On the Other Hand...

Forfeit: Law and Order

by Jim Davies

Just occasionally, CBS does something right; and since I so often criticize the media in this column, it's only fair to point it out when it happens.

Twice, now - the second time on August 8th - Steve Kroft of their "60 Minutes" program has presented an outstanding segment on one of the most sinister actions of contemporary government: "civil asset forfeiture."

He took us to Nashville airport and told of how a businessman had bought a return ticket to Houston, with cash. Perhaps you recall what happened next.

First, the ticket clerk snitched on him to a pair of government agents, by a long-standing arrangement that Kroft indicated was still in force, all over the country. The Nazis were probably not the first government to pay citizens to spy on other citizens, but we now know they were certainly not the last; it's done also by those whom you elected.

The agents then approached and asked him questions; and alas, he was a person who trusted the government. Had he been from these parts and a regular reader of this column, he might have known better.

But he wasn't; he was just a nursery owner from Tennessee. And he answered their questions and allowed them to search him, and they found $9,000 cash on his person which he was going to spend at a nursery supply center in Houston.

So under the Laws that Congress passed in 1984 as part of its "War on Drugs", quote, the agents confiscated the $9,000 and walked away. Having found on the victim no trace of drugs, they had no evidence to charge him... but they kept the money, "arresting it" as Steve Kroft explained incredulously.

He further explained that under those "forfeiture" laws, the victim had to convince a court he was innocent, rather than have the government prove him guilty. So all we were taught about the presumption of innocence went out of the window when Congress (whom you elected) wrote its forfeiture Laws.

Just to make sure it could happen to the innocent, CBS had one of their own staff do just the same thing - buy a ticket with cash, at the same airport. And the DEA agents did to him exactly what they had earlier done to the nurseryman - right up to the point when he told them he was a "60 Minutes" producer, that is. Then, they backed right off in a big hurry!

Medieval

The businessman never did get his money back, and nor do thousands of other victims of DEA seizures get their property back, yet only a small minority of them are ever convicted of any crime. And this is America.

There's a very ancient precedent for "arresting" inanimate objects; the legal fiction was that if some thing caused an injury, it (the object) was to blame and could be seized. So if the boom of a sailing ship killed a sailor, the boom - or even the ship! - could be seized. As if inhabited by evil spirits.

That bit of medieval hocus-pocus is what Congress and its army of agents is depending on, when it wages its War on... private property, especially cash.

If cash or airplanes or trucks or limos seem as if they might have been used in the drug trade - if the owner can't easily prove otherwise - they are grabbed, as "guilty" objects, and sold at auction (CBS showed thousands of auction ads listed in the paper) and the proceeds handed to the DEA, with a commission paid the officers who made the seizure. If you can smell the scent of corruption here, join the club. And you might quite easily be their next victim.

Bill of Rights

Steve Kroft was shown interviewing a DEA Godfather, and asked whether this was not just an end-run around the Bill of Rights. Answer: the Supreme Court has declared that forfeiture laws are not unconstitutional.

That's about as far as CBS went, but here we're going a vital step further. We're going to the text of the Law itself; and so can you.

Read the Constitution from end to end, and there are two things you'll not discover: (1) any reference to forfeiture laws or cases and (2) any authority for the Supreme Court to "interpret" the Constitution or "approve" laws.

I hereby offer a $50 bill to any reader who finds any such reference, in care of this newspaper. And I know my money is safe.

What our Bill of Rights does say is that all trials (except civil ones involving less than $20) shall be by jury; that is, that juries shall decide all aspects of all cases including whether or not the relevant law is Constitutional; the jury is King.

And it lists for us TWO types of lawsuit, and only two, and "forfeiture" is not one of them. They are "criminal" (Am. VI) and "civil" (Am. VII). The idea that there can be a third type in which the presumption of innocence does not apply is an invention of the judges which does not have a shred of support in the text of the Nation's Supreme Law.

For good measure though, it does expressly forbid seizures, in Amendment IV, unless supported by a sworn "warrant... particularly describing the... things to be seized." So much for DEA fishing expeditions, like the one CBS reported.

So the judges who endorsed "forfeiture" without jury trial, and the government agents who practise it, are all operating illegally. That's the ugly conclusion that CBS could and should have drawn, but dared not. What's most of all forfeit to the government's hysterical "War on Drugs" is the Rule of Law itself.

© Copyright Jim Davies 1999

Jim Davies lives in New Hampshire,
and enjoys contemplating which way is up.

The above is Edition # 26

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