More Insane Property Seizures

Radley Balko links to this article about a prosecutor who seized 3 cars from the parents of a guy caught trying to buy oxycontin. Not a dealer, not a distributor (they never even charged him with either), just a user; and they seized his parents' vehicles. They were kind enough to tell the parents that they could buy the cars back if they wanted to. This is crazy. And you know why no legislator will try and do anything about it? Because they don't want to face all those commercials you're seeing right now, those stupid, distorted campaign commercials. They don't want to face a commercial in the next election that says "Candidate So and So actually sponsored a bill to let drug dealers keep the profits from their illicit trade", when the truth is "Candidate So and So tried to protect the property rights of innocent people."

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The sad thing is that most people don't have sympathy for these victims since they are a minority and can easily be blamed for their misfortunes. So a politician literally is in a no-win situation in terms of protecting their rights... unless you consider doing what's right to be a win, but politicians clearly don't think that way.

The problem, as I see it, is that junior did use the family's cars in his multiple efforts to obtain a controlled substance. There are some problems with the argument that he had the parents cars and they weren't aware of his activities. For one thing it gives the perfect loophole for people intentionally trying to avoid losing their property in the commission of a drug related crime. They simply borrow someone else's, or have everything titled in someone else's name ... no problems.

That's not to say that I agree with this case. If the DA thought it was appropriate for a "non admission of guilt" settlement agreement/plea bargain, then the seized vehicles should be included in that agreement. It seems pretty logical that if there was no admission of guilt and that effectively the charges were dropped, then there is no legal reason to keep the seized vehicles.

By dogmeatIB (not verified) on 04 Nov 2006 #permalink

This property seizure business is absolutely outrageous. I think Ed is right, effecting legislative change is going to be difficult, but are there legal avenues to preven this sort of activity? I don't know much about law, but couldn't the parents in this case sue to get their property back, possibly get a higher court ruling on the unconstitutionality of such seizures?

By Wittgenstein (not verified) on 04 Nov 2006 #permalink

dogmeatIB:

I disagree that it sets up a possible loophole because I don't think the government ever has the right to randomly steal property from people. In your scenario the criminal would go to jail, their not getting away with their crime.

I think the penalty for breaking the law is jail time and/or fines. The government can't arbitrarily pillage a criminal's property.

Matthew,

I think you misunderstand my point. This part of the law is, I believe, designed to penalize drug dealers who use the financial gain from dealing drugs to purchase cars, houses, etc. Yes, perhaps the provision is worded overly broadly, but the reasoning is sound. These "people" sell illegal substances to people, often employing some pretty nasty tactics to get them addicted to their "product." They take the money from this illegal activity and purchase properties that are usually involved in the criminal activity.

If the provision were reworded, or eliminated, what you would have is a situation where, yes, they go to jail, but they get to keep property obtained with illegal monies. For most of them jail is simply part of doing business, the money and property is what they care about. The loophole that would be created is simple. If I were a drug dealer, I'd simply register everything in my wife's name, mother's name, great aunt Tilly, whatever. Then I'm busted with 50 kilos in my house, processing it for individual sale and distribution, everything is seized ... but oh, no, you can't do that, poor old aunt Tilly was just giving her rotten nephew a chance to get clean. She was renting the property to me and letting me use her cars while I got back on my feet ... I've had some problems with the law you know ... .

THAT is the loophole that can be created. Also, I'm sorry, but far too many Americans have a tendency to not put a lot of thought, time, effort, into what their kids are doing. I hear it quite regularly, "I have no control over him/her." You have no control over your 16 or 17 year old kid? Sure you do, YOU own the car, YOU take the keys to said car ... at that point they're pretty well controlled when it comes to your property. I'm sorry, but there are ways to figure out if your son/daughter may be using drugs. If you believe that might be the case, talk to them, if you don't like the answers/evasion you're getting, take steps to modify their actions ... perhaps limiting their access to the car, perhaps reducing the amount of time they have to go out and "hang out." I'm sorry, but the "I didn't know," defense for parents is a crock of shyte.

Again, I think the specifics for this one, with the no fault plea bargain should lead to them having their property returned, but the idea that seizure of property used in the commission of a crime is inappropriate is foolish.

By dogmeatIB (not verified) on 04 Nov 2006 #permalink

dogmeat-

But this isn't a drug dealer using ill-gotten profits to buy a car. It's a guy who was charged with nothing but conspiracy to possess. That's a very different situation.

Dogmeat et al: The problem is with the seizure laws themselves.

In the scenario you sketch out, there is no difficulty. As part of the criminal action, the state alleges that the items were purchased with tainted money and shows the connection. End of story, the title name is irrelevant. Even if it is titled in the name of a church, since it is related to the tainted money, it can be seized. This requires the police to do a lot of work, establish a paper trail, etc.

That is not the case here, or with the vast majority of "conspiracy" seizures today. These are not criminal actions, so the fact that the case was diverted from criminal resolution does not matter. Rather, it is a civil action against the property itself, not an action against a criminal. Since it is civil, there is a much lower standard of proof, and much less work for the police: All they have to show is some relationship between the property and a purported crime -- or even the conspiracy to commit a crime, as is normally charged. No actual crime need be committed.

Since the property is in the state's hands, it is essentially up to the owner to prove the connection (or lack thereof). This is a travesty of justice, especially where third party property is involved, such as rental cars or boats.

My sister and her family rent out a boat in the Caribbean. As I understand it, their rental contract says the boat cannot enter US waters unless they are personally onboard, because the insurance bill goes through the roof if the boat is ever subject to US seizure law. Yet another way we make the world love us.

The right way to prevent criminals from keeping ill-gotten gains after a conviction is to require that they pay restitution to victims. If there aren't any victims, then the crime probably shouldn't be one.

