LA Seizures

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Former Reason staffer Mariel Garza, now a mainstay on the editorial page of the Los Angeles Daily News, throws some cold water on the latest, greatest idea from the Los Angeles City Council. Which needless to say, is hardly original or limited to LA-LA Land's rulers. This sort of thing is all too common.

Writes Garza,

The Los Angeles City Council is now looking at yet another offense that could be punishable by confiscating the wrongdoer's vehicle. This time it's drunken drivers—well, accused drunken drivers, anyway.

The idea…is to deter people from driving drunk….This would be the fifth sort of activity for which the city seizes the vehicles of people only suspected of a crime.

Currently, those suspected of soliciting a prostitute, dumping trash, street racing or selling drugs can have their cars taken. Never mind the fundamental tenets of our nation's judicial system that supposes someone to be innocent until proved guilty, or that punishment should fit the crime.

City Hall, which has a well-established reputation for confiscating taxpayer wealth and giving precious little in return, hopes to get around the legal niceties of the Constitution by making it a civil law, not criminal law, issue.

But why stop at five suspected crimes, asks Garza.

In line with this kind of thinking, the powers that be might consider extending their lust for other people's property to areas where the greater good of the community could be served more broadly….

Perhaps the City Council might consider a measure that would seize all funds from political campaigns that violate fund-raising laws. That would no doubt hurt politicians more than the current slap-on-the-wrist fines and cause them to think twice the next time they consider transgressing the city's ethics laws.

And if the city confiscated the thousands of businesses that were suspected of cheating on taxes, it could resell them at a profit to the company's competitors.

There's really no end to the possibilities of abusing these kinds of laws. If carried to its logical absurdity—which the City Council is especially skilled at doing—City Hall might end up owning all the property in Los Angeles and the people would all be landless tenants. It would be a triumph of municipal socialism that would fulfill city leaders' dreams…

But before the City Council—a body that goes out of its way to pass measures decrying civil-liberties violations in far-flung places—votes on these measures, its members might consider how great edifices are brought down by little chips in the foundation. This latest confiscation proposal is one of those chips.

Whole thing here.

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  1. How did this get by? Let me explain.

    This is the natural extention – reducio creep, if you will – of product liability campaigns like those of Ralph Nader and his predecessors.

    Our country has a dual legal system, a carryover from Medeival English law. In old England, merchants had courts to decide money matters between them, but only the King’s courts could throw people into prison or order them executed. America consolidated these into a single system, but we still divide cases up into “criminal” and “civil.”

    Criminal cases can result in fines, imprisonment, and capital punishment, but are restricted by the criminal due process guarantees stemming from the Bill of Rights (right to an attorney, innocent until proven guilty, etc.). Civil cases can only result in monetary damages or injuctive orders, but the Constitution provides no protection for civil defendants. None was needed in the nation’s early days, since the typical civil case was between two businessmen who were on relatively equal footing.

    The 20th Century has greatly expanded civil law. Consumer protection attorneys used it against large corporations at first. Nobody complained, because they figured that GM has enough money to stand up for itself against Ralph Nader. Then it was increasingly used by larger and larger law firms against smaller and smaller businesses. Still not many complained, because too many people assume that the guy who runs the corner newsstand is just as rich as GM simply because he owns a business.

    Today we see the ultimate development: Government, the biggest institution in our society, is using civil law against the most vulnerable targets. People who laughed when McDonalds got pilloried over spilled coffee are now having the same thing done to them.

    The Framers of the Constitution never imagined that civil law would be developed into a tool for government to use against its citizens, or they would have given it the same restrictions as criminal law. But the American people have, for a hundred years, been complicit in making it into such a tool.

    A quote comes to mind from a protestant pastor in Nazi Germany (maybe one of you remembers the speaker or the exact wording) – When they came for the Communists, I did not speak, for I was not a Communist. When they came for the Jews, I did not speak, for I was not a Jew. When they came for the Catholics, I did not speak, for I was not a Catholic. Then they came for me. And there was nobody left to speak for me.

  2. In addition to the obvious un-Constitutionality of this, couldn’t somebody also try the legal argument that ths is unfair because it results in wildly disparate punishments for the same crime? Say Smith is caught driving drunk in his shiny new Mercedes and then Jones is caught driving drunk in his 1969 Dodge Dart–Smith and Jones both committed the same crime, and Smith is penalized $50,000 while Jones loses $2.75.

  3. I’ve never understood how civil forfeiture was made to work. Okay, put a lien or something on the goods until guilt or innocence is established; that I could get. But outright seizure? How did it get by?

  4. Don’t give them any ideas! Julian has pretty thoroughly demonstrated the dangers of “reductio creep.”

  5. Jammer,

    “Okay, put a lien or something on the goods until guilt or innocence is established; that I could get.”

    That leads to the government freezing assets, that most folks would need to raise money to pay the lawyer, forcing them either to go with a public defender or bargain with the accuser. This kind of approach is often used in federal cases. Imho it would only be admissible to prevent a defendant from squandering assets to escape judgment.
    Legal? Yes. According to the democratic spirit? No.
    Which makes me wonder: Not many people seem to care. They could throw the rascals out.

  6. >…the city seizes the vehicles of people only suspected of a crime.

  7. Part of the reason that the city of LA can get away with this is that many of the cars that will be seized belong to illegal aliens/undocumented workers.

    You’d better not risk complaining about the cops stealing your car if defending your rights earns you a one-way trip back to Michoacan.

    So our beef is not so much with the city of LA but rather with our lax enforcement of our borders and our even worse sanctions against Republican campaign contributors who hire illegals/undocumenteds/mojados.

  8. Jammer:
    The seizures are “temporary” and you have to fork up massive amounts of $$ to get your ride back. In El Cajon (near San Diego), they were confiscating cars of people arrested for soliciting prostitutes and the fee to get the car back was the Kelly Blue Book value of the car!

    You haven’t heard of these laws before, Jammer? Didn’t you realize the 4th and 5th amendments were dead? Wow…where have you been? 🙂 I have no idea how these got by, by the way. All of the court appeals on this have come to naught, it appears.

  9. dj,
    You are entirely missing several points.

    1. Keyword is “suspected”. That does not mean “proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” in a court of law employing all those niceties of procedure, including a viable defense.

    2. The seized gun will presumably be returned, once the owner has been found to be in lawful possession. The city of L.A. has no intentions to give the cars back. The statutes’ proponents specifically state that they regard seizure as lawful “even if the accused is innocent”. (City attorney Roy Delgadillo re seizing of vehicles in prostitution cases, paraphrased).

    Presumably it’s for the deterrence factor. It’s punishment before the crime. Very popular “proactive” approach, but contrary to democratic liberty. You can’t both be totally protected from all dangers and retain liberty.

    Personally, I am not willing to have people with an undeveloped sense of justice run every facet of my life. I hope to have lots of company beyond the pages of Reason.

  10. Depends on the Dart. Some of ’em are pretty nice muscle cars. Now if you said Chevette…

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