Legal Delusions

At most times and places in history, state authorities have had pretty wide discretion to help or hurt folks.  People knew to submit to authorities, and to accept occasional arbitrary applications of authority power.  Thankfully, such applications were limited by the fact that authorities were distracted trying to keep their power via keeping the peace, meeting revenue targets, etc.,

Today folks proudly bask in a glow of higher status by believing that they have more control over their government.  They believe democracy puts them in charge, and that a “rule of law” drastically discourages arbitrary applications of authority power.  They are deluded:

Over the past three decades, it has become routine in the United States for state, local, and federal governments to seize the property of people who were never even charged with, much less convicted of, a crime. …  [An] Act of 1984 … included an earmarking provision that gave forfeiture proceeds back to local law enforcement agencies that helped in a federal forfeiture.” …

The government had only to show probable cause to believe that it was connected to drug activity, or the same standard cops use to obtain search warrants. The state was allowed to use hearsay evidence—meaning a federal agent could testify that a drug informant told him a car or home was used in a drug transaction—but property owners were barred from using hearsay, and couldn’t even cross-examine some of the government’s witnesses. Informants, while being protected from scrutiny, … could receive as much as one-quarter of the bounty, up to $50,000 per case. …

Justice Department’s forfeiture fund … as of 2008 assets had increased to $3.1 billion. … Almost half of surveyed police departments with more than 100 law enforcement personnel said forfeiture proceeds were “necessary as a budget supplement” for department operations. …

Less than 20 percent of federal seizures involved property whose owners were ever prosecuted. … More than 80 percent of federal seizures are never challenged in court. … In many cases the property was worth less than the legal costs of trying to get it back. … Forfeiture defendants can’t be provided with a court-appointed attorney. …

To even get a day in court, owners were forced to post a bond equal to 10 percent of the value of their seized property.  The average DEA property seizure in 1998 was worth about $25,000. In 2000 a Justice Department source told the PBS series Frontline that this figure was also the cutoff under which most forfeiture attorneys advised clients that their cases wouldn’t be worth pursuing. …

In 2000, Congress … raised the federal government’s burden of proof in forfeiture cases. … Problem was, the 1984 law had already spawned dozens of imitators on the state level.

Articles about this stuff have appeared periodically for decades.  Clearly such news has not sparked an irate revolution of concerned citizens demanding the return of their supposed rule of law.  As long as we don’t hear about stuff being arbitrarily taken from someone we know, we can keep believing we are better than those ancients – we still live under a rule of law for those who really matter – people like us.

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