How the Government Steals from Citizens

From civil asset forfeiture to eminent domain, the government covets your cash and property.


"Government," as Barney Frank and other progressives are fond of saying, "is just another word for things we choose to do together." Like rob people blind.

Sometimes the together-doing is highway robbery in the most literal sense '" as when police departments seize cash from motorists who are never even charged with a crime. The euphemism for that is civil asset forfeiture, and it's gotten so out of hand even hang-'em-high, law-and-order conservatives say it needs to stop.

Sometimes the robbery is committed not on the highways but for the sake of them '" especially here in Virginia. Just ask James and Janet Ramsey, who live near Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach. Five years ago, the Virginia Department of Transportation took a chunk of their property to build a ramp for Interstate 264.

This is precisely the sort of public use that eminent domain is meant for, and is perfectly legitimate. What happened next, however, was not. VDOT took the property through a process called quick take, which allows it to assume control of the property immediately and compensate the owners later. It sent out an appraiser, who figured the Ramseys were owed just under a quarter-million dollars.

The Ramseys thought their property was worth more. As the disagreement headed to court, VDOT sent out a second appraiser, who claimed the property was worth only $92,000. When the case went before a jury, the Ramseys were not allowed to mention the first appraisal at all. Nevertheless, the jury came back with a judgment of $234,000 '" much better than VDOT's second offer but still shy of its original $248,000 appraisal.

The Ramseys appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear the case sometime next year (a date hasn't been set yet). They contend that state evidentiary rules that keep juries in the dark about what the state itself says a piece of property is worth are wrong. They're certainly right about that.

If theirs were an isolated case, that would be bad enough. But it isn't. It's part of a pattern. Hampton Roads TV station WAVY found plenty of other examples. In one, VDOT's appraisal went from $210,000 to $17,000. In another, the appraisal went from $214,000 to just $14,000. According to VDOT, this is pure coincidence.

Lawyers who represent property owners say that's bunk. They contend that VDOT is using radically lower second appraisals as a hardball tactic. Owners who do not supinely acquiesce to the first offer will be punished '" severely. It's evidently a common practice elsewhere, too; in California, they call it sandbagging.

Believe it or not, the Ramseys are actually fortunate '" compared with some. They didn't have to vacate their home, which has been in the family for decades. But some owners are evicted outright. When they are, they have to use the money the condemning authority puts in escrow to find another place to live. If they don't accept the first offer, then when a highway department comes back with a lowball second estimate and demands repayment of the difference, it leaves their victims in a very tight spot.

It's been suggested that hammering property owners like this is not bad government but good government. After all, such tactics help save the taxpayers money. That's a noble goal, but the ends hardly justify the means. To take the argument to absurd extremes, it would save taxpayers money if we did away with criminal trials and simply shot anybody accused of a crime. Fiscal restraint is an important value, but not the only value.

If you follow politics at all, then you've run across the term "gangster government." For the past few years, it's been used by conservatives as an epithet to describe the current administration in Washington and its abuses of power generally. But the term is more aptly applied to cases in which agencies shake down ordinary, law-abiding citizens through extortionate policies.

Asset forfeiture provides one example. Sandbagging property owners is another. It's high time both kinds of highway robbery were brought to a screeching halt.