by Leon Felkins
Last January, NBC's Dateline aired a story about Louisiana's experiment with "Direct Taxation" of travelers of Interstate 10, which are mostly drug runners (as the cops see it) but may include a few tourists. By Direct Taxation I am referring to that form of taxation that has become increasingly popular in the last few years in which private property is directly seized from the citizens without the usual burdensome legal process. The seizing of property has become a significant portion of the economic support of various government agencies, particularly at the state level.
While I missed that episode of Dateline, fortunately for me and annoyingly to the politicians of Louisiana, they ran the episode again on August 22, 1997, which is where much of the material in this report comes from (see References below). For a short online report, click check out this essay.
The show starts off with Stone Phillips, one of the more tolerable of the TV Talking Heads, providing this disturbing introduction:
"Imagine a place where Police stop you in your car for no apparent reason and interrogate you. They may seize your property, your money, your car, strip search you and throw you in jail. And you've done nothing wrong. If this sounds like a foreign dictatorship or some Orwellian nightmare, it's not. It's happened right here in America." (Well Stone, you need to get out more often. Actually, when I heard this introduction, the first place I thought of was the USA, where this practice has become a routine practice since the start of the "Drug War" hustle.)
The show goes on with John Larson, NBC reporter, recounting how the Louisiana police routinely stop cars on Interstate 10 (mostly those going west based on the theory that while the drugs go east, the money goes west and catching drug runners is not really all that much fun!). The activity is best illustrated by the event in which Ms. Cheryl Sanders is introduced to the practice:
LARSON: (Voiceover) Cheryl Sanders was on her way to California to visit her mother for Christmas when police stopped her on Interstate 10, claiming she was speeding and had failed to use her turn signal -- what they called improper lane usage. But instead of giving her a traffic ticket, police from the town of Sulfur, Louisiana, took her to jail and made her disrobe.
Ms. SANDERS: I'm standing there naked and she goes through my clothes and checks them all.
LARSON: (Voiceover) Police accused her of being a drug trafficker and ordered her strip searched.
Ms. SANDERS: And for what exactly, for what? For something -- because they wanted my car.
LARSON: (Voiceover) Her car was a white Lincoln Towncar -- all Sanders says she had left from her recent divorce. But citing Louisiana's tough drug forfeiture law, police seized it. The only odd thing is, there were no drugs on Cheryl, no drugs in the car.
Ms. SANDERS: Then they said, 'Well, you're free to go now, but we're keeping your car and find your own way home from Louisiana.'
Mr. TOM LORENZI (Attorney): I never believed that we would get to this point.
LARSON: (Voiceover) Tom Lorenzi is a lawyer who defends many of the people the police pull over.
Mr. LORENZI: The people have this belief that before the state can do something to you it has to prove that you committed a crime, but under the forfeiture law, that's not the case.
LARSON: It's innocent until proven guilty?
Mr. LORENZI: No, it's guilty until proven innocent. What happens now is, without ever having to prove anything, they can take it. Now, it's up to you to come and get it.
LARSON: They don't have to prove anything?
Mr. LORENZI: They don't have to prove anything. They have to prove what they call probable cause. Well, probable cause is precious little, trust me.
LARSON: (Voiceover) In Cheryl's case, probable cause was what police claimed was a false bottom in the trunk of her car -- a small two and a half inch space that police say could have - could have - been used to conceal narcotics.
[Back to Ms. Sanders]
Ms. SANDERS: I've never been in trouble in my life.
LARSON: (Voiceover) There were no narcotics inside, not even a trace. Cheryl had purchased the car used, and says she never saw the compartment. Yet police accused her of a crime: conspiracy to possess over a pound of cocaine. In a court hearing a month later, police admitted they had no evidence.
[. . .]
LARSON: (Voiceover) Cheryl Sanders also decided to fight back. She had to post a bond equal to the value of her car - $7,500, just to begin the process of trying to get her own car back. She took a bus back to Louisiana and hired an attorney. Her legal battle took seven months.
But her fight had been so expensive, she had to sell the car to pay off her legal bills. The only transportation she has left is a bicycle.
(Sanders driving car; Sanders opening garage and walking to bicycle) .
Ms. SANDERS: I can't imagine that this still happens in America. I just can't imagine it.
(While the state couldn't come up with any evidence to prove that Ms. Sanders (or her car) had did anything wrong, it still cost her $4,000 to get her car back.)
Other segments of the show are particularly illuminating in how politicians and police feel about this disgusting activity. Some quotes:
Sheriff EDWARDS: We're not here to violate anybody's constitutional rights. We're -- we are waging a war on drugs.
When Louisiana Governor Mike Foster was asked if he saw nothing wrong with the judges' getting 20 percent of the seized loot, he replied,
Gov. FOSTER: Well, unfortunately or fortunately, in this country, we have to assume that we have an honest judiciary, so I don't see anything wrong with that...You get back to whether you have any -- any trust in the integrity of the law enforcement and the judicial system of the state. I do.
Forfeiture and Seizure has become an increasingly popular activity of the "law enforcement" agencies of both federal and state governments. It has the very lucrative (for the state) characteristic in that the police can take your property with little legal justification or process and it is your problem and your expense to get it back. Published articles on this activity state that typically 80 percent of the cases never go to court -- which is a great savings to the state (and you, the taxpayer!).
