Between 2.3m and 2.4m Americans are behind bars, roughly one in every 100 adults. If those on parole or probation are included, one adult in 31 is under “correctional” supervision. As a proportion of its total population, America incarcerates five times more people than Britain, nine times more than Germany and 12 times more than Japan. article in the Economist (July 22, 2010) entitled “Too many laws, too many prisoners”
Yea that’s right you heard me. Our criminal justice system is careening off the rails at an alarming rate. America has so many laws that, according to civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate, the average American breaks an average of 3 laws a day. And we’re blissfully unaware of that fact.
Silverglate’s book Three Felonies a Day is at the top my reading list. From time to time I’ve posted lists of silly laws on the books of various states. 2 of my personal faves are 1) In Kansas City it’s illegal to drink beer out of a bucket while sitting on a curb. I mean really, who cares? 2) In Washington State it’s illegal to have sex in a shopping cart. My take on that is I don’t really care where or in what conveyance one chooses to have sex as long as I don’t have to see it. The making whoopee in a shopping cart sounds rather uncomfortable anyway. Is the purpose of this activity the result of our ever increasingly busy lives? Kill 2 birds with one stone, go shopping and please the significant other at the same time.
But in all seriousness (and I have a great deal of trouble being serious) what the hell is going on? It’s getting to the point where I am more afraid of the government than “criminal elements.” Statistically, my chances of getting a ticket or arrested are greater that getting mugged when I leave the house.
Enforcing laws selectively is another concerning aspect of this overabundance of laws in our country. A good example is the whole tax audit mess going on the news. Don’t like the political views of the opposition? Well audit them! That will show them who is boss! Trouble with this activity is that it can turn on a dime. One day you’re in, the next day you’re out.
This morning I was minding my own business, a rare event for me, and reading the August 12, 2013 edition of the New Yorker magazine. I delved into an article called Taken, by Sarah Stillman. Her quote at the beginning of the article was “Under civil forfeiture, Americans who haven’t been charged with wrongdoing can be stripped of the cash, cars, and even homes. Is this all we’re losing?”
This quote failed to include, but she detailed later in the article, an even more frightening occurrence under civil forfeiture. Law enforcement agencies can not only take every scrap of your worldly possessions without even charging you with a crime, but your children as well. As a matter of fact children are held hostage with the threat of placing children in foster care to bully the parents to relinquish their possessions without a fight. If they refuse, they are charged with child endangerment and their children are taken, even infants at the breast.
In my opinion civil forfeiture is state funded pillage and plunder. What happened to being innocent until proven guilty? A pretty neat trick – claim to suspect someone of a crime and then confiscate their money and property so that they have no means to defend themselves. Whatever is confiscated is not returned even if the suspected party is found not guilty or never even formally charged with a crime in the first place. This is robbery pure and simple. The fact that this is perfectly “legal” in America is profoundly disturbing.
As I am writing this my hands are shaking and then the memories came flooding back. This has happened to me not once but 3 times in my life. It’s no wonder that I am supremely pissed. I’ve never heard the term civil forfeiture until today, but I know now that is what it was. And I was never formally charged let alone convicted of any crime whatsoever in my entire life. The worst thing I’ve ever been fined for is a parking ticket.
Anyone who has ever been to New Orleans knows that it is almost impossible to emerge unscathed without at least one ticket. It’s a no win game. The meter maids see an out of state license plate and the game is on. My tires are always covered with neon orange chalk marks when I leave New Orleans. They mark my car and watch it, waiting for the inevitable slip up. One of my tickets was for a tire that was not less than eighteen inches from the curb. That’s tricky because many of the old curbs have a metal edge on them and you risk blowing out a tire and damaging the wheel hub in an effort to get close but not too close to the curb.
The first “forfeiture” I experienced happened when I was 18 years old. A guy I was dating less than 6 weeks turned out to be a thief. The police went to my apartment looking for him and in the process took everything I owned, clothing, furniture, the contents of my fridge, even my toothbrush. I was left with nothing but the clothes on my back. I never got any of it back. I maintained that I had no idea what he was up to and the police even agreed with me saying that they had been watching him. I think taking everything I owned as punishment was taking the saying “ignorance is no excuse” a bit far.
The second time this happened was when I let my 2 little brothers borrow my car to go duck hunting and fishing. This happens in Louisiana, the state motto is “Sportsman’s Paradise” for crying out loud. They got pulled over in a small town for some stupid reason I don’t even remember. Turns out these 2 teenaged boys had a little weed for personal use on them. Oh no, unleash the hounds from hell. (sarcasm mine) The police searched the trunk to find hunting rifles and fishing gear. It was duck season after all. Probably every car and truck in the area contained hunting paraphernalia. My brothers had in their possession the appropriate game licenses to prove that their intention was in fact to hunt and fish.
My brothers were not charged with anything. Instead they impounded the car and its entire contents. MY CAR! I wasn’t even there. We had to go pick them up from some little Podunk town in mid Louisiana. My car and all the possessions there in were not returned to me…ever. I was left with no transportation to get to work because I let my brothers use my car to go hunting and fishing. My brother commented later that the cop who stopped them was wearing my brand new Ray ban sunglasses left in the visor when he let them go. For some reason that ticked me off more than them taking my car.
In the third and worse case they took my child and it took 6 weeks and thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees to get her back. My crime you may ask? My mother had failed to inform the police that her sons were dabbling in the evils of marijuana. I balked at testifying in court to the effect that she was a terrible and abusive mother. This made me an “accessory” in my Mother’s “child abuse” and they took custody of my child and sent her to a state run foster home. This was not meant to be a temporary placement. They fully intended to take her away from me, but I found the means to fight back and I did, and I won. I was in court that day and heard with unbelieving ears the judge call my mother a “disgusting bitch” and “the worse mother she had ever encountered.” This is an exact quote, not a paraphrase.
So anyway, I think we as a country need to take a long hard look at this civil forfeiture process. I’m extremely pleased that a large national magazine like the New Yorker is outing this heinous practice. Will it help? I don’t know. But, something definitely needs to be done about it. Don’t think it couldn’t happen to you because it could in a heartbeat. Let a troubled relative stay with you and they continue to get in trouble? You could find yourself out on the street and penniless because of your act of charity.