Thursday, December 13, 2012

Tanks for the memories

If you ever needed proof that asset forfeiture laws need to be reformed, this item from the Montgomery County (Texas) Courier is all you need.

As a little background, state law allows local law enforcement agencies to seize property used to commit crimes as well as any property acquired through criminal activity. When the police seize property pursuant to the asset forfeiture statute the local district attorney files a civil suit naming the seized property as the defendant. The owner of the property must then decide whether or not to contest the taking of his or her property.

Since the suit is filed in civil court, the state must only prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the property was either the tool or fruit of criminal activity. More importantly, since it's a civil suit, the state gets to serve the property owner with discovery requests, including requests for admissions, in which the property owner must waive his right to remain silent to answer. And, since the district attorney is the plaintiff in the asset forfeiture case, whatever evidence is obtained through discovery is in the hands of the person prosecuting the property owner in criminal court.

Now, one might be able to show how the purchase of a car had nothing to do with criminal activity - but just try proving that wad of cash in your pocket, or in the console, was obtained legitimately. It's damn near impossible.

For those reasons, most asset forfeiture cases either result in a default judgment against the property owner or in a settlement in which the property owner receives pennies on the dollar for his property that was seized. The proceeds of the case then go into a secret slush fund to the law enforcement agency for whatever use is deemed appropriate (or can't be questioned).

Up in Conroe, the local police department has over $400,000 in its slush fund asset forfeiture funds just burning a hole in someone's pocket. The editors of the local right-wing rag are beside themselves with joy that the Police Chief decided to use the money to buy a $170,000 tank to prevent a Benghazi-style attack in the town about 45 miles north of Houston.

No, I'm not making that up. You know those terrorists over in the Middle East have been eying suburban and exurban towns in the United States to launch their next attacks. Today it's Conroe, tomorrow it could be Willis or New Caney or Magnolia or Cut-n-Shoot (not making that up, either). There's nothing like a phantom terror threat to make a small town feel awfully important. There's also nothing like a phantom terror threat to use as an excuse to trample on our right of privacy.

What would a modern police department be without a military-style armored vehicle? Could you really call yourself a big-time police chief if you couldn't get your picture taken sitting inside a freaking tank?

And, if you buy the damn thing, you've got to use it. What good is a tank doing if it's sitting in the shed behind the city jail? Taxpayers would be up in arms if it wasn't being utilized by the paramilitary forces police. It won't be long until the tank is loaded up to serve a warrant on the small time dope dealer who's growing pot in the spare bedroom.

I don't know where to begin with the problems in all of this. We can talk about the ways in which asset forfeiture laws encourage lawless (and illegal) behavior in police officers. We can talk about secret slush funds that allow the police to act unencumbered by our elected representatives (just ask the former Montgomery County District Attorney how that turned out). We can talk about how those laws abet the state in seizing property while depriving the owner of due process. And why are these funds left to the discretion of the police? Why aren't they considered public funds that go into the city or county's general revenue fund?

Or we can talk about the increasing militarization of the police. As police departments begin to resemble paramilitary outfits, officers take on more of an us-against-them mentality.  It makes it easier for the police to act without first thinking about the consequences of their actions. It makes our streets look more like the streets of cities in Third World military dictatorships.

The city of Conroe doesn't need a tank for its police department. The editors of the local paper are a sorry bunch of jock-sniffers cheering on the right-wing party line of limiting the ability of government to assist those who need help while strengthening its ability to trample all over our right to be left alone. Both the tank and the method by which the police acquired it are threats to the very existence of our democracy.

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