Quite simple. When the state takes your possessions or money, to get it back, you have to file suit. This can be very expensive, often more expensive than the value of what may have been stolen from you. It would be irrational for you to spend $15,000 in legal fees to get a $10,000 automobile back. Not only that, just challenging the state can result in your ass being thrown in jail -- in the case of Ms. Bryant who resisted arrest from a policeman in plain clothes in an unmarked car!
Technically, they are not violating the Constitution. Ancient British laws allowed the prosecution of animals and objects that somehow harmed a human. When the Drug War started, some clever federal lawmakers took advantage of this obscure legal precedent and pasted it into our law books. The states quickly followed suit. That is why the title of a typical suit processed under this law looks like, "United States v. $814,254.76".
So, it is your auto, or your boat, or your vacation getaway that is being prosecuted -- not you. This has some really lucrative possibilities for the government. Since they no longer have to worry about whether you have done something wrong but only whether the property was involved in an illegal act, they can take your $50,000 sports car because one of their dogs alleges that it smelled cocaine in the trunk, possibly left by the previous owner. If necessary, and if they are really salivating over the possibility of plucking your sexy sports car away from you, they might even resort to planting a little evidence! "But they do it too!"
God forbid -- for that means work, a lot of work. It means preparing cases, spending long days in courts, huge court expenses, etc. But wait -- there's a way around it! It is called the Plea Bargain! With the plea bargain scam, hard work can be avoided, there's little expense, the loot can be taken, and the druggy can be let free to go and accumulate, again, quantities of loot for further takings. See a specific case provided by the Dateline episode. (IMHO, plea bargaining is one of the worst activities of our criminal justice system. It invites corruption, injustice, and sloppy police work. Combine plea bargaining with anonymous tips and asset forfeiture and you have a recipe for lazy and corrupt law enforcement. Have you noticed that in the recent major crimes -- the Atlanta Olympic Park bombing, for example -- the investigators are totally incompetent?)
Let's say you are one cool cat on your way from Florida to Texas, to close on a big business deal, in your white convertible classic Thunderbird and you are pulled over by the local sheriff of Lost Swamp Parish, Louisiana. Your Mexican ancestry and the fact that you have $5,432.27 on you makes you look mighty suspicious. Based on this overwhelming evidence, the police detain you in jail for a few days (for resisting arrest -- its easy) and tear your car to pieces, destroying the leather seats completely, looking for drugs and loot. Nothing is found. What then? Do they repair your car? Do they reimburse you for the lost business deal that would have rewarded you with $40,000 profit? Do they pay your medical bills for the nasty bug you caught while in jail? You dreamer you. Of course not. That is the cost of living in a democracy. In some third world countries, the abuse is even worse. Get over it.
Some legislatures, including Louisiana, are working on legislation to correct this problem. Don't hold your breath. And don't expect the Supreme Court to help you. So far, they have supported the constitutional abusers. Take a look at the famous case of Mrs. Bennis who felt that it was a bit unreasonable for the cops to seize her auto because her husband made it with a prostitute in the car -- without Mrs. Bennis' approval or knowledge!
In the old days, laws usually had very specific language. For example, Mose's god said "Thou shall not kill". He didn't say, "You should never kill unless you had a crappy youth or you are temporarily a little loony or you don't know what you are doing or you did but now you are very sorry". In fact, the purpose of many laws was to eliminate vagueness. The lawmakers avoided passing laws that said things like "you shall not partake of the sexual pleasures of a girl if she is too young". Instead the laws said things like, "You shall not make whoopy with a female human being if she is 16 years old or less". Now she could be 19 and never been off the farm and it is ok or she could be 15.95 years old and worked in a whore house for the last 7 years and it is verboten! But in recent times, the legislatures have realized it is much more fun and profitable to make laws that are vague. A good example is the Decency Act passed to stop the filth on the internet which forbade "indecent" material on the internet. They didn't bother to define indecent of course. Such vague terms in the law give billions of dollars of work to judges, prosecutors, lawyers and others of that ilk.
One of the most fertile applications of vagueness in the law are the drug laws. Based on these laws police can arrest and prosecute citizens based on "profiles", "reckless driving", "resisting arrest", "belligerence", "probable cause", "reasonable suspicion", "cocaine tainted money", etc.
The ex-governor of Louisiana, Edwin Edwards, is getting a taste of the Seizure laws, which, I suspect, were initiated during his rein. The federal government has taken $468,000 in CASH from the ex-governor's home without filing any formal charges. Har Har Har!
In Part Two of this report I will discuss how the Louisiana government -- bothered by the impact this thuggery might have on the tourist industry (but not about government abuse!) -- went through excruciating pain to try to reform its ways -- and failed.
Appendix: More Examples From the Dateline Episode.
Dateline, NBC News, August 22, 1997. Transcripts of the Dateline series can be obtained by sending $7.00 to Burrelle's Transcripts, Box 7, Livingston, NJ 07039. They also have some video copies of some programs.
The Baton Rouge Advocate published a series of essays on the Dateline story and subsequent maneuverings of the Louisiana politicians. Contact them for copies (there is a small cost).
More of Leon Felkins' essays may be found on his home page, A Rational Life.