I get that being a cop is difficult, for all kinds of reasons. One is that we don’t pay them, select them, or supervise them all that well. Also, the culture of many law enforcement agencies has some problems that new recruits have to adjust to – the blue code of silence or whatever it’s called. Clearly, there are a lot of trashy people in a country of over 300,000,000, and cops are on the front lines in dealing with them. So, I do think we should have police, but like most agencies – from schools to government to courts – the institution should be improved, amended, and altered. Social justice and civil liberties are two aspirational goals America was founded on (well, that is arguable).
That’s progressivism in a nutshell. Though I find police militarization to be highly questionable, and killings of unarmed black men unequivocally immoral, I want to broach the topic of civil forfeiture. It’s basically abused, and a lot of people are having their liberty violated. And guess what – almost everyone agrees!
I have known about this for a while, but am just now reading about it in The Week, a tidy little news digest I think I can recommend to you. The article was very well-written, concise, and informative, but I couldn’t find it online (I read the paper version). I did find a big report on the weighty Institute for Justice‘s website. It’s entitled “Policing for Profit.” So, essentially, there is this thing in America called “civil forfeiture.” It refers to “a controversial legal process that enables law-enforcement officials to seize cash, cars, property, and other assets from people who are merely suspected of criminal activity” (The Week). We are thus talking about social justice and civil liberties violations.
Yes, you read that right – suspected criminal activity. The person who owns a car, for example, doesn’t even have to be arrested – let alone proven guilty. It’s basically if the officer feels it’s warranted. I hate to break this to some of you, but sometimes police officers are not the most trustworthy of individuals. I’m not sure if it is a hiring problem (on the agency’s part), or a function of low pay/long hours/difficult job/quasi-corrupt and overly-political bureaucracy, or a “self-selection bias” on the part of the applicants – guys who, as the phrase goes, want to “crack some skulls” and be paid (and typically, immune from liability). High school assholes, basically; the jock who bullied you, for example. The people who are supposed to be respecting our civil liberties sometimes – rarely, but to great effect –do not.
In a word: these agents of the State might not be trustworthy enough to make these kinds of calls. Especially if their bosses are impressed because – get this – the department in question often gets to liquidate the property and keep the proceeds! So this is really screwy. It’s almost too bad to be true. Guess who is on the record in favor of this? You guessed it, A.G. Jeff Sessions. Taking a cue from the possibly-even-less-reputable John Ashcroft (under Bush Jr.), he seems to be pulling to the right harder than a vehicle who hit a median at 50 m.p.h. He said forfeiture is justified in 95% of cases because most property is seized from citizens who have “done nothing in their lives but sell dope.” Yikes. Is this true? Probably, no: “abuses in the system are well-documented” (The Week). Often there is no reprieve or compensation. You’re just fucked. If you want to read about a scandalous example, type “Barry Washington, Tenaha Texas, civil forfeiture” and get ready for a forehead smack.
“State and local officials have seized $2.5 billion from 62,000 people without warrants or indictments from 2001 to 2014, the Washington Post found” (The Week). Holy cow! How about at the federal level – you know, the guys who are relied upon to bring civil rights violation cases to miscreant municipalities who can’t control the officers’ malevolent acts? “Annual deposits into the Justice Department’s fund grew from $93.7 million in 1986 to about $1 billion in 2007, and up to $4.5 billion in 2014” (The Week). Wow, J. Edgar Hoover just muttered “God damn, them boys are good!” from beyond the grave. This is a civil liberties outrage.
This is very disturbing. How can I substantiate that claim? Isn’t government above reproach? Don’t we have to respect the “boys in blue” and the decisions they make? Isn’t it true you “can’t fight City Hall?” I would answer no; this is a horribly abused law that needs to be curtailed big-time. Social justice and civil liberties are on the line, so it is important.
It is ironic that this country was founded on what must have been the most full-throated call for liberty and justice in the history of nation-formation, and yet we have come so far afield.
