Radley Balko, who is doing yeoman's work at Reason magazine, posted this great piece on asset forfeiture today: http://reason.com/archives/2010/01/26/the-forfeiture-racket
So I thought I'd dust off the archives and rerun this piece of mine from 11 years ago this month:
David Stern must wish he had the kind of negotiating power wielded by the State Highway Patrol.
The commissioner watched as team owners in the National Basketball Association staged a six-month lockout to get contract concessions from NBA players.
But when the Highway Patrol wanted to squeeze some money from Los Angeles Laker Corie Blount, it simply seized a big bag of cash from his car.
Blount, a Columbus resident, was pulled over near Wilmington on Christmas Eve because the tint on his car windows was deemed too dark. The trooper who stopped him just happened to have a drug-sniffing dog along for the ride.
The dog found no drugs but did alert its handler to a bag filled with $19,000. (Where can I get one of these money-sniffing dogs?)
No charges were filed, but the money was turned over to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. A fine of $19,000 seems pretty stiff for a window-tint violation, but U.S. law permits authorities to confiscate cash pretty much at will these days.
If the cops decide they want a particular pile of money, they need only claim that it would probably have been used to buy drugs.
To get the money back, the (former) owner of the cash must take the cops to court to prove otherwise.
The police undoubtedly would intervene if citizens began seizing squad cars and returning them only when cops proved the vehicles were not being used for doughnut runs. But the rules applying to citizens do not apply to the authorities. (Maybe that's why we have so many authorities.)
Now Blount will have to sue to get back the money.
What was he doing with $19,000 in cash? That's none of your business. None of mine, either.
As Blount made $1.43 million last year, $19,000 represents less than a week's pay for him.
Blount said he got the cash from selling a car, but he shouldn't have to explain that to anyone - including the Highway Patrol and the DEA - unless charges are filed.
Citizens should have the right to drive cars filled with money (probably nickels in my case) around DEA headquarters, unimpeded, for hours on end if they so choose.
Those with the inclination should be allowed - if not encouraged - to fashion two-piece suits of $50 bills, with matching vests of $100s, and wear them as they ride the elevators at FBI headquarters.
A person's money should be his own, to do with what he will.
Authorities should be forced to prove that money is connected to a crime before taking it. But we are living in a time when basic rights are routinely sacrificed to the "War on Drugs," and the Bill of Rights no longer means what it appears to say.
All money is now the government's, whenever it wants to come get it.
If the proposed U.S. flag-burning amendment passes, it will likely become illegal even to light cigars with $20 bills, because they depict Old Glory atop the White House.
Blount probably won't miss his $19,000. But many other innocent citizens, less able to afford the loss and the high-priced attorneys needed for a court fight, have suffered from the same seizure laws.
How many basic rights will be seized before citizens demand their return?