Tag Archive for 'Laws'

Highway Robbery: How Police Abuse Civil Forfeiture Laws

The news is currently flooded with examples of police abusing their power. Here’s another: civil forfeiture (a.k.a. highway robbery by the police).

civil forfeiture police abuse of powerConsider this example: you’re moving to a new city with your car weighed down with boxes of clothes, books, etc. When a cop pulls you over for speeding, he questions you about all the possessions in your car. He doesn’t believe your story, so he confiscates everything.

This scenario may sound farfetched, but it happens to thousands of Americans every year.

Under the civil forfeiture process, police are allowed to take and keep your property or cash if they believe it’s connected to an illegal activity—even if you aren’t charged with a crime.

Civil forfeiture is most commonly used against motorists, but police have also used it to seize homes. Also known as asset forfeiture, this legal process was prominent during the Prohibition era in order to thwart the activities of bootleggers. It was used by the police in the 1980s in the war on drugs.

After 9/11, the departments of Homeland Security and Justice spent millions to train local and state police to be their eyes and ears on American highways. This meant being more aggressive when looking for suspicious people or drugs.

Unlike criminal procedure, where individuals must be convicted before their property is confiscated, civil forfeiture is a dispute between the police and the seized item in question; your guilt or innocence is irrelevant. To regain your seized property, you must prove that their property was not connected to the alleged illegal activity. Most people do not regain their property because the legal process is long and sometimes far more expensive than the seized items are worth.

The most commonly seized items are cash, vehicles, and personal property. Civil forfeiture cases are lodged against the seized property and not the owner of the property, so the case names seem ridiculous, such as:

  • United States v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins
  • United States v. One Pearl Necklace
  • State of Texas v. $6,037

So, why is property so easy to seize? Unlike people, property has no legal right and most states do not have a presumption of innocence in property. Most police departments benefit from civil forfeiture because they get to keep the confiscated property that is not returned to the owner. What was once a legal practice meant to stop organized crime is now used to line the pockets of underfunded police departments.

Abuse of civil forfeiture laws has become rampant in recent years. In 2012, the value of seized assets was $4.3 billion compared to 2001’s $407 million.  Most of the money is shared with local police forces, so the incentive to use civil forfeiture is high when cities cut police department budgets. Some police departments have used seized money to purchase sports tickets, home security systems, a $90,000 sports car, and a margarita machine for office parties.

Civil forfeiture, if used properly, can have a positive effect and be a useful tool in the fight against organized crime. But so far it’s become synonymous with police abuse and corruption. When people read an article about civil forfeiture, they encounter stories about the police and federal agencies keeping $2.5 billion in seized property, or innocent people, like the Sourovelis, who have had their home seized without being charged or accused of a crime. By abusing civil forfeiture laws, the police fail to protect and have become twisted Robin Hoods that steal from the innocent and give to themselves.

Home Is Where You Park It: The Legality of Living in a Car

It used to be illegal to sleep in your car in Los Angeles. The city’s municipal code outlawed using any vehicle parked on a public street, lot, beach, or harbor as living quarters either overnight, day-by-day, or otherwise.

living in a vehicleIn June 2014, the 9th Circuit handed down a decision invalidating this law. The court unanimously held this language was “overbroad,” meaning quite simply that the municipal code criminalized otherwise innocent, legal conduct. Since it was overbroad, it violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

This may seem like a no-brainer. After all, as written, any activity one would do in a “living quarters” was illegal in a car, meaning eating, talking on a phone, and checking hair in the mirror. More pointedly, a tired surfer couldn’t take a nap before paddling back out, a vacationing family, couldn’t catch a few hours of sleep for the night before hitting the road again, and a struggling software salesman, forced into foreclosure after being hit hard by the recession, couldn’t pull over into a quiet neighborhood to sleep after a hard day’s work.

Of those three examples, the first two typically weren’t the target of law enforcement, but the last one was.

Since the Great Recession, many have taken to sleeping inside of their vehicles. Unsurprisingly, particularly in more wealthy neighborhoods, similar anti-vehicle dwelling ordinances have passed in an effort to give police the ability to eradicate this new type of “homeless” population.

While this opinion only directly invalidates the Los Angeles law, it will also have an impact on any similar law in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, Oregon, and Washington. Those states collectively hold about 62 million people, or nearly 20% of the nation’s total population. Thus, this single decision not only potentially impacts a large portion of the country, but asks an important question to all of us: is living in a car really that bad? Perhaps more importantly, now is a good time to change how our country looks at homelessness.

Recent polls and census efforts indicate that upwards of 55-60% of employed homeless individuals reside in a vehicle. Maintaining and running a vehicle isn’t cheap, but it can certainly be less than rent in larger metropolitan areas. Living out of a car is even a preference for many. Business Week has reported on a trend of successful, young professionals opting to live in their vehicle rather than pay for posh apartments.

One example is Foster Huntington, who left a well-paying design job and apartment in New York City to live and do freelance design work out of his Volkswagen van, amassing nearly a million followers on his social media sites, and leading to the recent publication of his photo book on the subject of “van life.” The carefree, anchorless lifestyle embodied by “van life” is demonstrative of how these laws criminalize perfectly legal, if not remarkably practical and utilitarian life choices.

