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‘Civil Forfiture’ and the Abuse of Power

September 20, 2014

The Saginaw County, Michigan Sheriff was in the news again with a seized vehicle that he has converted to departmental use.  While the Honda Element he now drives, like the Lincoln Town Car and Ford Mustang that preceded it was taken from people arrested and convicted of crimes, the vehicle itself was seized without a judge or jury sentencing the defendant(s) to loss of their property after a fair trial as part of the ‘due process’ that the Anglo-American system of jurisprudence mandates.  The loss of a car not taken as part of a just sentence imposed on a guilty defendant raises questions – or it should.

The good Sheriff  is not alone in generating controversy; the Washington Post reports that a number of police departments  – city, county and state – across the country are targeting drivers for stops, searches and seizures of cash – all without there necessarily being an arrest, trial or conviction.  The money is seldom returned; a clear violation of the Constitution’s ‘due process‘ clause.  While it may be argued that there is statistical evidence that drivers carrying large amounts of cash on certain roads who also share other characteristics (race, sex, age, and little things like having air fresheners in their cars, possibly to hide unlawful drug use) are likely engaged in criminal activity, our system protects the innocent by demanding that the accused get their day in court, that we be presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt (the substance of the story told in ’12 Angry Men,’ which some readers may recall from their school days as a staple of civics classes for generations), and that another branch of government than the one doing the arresting – the courts (‘Judicial Branch’) preside over the administration of justice.  Combining the power to arrest and to de facto punish (via forfeiture) in one agency is a grave temptation to abuse of power.  Indeed, it would be remarkable if letting such combined powers reside in the same individual or agency did not produce abuse.  That there is a monetary incentive to do so, and that the private contractor named in the Post story gets a cut of the money seized is enough to establish a strong probability that regular abuse is taking place.  (However, those upon whom suspicion of such abuse is cast ought to get their ‘day in court,’ too, and they are guilty of nothing until proven otherwise.)

There will always be the temptation to seize power to do good, in this case, combat suspected drug trafficking.  But like Gandalf explains to Frodo in ‘The Fellowship of the Ring,’ taking the Ring of Power might be done with the best of intentions, but the end results will be evil.  Sometimes the lessons of the stories of our childhood are forgotten and ought to be revisited when we are older.  Such is the case here, whether the lessons in question come from a story or from what we learned in civics class:  Power, in the American system, is checked and balanced for a reason, and the efficiency of the government’s exercise of power, for whatever reason, is never an excuse for violating someone’s rights.  We forget these lessons at the peril of that liberty our system of government is supposed to safeguard and which is supposed to be the hallmark of our way of life.

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