Interestingly (ironically?), even James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) the Cretan who put together the USA PATRIOT Act sees the light. Clarence Thomas agrees, in this Atlantic Monthly article. When those two AND the ACLU agree on something, it’s a highly-triangulated political reality. Brad Cates, who is formerly a part of the largely-liable Justice Department, notes that the practice “is unconscionable” and should be uncreated. “This is not something isolated which happens to drug kingpins and mafiosos; it is happening to everyday people in every state across the country,” Dick Carpenter from IJ believes.
This Frankenstein of a law is a bit like the issues with incarceration in America in that except for much of the Trump Administration (such as the poster boy for backwardness, Jeff Sessions) – it is relatively clear to justice-minded representatives in Congress and civil libertarians from Washington to Florida that this is egregious and that freedom and constitutional rights must prevail against what is demonstrably a bad idea. Government overreach? Sure seems like it. It raises the questions of how it came about in the first place, what it means about the local, state, and federal government in the United States, and whether or not we have come too far afield since the late 18th century. Any law which began in response to pirates is potentially egregiously outdated!
I suppose if one were to take a video of ten criminal suspects, show their trials, and document the forfeiture of their Dodge Chargers and their nice houses, it would seem like a good idea. Who wants to see some street urchin rollin’ hard in a car that was purchased in cash from money his youthful street operatives made for him selling his drugs? Unfortunately, in the hands of street cops who only need to suspect that property is ill-gotten, it morphs very easily into a nasty type of vengefulness and tangible racism. I could see maybe property that is without a doubt procured by criminal activity (e.g., white collar crime) once a person has been completely adjudicated should be forfeited. But never under any conditions to the agency which “made the bust” – it is obviously too enticing for acquisitive police chiefs to be entrusted with. Innocent until proven guilty, one of our most sacrosanct legal principles, should apply to the seizing of personal property for sure. To require a less rigorous standard just invites corruption. Though the provision of a public defender for indigent individuals is something we can be proud of in America, as well as the protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights; civil forfeiture is an abomination.
Though the angle I took in this essay has near-universal appeal, let me completely nail the lid on the coffin of this criminal law zombie “with a little help from my friends!”:
“From the term ‘enemy combatant’ you wouldn’t know that Padilla was actually an American citizen. I wonder if the American public would have been more outraged about this if, instead of ‘Jose Padilla,’ his name had been ‘Bucky Smith’”
“Among all willing injustices, most occur out of greed and ambition”
“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest”
“One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not yet fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice; they are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this nation, for all its hopes will not be fully free until all its citizens are free”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”The only time an unjust man will scream against injustice is when he is afraid someone will practice it on him.” It only takes the majority to look the other way in the face of curtailed liberty, such as this, for those in power to violate constitutional rights for the minority of us.
“A concern for justice…and the capacity for moral indignation in the face of injustice…inspires us to work as citizens to build a more just society and world”
“The problem with capitalism is that it best rewards the worst part of us: the ruthless, competitive, cunning, opportunistic, acquisitive drives, giving little reward and often much punishment – or at least much handicap – to honesty, compassion, fair play, many forms of hard work, love of justice, and a concern for those in need”
I received a response from a friend, and we dialogued about this topic. I made a new blog about it, available here.
What follows are quotations on social justice and civil liberties, liberty, justice, freedom and rights that we ought not to forget. Look up quotes by keyword in The Wisdom Archive if you want to find out about more examples of what our forebears said that are enlightening and inspirational representations of proper, defensible, American values.
“What is the value of security if freedoms within it are subject to the government’s unchecked will? What freedoms are we defending if, in the name of freedom the government can take them away because of a person’s appearance or nationality? Who will decide—and under what standards—whose freedom stays and whose freedom goes?”
