Paul Jacob
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We’re quickly approaching the season of giving, as it is often put, so it’s well worth considering the uncomfortable truth that, for some people, it’s always the season of taking.

And I don’t mean “accepting gifts.” There will always be people in need, and such folk will always have to take more than they give, if only for a time. I don’t really have any complaints about this. It’s just life. It’s the way of the world. Everybody needs help sometimes.

But by takers I mean folks who take without asking, who take without ever being offered anything. These people are dangerous.

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And they appear to be growing in numbers.

They are in Wayne County, Michigan, anyway.

And they aren’t the criminals. They are the police. According to a report in The Detroit News, Wayne County’s “Sheriff’s Office, which helps run the prosecutor’s forfeiture unit, took in $8.69 million from civil seizures in 2007, more than four times the amount collected in 2001. The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office gets up to 27 percent of that money.”

We read — and watched news reports — about these “civil forfeiture” infamies decades ago. You may have thought such obvious abuses had been corrected. They haven’t been. Though the practice waxes and wanes from one jurisdiction to another, and regarding one set of crimes to another, the truth of the matter is that police departments around the country regularly steal from the citizenry.

How is it done?

Say you help out a neighbor, taking her to the bank. A police officer spies your neighbor making eye contact with a passing motorist. From this the officer surmises that your neighbor was soliciting sexual favors for money. Prostitution. The harlot! Lock ’er up! Throw ’er in jail!

That’s bad enough. Talk about flimsy evidence -- eye contact, indeed. But the police don’t stop there. They seize your car, since it was engaged in a suspect activity.

This is the case of Krista Vaughn, car owner, and Amanda Odom, a woman eventually excused from the idiotic charge of prostitution. Their story is well told in the Detroit paper, and, sadly, is not atypical of many police forces these days — who have forgotten whom it is and what it is they are supposed to serve.

But the kicker is that Ms. Vaughn’s car was not given back to her. She had to pay the impound fee and towing fee. Further, in seizing her car and towing it away, the thieves broke her oil pan. So she had to pay $1800 just to get whole again. And she did pay, because hiring a lawyer to sue the police would have cost her even more, she said.

Interestingly, Wayne County, in charging her over a grand to get her own car back, was not merely passing on towing service and impound charges. The contracted towing company charges regular folks a fraction of that cost.

Something frightening is happening here: The Wayne County Sheriff’s Department, along with its august Prosecutor’s Office, is abusing citizens for profit.

Big racketeering and extortion cases like this tend to fall to the FBI. But the extent to which this immoral practice qualifies as abuse of civil forfeiture laws depends on how those laws are written, state by state. Thankfully, in Minnesota, the FBI has taken an investigative interest in the state’s Metro Gang Strike Force, which lurched out of control regarding civil forfeiture. (Thanks to a reader of Common Sense for pointing this story out in the comments section of a recent webisode of my daily Common Sense squibs.)

The article in The Detroit News will be an eye-opener to some. To the rest of us, it’s just another sad, sad reminder that power corrupts. It doesn’t just corrupt in Moscow and Paris and Washington, D.C. It also corrupts in Wayne County . . . and your county, most likely.

And remember, it’s all done for an allegedly good cause: Fighting crime. The police and lawyers confiscating property think of themselves (apparently) as do-gooders, not evil-doers.

Trouble is, the crimes that civil forfeiture laws pertain to are chiefly vice crimes, not crimes with obvious victims. We have forfeiture laws largely because of the War on Drugs, and our various wars on prostitution and gambling and so forth. For years, opponents of such legal wars — me included — have argued that the enforcement of such prohibitions corrupt police departments. And judges. And prosecutors.

Most people don’t give such problems a second thought. But innocent Americans do get their property stolen, and then have to pay to get it back. Maybe the rest of us ought to reconsider vice crusades, on the one hand, and civil forfeiture laws, on the other.

Civil forfeiture is a recent revival of an old, corrupt practice, an ancient method of extracting wealth. And because it isn’t a tax that covers everybody, many simply let the injustice of it slide, figuring that they won’t get caught in the corrupt net.

More people, however, simply know nothing about it. They have not heard of Alvarez v. Smith, for instance, and do not bother themselves with such issues.

And that, friends, is how injustice triumphs . . . Through varying degrees of indifference, inattention, and complicit acceptance. The world needs good men and women to do something.

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Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.