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Seizures (not the epileptic kind)

by Charles Platt

I have no formal legal training, but emigrated from the UK to the US partly because I liked the First Amendment. The wisdom of my decision was affirmed when an erotic novel that I had written in 1969 was seized, in Britain, by the Director of Public Prosecutions, and the publisher was jailed for three months. That kind of thing tends to stick in one’s memory. Subsequently, I wrote a nonfiction book titled Anarchy Online, examining and defending every type of internet freedom. These days, I am more interested in writing educational material for young people, such as a recent introductory book on electronics.

So that’s who I am. In my first post I want to talk about asset forfeiture, which has little to do with the core issue of free speech, but which I feel is a growing threat to my general sense of personal liberty.

A couple of weeks ago, where I live in Arizona, my neighbor’s car was seized and towed after a random stop and blood-alcohol test. He tested below the legal limit, but they towed the car anyway, on the principle that any trace at all is evidence of possible impairment. Ultimately he was not charged with anything, but he had to find a ride home (15 miles) in the middle of the night, and had to retrieve the car and pay the towing costs the next day. He is a polite, well-spoken, white-haired retiree.

Here’s another sample. An Arizona resident was unaware that his license had been suspended as a result of procedural errors involving a speeding ticket in another state. When Arizona police discovered his suspended status during a traffic stop, they ignored his protestations and attempts to demonstrate his innocence, took away his truck, and abandoned him on foot in a not-so-good neighborhood. Subsequently he had difficulty retrieving his vehicle.

Cases like these are the reason I no longer drink anything at all if I’m going to drive, and log on to the Arizona DMV web site every few months to check the status of my own license. In other words, I now feel impelled to make sure that the police will have no ready excuse to take my property. This doesn’t quite seem consistent with the Fourth Amendment.

Of course, if drugs are involved, it’s much worse. I live close to Interstate 40, which is supposedly a major drug-running corridor. According to our local newspaper, when a drug-sniffing dog indicated narcotic residues in a car that had been pulled over, a search revealed that the driver was carrying about $100,000 in cash. This of course is a “suspicious sum,” so the police seized it. No drugs were actually found, so the driver was allowed to continue on his way, with no charges against him. Meanwhile, Arizona law, his money was retained by the police department, and if he wants it back, he’ll have to prove that he earned it legally.

Your state may be less corrupt than mine, regarding forfeiture–or may be worse. The Institute for Justice has issued a comparative survey titled “Policing for Profit,” which you can download here.

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