“Become a dedicated fighter for civil rights. Make it a central part of your life. It will make you a better doctor, a better lawyer, a better teacher. It will enrich your spirit as nothing else possibly can. It will give you that rare sense of nobility that can only spring from love and selflessly helping your fellow man. Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for human rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.”
“The USA Patriot Act is the most massive violation of civil liberties in our history.”
“When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.”
“No citizen is so obscure that it is not very dangerous to allow him to be oppressed; no private rights are so unimportant that they can be surrendered with impunity to the caprices of a government.”
“Some of the worst violations of civil liberties [in the wake of 9/11] have happened without the input or authorization of Congress or the American public. In fact, it often happened with the discussion and the approval of a small number of men in the Executive Branch [of the United States federal government].”
“The attempt to define precisely the parameters of civil liberties and civil rights is the attempt to spell out the specifics of the social contract. What rights must individuals give up in order for the government to function for the common good? What activities must the government forego because they limit unreasonably the inherent freedom of individual citizens?”
“George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and John Ashcroft are testing the American people as to whether violations of the U.S. Constitution by the executive branch of government are to be viewed as mere technicalities or a growing threat to the fabric of liberty, privacy, due process, and fair trials in our country.”
“My heroes are the people who fought for civil rights in Mississippi in the 1930s and 1940s – when the struggle that laid the groundwork for what came later was undertaken by individuals whose names few now remember. That was when the real work was done.”
“Both conservatives and progressives feel that America is under grave threat, not from without, but within. The question is, Who is more dangerous to our liberty, character, future, and morals – gays, the poor, and unionists? Or Moral Majoritarians, civil rights magicians, or corporatists?”
“If one wishes to advocate a free society – that is, capitalism – one must realize that its indispensable foundation is the principle of individual rights.”
“Many twentieth-century undemocratic states, from the Third Reich to the Central African Empire, have had citizens who gave their governments too much rather than too little allegiance. The United States, on the other hand, has been blessed with dissenters. Some of these dissenters have had to flee the country.”
“Even though the crime rate has dropped in recent years, the United States has more police per capita than any other nation in the world.”
“You couldn’t have predicted in 1775 that there was going to be an American Revolution, it would have been impossible to have predicted it. But there was. You couldn’t have predicted in 1954 that there was going to be a Civil Rights Movement. You couldn’t have predicted in 1987 that there was going to be an uprising on the West Bank …nobody understands how change happens.”
“In framing a government which is to be administered by people over other people, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
“The ‘war on terror’ is being used to create an atmosphere of hysteria, in which the claim of “national security” becomes an excuse to throw aside the guarantees of the Bill of Rights and to give new powers to the FBI.”
“For black, brown, and poor America, Reaganism meant an escalation of racism and white prejudice, a retreat from the enforcement of civil rights laws, an aggressive assault to undermine labor unions and the right to strike, and an extreme consolidation of wealth and property in the hands of a privileged few at the cost of increased poverty for the many.”
“A nation with no expression of dissent is a nation in ruins.”
“No government, of its own motion, will increase its own weakness, for that would mean to acquiesce in its own destruction…governments, whatever their pretensions otherwise, try to preserve themselves by holding the individual down….”
“Because of the civil rights movement, we became a country where a majority of people really embrace the idea of equality as an American ideal. It’s seen as un-American to be discriminatory or racist. That’s a major achievement, despite the fact that we still have inequality.”
“How many times must one endure a 3 a.m. knock on the door from a governmental ‘authority’ lacking a search warrant before realizing that our lives should not be open to government inspection on demand?”
“Is it not possible that an individual may be right and the government wrong? Are laws to be enforced simply because they are made, or declared by any number of men to be good if they are not good?”
“Fear is the State’s psychological weapon of choice to frighten citizens into sacrificing their basic freedoms and rule-of-law protections in exchange for the security promised by their all-powerful government.”
Again, more quotes about social justice and civil liberties, the rule of law, Constitutional protections, civil society, and libertarianism available for free in The Wisdom Archive.