So Wrong It Defies Belief: The Green Bay Police Heist

Maybe the public and the media are finally waking up to the astoundingly un-American abuse of power that are the  civil forfeiture laws,  which allow property and cash to be seized as helping to facilitate a crime, and later are divvied up between the police and the state. There are some promising signs. Libertarians like Radley Balko have been trying to ring the ethics alarms on this horrendous example of government misconduct for years, and the Institute for Justice continues its lonely battle to defeat the most egregious offenses, but George Will just used the trumpet of his weekly column to expose the Caswell family motel scandal, which Ethics Alarms discussed in February here. Now comes a tale of civil forfeiture from Wisconsin that is so brazen that it defies belief, and also compels the following question:

How can this happen  in America? Also this one: If the government will use its power to steal money and property from law-abiding citizens, and no effort is made on the part of national government leaders to do anything to stop it, how can at least 50% of the American public continue to advocate giving more power and money to a government that obviously cannot be trusted with either?

The first question is frightening in its implications.

The second is a mystery, on par with “What happened to the Mary Celeste?” Continue reading

The Civil Forfeiture Outrage: American Government At Its Worst, So Naturally We Ignore It

Do progressives and conservatives have the courage to confront the illusion-shattering outrage of civil asset forfeiture in America? Not so far they haven’t. That shouldn’t be too surprising.

There are some things our governments do that are so frightening, wrong and un-American that we tend to look right by them—ignore them, pretend they aren’t happening, focus on other things—because their implications are too confounding to deal with. For fans of big government, who look to central authority to micro-manage our economy, distribute our resources, protect us from every threat and isolate us from the consequences (and often the benefits) of human nature, the fact that government power corrupts as surely as any power is an inconvenient (and undeniable) truth that threatens the foundation of their ideology. How irrational is it to place more responsibility on the government if we can’t trust the government, because we can’t trust the inevitably flawed and conflicted individuals who run it?

The willful blindness is no less insidious with conservatives, whose core belief is the inherent goodness of the American system and way of life, as defined by our founding documents. Accepting that the largest and oldest democracy on earth sometimes targets and plots against law-abiding citizens means accepting the possibility that the system itself doesn’t work, and that its supposedly sacred ideals—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—are a cynical lie. Aiding and abetting the blindness is the traditional media, which is substantially populated by self-important, inadequately-educated, ethically-shaky pseudo-professionals who believe their duty to objectively tell the public what it needs to know should be tempered by what they believe will persuade members of the public to adopt the “right” views, and, of course, by what will pull their attention away from the competition. Better to have features about Michelle Obama’s healthy eating crusade than to tell Americans about government wrong-doing, especially when the journalists support the party in power.

As a result of this toxic mix of bias, self-interest, self-delusion and incompetence, many of the most illuminating examples of how far America can go wrong can take a long, long time to enter into public consciousness. A recent example is insider trading by members of Congress, which had been well-documented for a decade before a “60 Minutes” report combined with the Occupy protest visibility and the widespread distrust of Wall Street suddenly made it a significant public concern. But other equally important issues, like the abuse of U.S. convicts, including the tolerance of prison rape, haven’t broken through the willful blindness yet.

Neither has civil asset forfeiture, despite the efforts of libertarian activists, publications like Reason, websites like Popehat, and organizations like ACLU and  The Institute for Justice, a libertarian, human rights public interest law firm that I have been negligent in not plugging earlier. (I apologize.) Right now, the Institute is going to court in a Massachusetts civil forfeiture case, United States v. 434 Main Street, Tewksbury, Mass, that serves as an excellent introduction to the sinister nature of this institutionalized abuse of power. Here’s the story, from the Institute’s website: Continue reading