laws are too wacky. I get that having a bunch of cash does provide law enforcement with reasonable suspicion, which then can lead to searches and what not. But if the underlying crime suspected -- drugs, links to terrorists, etc. -- cannot be proven to the point of indictment, then keeping people's property is a crime itself. Even if one is indicted, one would need to be proven guilty. Found not guilty? Give the damned cash back!

And the series didn't focus on forfeited cars, trucks, trailers, etc.

We live in an increasingly lawless society. Actual crime is down. Law-enforcement crime appears to be up. Not good for a country will a Bill of Rights, don't you think?

JPMorganChase's Jamie Dimon: His firm steals billions, he gets a bonus. Law and order.

By the way, did I mention we lost the war on drugs anyway, big time? Right, I forgot. Bygones.

Update. Here's a link to Part Two, and one for Part Three.

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