Unintended Consequences: Proceeds of Crime Laws

Across North America, states and provinces alike have rushed to embrace "proceeds of crime" laws.

Essentially, what these laws do is give police and government the power to seize private property from people they believe have broken the law. 

Many jurisdictions also provide for the seizing authority or police force to keep the goods or cash they've seized, unless the hapless individual who's had their possessions taken by authorities can prove those possessions were obtained by legal means.

The sad reality is that seldom is that possible. After all, how do you prove a negative?

For example, take the case of Canadian gunsmith Bruce Montague, who was charged with violating Canada's Firearms Act.  As a byproduct of his arrest, Crown Council placed a seizure and forfeit order on the Montague family home, the home that Mr. Montague had built with his own two hands.

Bruce's daughter Katey Montague, who created a Youtube channel to explore justice issues in Canada called Katey's Firearms Facts, made a video about the seizure of the family home.

 

Police Brutality: CNN reports that police are accused of having robbed at least 150 drivers in Tenaha, Texas. The amount stolen is close to $3 million, says a lawyer who has filed a class action suit against the town and police department there. Some of the victims (who are mostly African American) said that when they complained to the police about the police, the police threatened to take the victims’ children away. In one case, the district attorney sent a couple who’d been robbed a form letter to sign that said, in exchange for forfeiting the $6000 that had been stolen from them, “…no criminal charges shall be filed…and our children shall not be turned over to [child protective services].” The video is loaded with lots of other tragicomically sordid details.

 

Recent events in Texas are bringing the issue of police corruption, indeed the corruption of the entire justice system in Tenaha Texas to national prominence. Texas police, along with the District Attorney's office, are accused of theft and coercion of over 150 people. What is reprehensible is not only that those tasked with protecting the public have violated that trust, but the heinous manner with which they carried out that violation.

After stealing over $6,000 from one couple, the authorities then threatened to steal their children and turn them over to "child protective services" if they did not agree to the forfeiture of their hard-earned money.

Using similar tactics of emotional abuse, after Mr. Montague's arrest in 2004, police in his case threatened to bulldoze the family home to the ground, a home he built with his own hands, if he refused to tell them where his guns were.  Naturally, these charges were denied, as were the charges that investigators stole thousands of dollars in cash from the family home during a police search.

In Tenaha, Texas, everyone is denying the allegations.

 

George Bowers, Tenaha's longtime mayor, says his police follow the law. And through her lawyers, Shelby County District Attorney Lynda Russell denied any impropriety

-CNN

 

Quoting further from CNN: "Texas law allows police to confiscate drug money and other personal property they believe are used in the commission of a crime. If no charges are filed or the person is acquitted, the property has to be returned. But Guillory's lawsuit states that Tenaha and surrounding Shelby County don't bother to return much of what they confiscate."

Applying the letter of the law (seizing private property for speeding violations) , instead of the intent of the law (to stop drug dealers and gangs), is clearly not what legislators intended.

The unintended consequence of bad law is bad application of that bad law.  As the case in Tenaha shows so clearly, when police forces get to keep whatever they steal, they will undoubtedly find ways to rationalize that theft. 

Police corruption will thrive in an environment like this, where everyone involved tells themselves they are doing the right thing. Where all involved actually believe the lies they tell themselves so they can sleep at night.

Threatening children is about as low as it gets, even for [allegedly] corrupt officials like those in Tenaha, Texas. An individual, or group of individuals as in this case, must be incredibly disconnected from their own humanity to behave in this manner.

Silencing dissent, as they did in the case of the couple above, is standard practice for third-world dictatorships.  I understand that.

But we expect better from our allegedly civilized police forces, both in here in Canada and south of the 49th.

 

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