The other side of the token is that homeowners should be free from finding trash or waste strewn about from vagrants. They should also be free from seeing a camper parked on the street in front of their home for days on end. Considering there are already perfectly valid laws against criminal damage to property and littering in place, the former concern can be dispelled. Moreover, there are also laws in many, many cities against leaving in a vehicle parked on the street in one space for more than 24 hours. This leaves the homeowners complaints seemingly solely against having to see vans, campers, or cars filled with possessions or extra storage, and the unnecessary, perhaps misguided shortsighted stigma attached to their occupants. After all, it’s quite likely the occupant of that vehicle is working, paying taxes, and supporting a local economy.

Homeowners should also consider this: having a vehicle parked on your street is preferable to having someone sleeping on the sidewalk. Where vagrancy has been a real issue, spending more time addressing the causes is certainly more desirable than criminalizing looking for a place to find some rest. In the meantime, Los Angeles will have to adjust to the changes in their law, and other cities should be prepared to either stop enforcing anti-vehicle dwelling laws altogether, or spend some of those complaining homeowners hard earned tax dollars on defending the laws in court.

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Gun Control and Mental Illness

Following the recent shooting and stabbing rampage at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the controversial subject of gun control is again being widely debated.

elliot rodger gun violence and mental illnessProponents of stricter gun control laws argue that if guns were less accessible, fewer people would be able to obtain them, resulting in less gun violence. However, tougher gun laws don’t always necessarily translate into less gun violence. For example, there is much gun violence in the District of Columbia, which has strict gun laws.

According to some studies, there are many other variables besides lax gun laws that contribute to increases in gun violence. One study found that the strongest indicators of gun violence are: the number of college graduates in a community, the number of working class residents, the presence of weapons in local high schools, and poverty.

The recent shooting at the UC Santa Barbara highlights another important factor: mental illness. Elliot Rodger, who was committed the six killings, was most likely suffering from some form of mental illness. His actions and statements leading up to the killing spree have been described as “pre-psychosis.”

Under federal law, individuals with mental illnesses are not allowed to possess guns. It is unlawful to sell a firearm to anyone who has been committed to a mental institution. Most states uphold similar laws.

In response to the UC Santa Barbara incident, it has been proposed that these laws should be expanded so that that friends and family members can request gun violence restraining orders. This type of law might have helped to stop Elliot Rodger, who was clearly showing signs of mental illness and the potential for violence.

Was It Legal to Record Donald Sterling’s Conversation?

Donald Sterling, (former) owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, has become famous for the recent recording of his racist comments. Although Sterling already got what he had coming (the NBA banned him for life), it is interesting to consider how California’s wiretapping laws might apply to this case.

Donald SterlingCalifornia’s wiretapping law is a “two-party consent” law. California makes it a crime to record or eavesdrop on any confidential communication, including a private conversation or telephone call, without the consent of all parties to the conversation. See Cal. Penal Code § 632. The statute applies to “confidential communications” — i.e., conversations in which one of the parties has an objectively reasonable expectation that no one is listening in or overhearing the conversation. See Flanagan v. Flanagan, 41 P.3d 575, 576-77, 578-82 (Cal. 2002). A California appellate court has ruled that this statute applies to the use of hidden video cameras to record conversations.

If Donald Sterling made this conversation in front of a crowd knowing that other people could hear him, this law would not apply. However, he made this conversation in a private, confidential setting with his girlfriend. As a result, the conversation would likely not be admissible in court.

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Alien Enthusiasts Help Us Understand Legal Relations with E.T.

In today’s global village, everything is possible, especially if we are to believe longtime alien enthusiast Paul Hellyer. The former Canadian Defense Minister, Mr. Hellyer is confident that at least four species of aliens have visited our planet. Even more incredibly, he recently stated at the Citizen Hearing On Disclosure in Washington, D.C. that the U.S. government has at least two aliens on the payroll.

paul hellyer aliensPaul Hellyer is not the only respectable person who believes in aliens. Recently, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland seriously addressed possible issues related to alien interactions.

Taking the conclusions drawn by Mr. Hellyer and the World Economic Forum at face value, here is a brief overview of the law-related myths about extraterrestrials that must be dispelled:

  • Myth 1: If extraterrestrial contact ever occurs, it will be centered on issues related to high technology.
  • Response: While high-tech gadgets may play a role in understanding extraterrestrials, our communications with E.T. should center on understanding shared legal principles. This will ensure that interactions are regulated and peaceable.
  • Myth 2: “If the aliens are here, I’d absolutely expect them to call me to have their currency printed,” one Davos dinner member said.
  • Response: Our new legal framework should not fail to include a non-currency mediums of exchange. Besides, as society evolves, sophisticated forms of barter will dominate human commerce.
  • Myth 3: Lack of communication indicates that extraterrestrials either do not exist or are simply not interested in chatting. Another Davos member states, “I’d love to establish links with extraterrestrials. So far no messages on my cell phone.”
  • Response: The fact that one cannot or does not see a text message on one’s cellphone doesn’t mean that the message doesn’t exist. In fact, (according to Mr. Hellyer) English is the language of choice for our alien friends.