"Police seized vehicles" exclaimed the advertisements for the Labor Day weekend auction. Four FEAR activists arrived at United Public Auctions in Upland, California early Saturday morning in time for the 7 a.m. auction preview. We intended to alert bidders that their own car could easily be forfeited under the unfair laws by which the vehicles up for auction were seized.
Ellen Komp, from Santa Monica, had prepared 1200 quarter-page flyers for the event. Large block letters announced "Warning!" across the top of each flyer. The text began: "You should know before you bid on vehicles at this auction that many of them were seized from their rightful owners without due process of law."
The flyers informed bidders that 80% of those who lose property to the US government are never charged with a crime; and that many seizures are not contested simply because owners cannot afford the necessary bonds and court costs. The conflict of interest created when the proceeds from forfeiture go to the seizing agency was also noted and the address of the local F.E.A.R. contact was listed for those who wanted more information.
While potential buyers inspected vehicles in the auction yard we placed a flyer on each seat in the bidding area. We then fetched picket signs from our cars. Upon returning United Auctions' general manager and his assistant met us near the gate between the parking lot and the auction yard. As we had anticipated, the manager told us to leave, saying, "this is private property."
I informed him that we have the right to leaflet in any public access area, including private property. "The California Constitution guarantees our right to political expression." I said, displaying a Xerox copy of selected pages from Westside Sane/Freeze vs. Ernest W. Hahn, Inc., 224 Cal App 3d 546, (1990). The manager reiterated, "You are trespassing. Leave or I'll call the police." Then he added, "There's a patrol car right over there for people like you."
I asked him, "Are you aware that it is a felony to interfere with citizen participation in the political process? Please call the officer."
The manager shouted to an employee across the yard, instructing him to send the police. An Upland Police officer arrived in a few moments and I again explained the meaning of the court decision in my hand. The patrolman said, "But this is private property. You have to leave. You can go out on the sidewalk and protest, but you can't stay here."
"We do have the right to leaflet here, just as we do at a privately owned shopping center or railway," I repeated, pointing to the court holdings printed on the front page of my document.
The officer took the pages I offered, placed them on the hood of his car and bent over to read. After a few minutes he said, "This is just case law. It's not a statute. You're still trespassing."
"Yes, it is case law protecting political free speech," I replied, "however, California Penal Code does prohibit interference with citizen participation in the political process."
The auction manager and the patrolman both argued that this property differed from a shopping center because there is no common access shared by multiple businesses. I remained adamant that we have a constitutional right to be there and the officer continued to be equally adamant that we would either leave or be arrested.
The officer stiffened and began reaching for his handcuffs. I quickly offered: "Look, none of us wants to spend the weekend in jail in order to prove the point. We will cooperate with you completely." The patrolman relaxed. And then, once again I added, "But you do realize that it is a felony to interfere with citizen participation in the political process."
Stiffening again the officer replied, "I can call my supervisor, but he will tell you the same thing. You will have to leave."
"Please call your supervisor." I requested.
While we waited for the supervisor's arrival Ellen and activist Jason Taub went out to the sidewalk to picket and distribute leaflets to motorists approaching the auction parking lot. Many were interested and wanted more information. The attention the two activists attracted soon began to impede traffic. As a result, another Upland Police officer told the two activists to discontinue picketing on the sidewalk, the very place the first officer had told us to go.
Christine Tainter, a F.E.A.R. activist living in Thousand Oaks at the time, and I had stayed with the patrolman and the auction manager. The manager's assistant, who had disappeared sometime after the patrolman arrived, returned with a stack of the flyers we had previously laid on the seats. He gave the stack to his boss. I asked the manager if he would please return our flyers to us. The police officer nodded to the manager, causing him to grimace and reluctantly place our flyers in my outstretched hand.
Though we were not being detained, our public warnings about civil forfeiture were not reaching the incoming shoppers while we stood beside the police car awaiting a decision. I stepped in front of the patrol car and began cautiously distributing our newly returned flyers to potential bidders as they walked into the auction yard. I repeatedly glanced toward the officer who was a few feet away from me, planning to immediately stop if he so indicated, but he continued to converse with the manager while observing the situation. So for a while, it appeared to patrons entering the auction that our warnings were being distributed by authority of the Upland police!
Before long the police supervisor arrived. The patrolman gave the Sergeant a private briefing of the situation, after which the Sergeant and I introduced ourselves. Again I reiterated our right to political expression. The Sergeant looked briefly at the papers I handed him. "These things change all the time. This case was overturned." he declared authoritatively.
I told him I believed he was incorrect, this ruling is based upon a California Supreme Court decision and it was upheld just last year.
"No," he continued his bluff, "it was overturned. That's how we got rid of the veterans at the shopping centers."
I recalled seeing donation cans in front of the impoverished vets at a local shopping center, and ventured a guess that resounded the Sergeant's authoritative air: "The veterans were soliciting funds. We are distributing informationÄand unlike solicitation, political expression is protected by the Constitution of California."
Christine added: "Yes, we don't even want any money. We just want to educate people about unfair forfeiture laws."
The Sergeant offered to call the police lieutenant at the station. "Well, these things are always changing," he muttered as he dialed the station.
The lieutenant put the situation on hold while he contacted a city attorney. About 15 minutes later the sergeant relayed the final word: "Your analogy of the shopping center is correct, Ma'am. Just as you cannot conduct your political activity inside an individual store at the mall, you are not allowed inside the auction itself." However, he continued, we could continue distributing our political message at our chosen location by the auction entrance inside the parking lot.
Many people thanked us for the rather shocking information we distributed that day. Others told us they checked where the vehicle on which they bid came from, stating it was a school bus, or government surplus. Each of the participating activists had a most memorable and fulfilling experience. Subsequent editions of the auction yard's advertisement were modified so the "seized vehicles" label was no longer prominent. We recommend "auction action" as a great way to educate the public about the dangers of civil forfeiture. Just remember to comply with local regulations regarding your method of educating the public. Californians may have greater protection as to where we can distribute political information, but auction protests can be an effective political action anywhere.