I understand what you are saying dogmeatIB, I just don't agree that jail time is "part of doing business" and not a real penalty for the crime. I don't think the government has the right to go looting even if the people they are stealing from are "bad guys". When someone is convicted of insider trading we don't drag their families out of their homes and auction them off. Nor should we here.

dogmeat & Matthew -

I think you should find some middle ground - but that's just me. Let me preface this - I believe in decriminalizzing drugs, which is the big seizure issue. Their are other seizure crimes but the primary source of seizures are drug crimes.

The major problem here is that law enforcement can seize property without a conviction. That is absolutely un-acceptable. The secondary problem of the seizure of property not owned by the protagonist. This can be solved by putting the burden of proof on the state to prove that the property to be seized, belongs to the protagonist.

The logic behind seizing the property of criminals, bought through the profits from their crimes, not only makes sense, it is an important deterent to such crime. But the unbelievable abuse of this system is insane. To allow the situation described in Ed's post is nuts, this is not even a damned drug dealer - he's a user. This is quite clearly, the state extorting money from this man's family.

I have been against the seizure laws in this country for many years now, they are simply a license for the state to steal from it's citizenry. But to say we should just eliminate the system altogether is also ridiculous - that is tantamount to saying; "do your time and your profits will be waiting for you. Smart criminals make sure that they will have some financial security regardless of the seizure laws, but for most offenders it hits them where it hurts - sa it should. Doing away with seizures all together is stupid. Letting them continue the way they are is criminal. Changing them so they make sense is the only legitemate solution.

Seriously though, all three of the family's cars? Because their 19 year old son tried to BUY drugs. He isn't a dealer, its a first time offense and the family loses all of their cars? Bullshit! Why not their house, I mean he was probably going to use the drugs in the house, and certainly thought up the idea to buy drugs in the house. How about the clothes off of his back, he wore those when he tried to buy the drugs right?

A middle ground would be to fine the offender an appropriate amount to what the offender gained. These costs should then be applied to the costs of the conviction, and applied to the victims. If the family or the offender can pay it all then fine, otherwise start selling stuff to the state, like cars and houses. This is of course after a conviction has been made.

Ed, As I said, in this specific case the cars should be returned. If what Kehrsam said regarding the transition into civil court, etc., is also correct, then I agree, the government is going too far.

My point is simply that the argument against seizing property used in the commission of a crime is a weak one and the argument that you didn't know what someone was going to do with your property to avoid that penalty is also, at best, questionable.

As for legalization of drugs, I would agree to partial legalization, Marijuana, in a regulated and controlled format, but some of the drugs, crystal meth, heroin, crack, are so extremely destructive that I can't see legalizing them.

By dogmeatIB (not verified) on 04 Nov 2006 #permalink

Also Ed, he pled to conspiracy, it doesn't say what the original charges were. Still not saying that taking the cars in this case is legit, just the overall basis.

By dogmeatIB (not verified) on 04 Nov 2006 #permalink

To avoid the ads about "letting drug dealers keep their profits," run a counter ad about the governments abuse of condemnations and seizures.

Think about it: The case in Connecticut is extremely unpopular, and people are scrambling to ban condemnations in their states (stupidly, but that's another matter). Is seizing a car much different?

Oh, and can you imagine how many middle America voters have kids over the age of 21 who might be using drugs? This seizure tool now threatens most Americans with children over the age of 18. Should granny get her house seized because junior does a line of cocaine?

Now, ask granny who she's going to vote for.

A little free legal advice: When charged with conspiracy, always go to trial, unless you know that someone has already copped a plea. The government never wants to put their informants on the stand, for fairly obvious reasons. Charges get dropped prior to trial 80+ percent of the time. For some reason Public Defenders don't follow this rule. You are warned.

This still doesn't stop them from seizing your car. Better the car than the corpus.

Dogmeat said -
As for legalization of drugs, I would agree to partial legalization, Marijuana, in a regulated and controlled format, but some of the drugs, crystal meth, heroin, crack, are so extremely destructive that I can't see legalizing them.

The vast destructive nature of the substance does not mitigate the fact that people make a choice to do them. Other than the user, nearly everyone victimized by illicit drugs are victimized because they are illegal. I see that as a reason to legalize them and regulate them. Make certain that people who choose to use them knows that they are likely to fuck up their life doing so and let them do it. But lets keep everyone else out of it - the best way to do that is to legalize them. Save the tax payers a lot by ending the "drug war" and make money for the state by taxing them heavily.

Something that no one has mentioned is the double standard in our nation when it comes to drug use. As mentioned, the son was purchasing oxycontin which is a legal drug. It happens that this person was most likely not using it in a legal manner, but the fact remains that it is a drug that is produced and sold legally, and a large share of the production is being used illegaly.

Given the uses to which oxycontin is put, how is this particular drug any different from heroin? I've never been a fan of this type of drug, though I've known plenty of people who enjoyed taking oxycontin and a few who sometimes used heroin. The main difference that I've heard of between the two is that with oxycontin, you know exactly what you are getting in terms of dosage.

No amount of a sham war on drugs has done anything to slow down the use of any and all intoxicating substances. We can demean people who use drugs for whatever reason we assume, weakness, stupidity, or perhaps we can admit that there are many reasons which are always personal to the individual. All the money spent on the war on drugs would be better spent on honestly studying drugs and drug use.

Finally, legalization of drugs will not lead to a horror story of people becoming newly addicted and going crazy in a Reefer Madness style orgy. Relegallizing alcohol certainly didn't do this, not that that prohibition worked any better than prohibition ever does. It may be true that drugs do have a fairly detrimental effect, but drug use does not inherently lead to addiction and death sandwiching all sorts of crimes against humanity.