Column 2017-13 (4/17/17)
It is easy to find government's failures. Its successes are a bit harder to smoke out of their holes. I recently found one of the successes in the most unlikely of places, an op-ed from the “New York Times.”
The success story comes from Pagedale, Missouri, a community of about 3,300 near St. Louis. You know that the success has to be spectacular to get noticed far away in New York city.
Pagedale has its own court which costs about $90,000 a year. Fines and cost collected by the court exceed a quarter million dollars per year. That is nearly a 300 percent return on investment. If that isn't success, What is? If a business hauled in that kind of profit, someone would be screaming for a Congressional investigation.
The dastardly deeds that can get the city into a pagedalions pocket include not walking on the right side of crosswalks; barbecuing in the front yard, except on national holidays; and failing to have a screen on every door. It is also a violation if the enforcer does not like the look of a home owner’s drapes or if the window blinds are not neatly hung.
The Pagedale court handled 5,781 cases in 2013. That is about 1.75 cases per resident. The money collected adds up to about $75 per resident.
Policing for profit wasn't invented by Pagedale. Speed traps have been around almost as long as automobiles. Michigan still has a law enacted to cut down on speed traps. The law banned speed limits of less than 25 miles per hour. It has been amended to create a few exceptions. Still, most speeding violations are much about revenue and little about safety.
Code violations and speed traps are small potatoes in government's quest for other people's money. The big leaguers play at the asset forfeiture table. Why bother with hundreds of dollars when tens of thousands, or even millions, are there for the taking?
In civil asset forfeiture the enforcers skip over people and go straight for the loot. They file a claim that certain assets may have been involved in a crime. The next steep is seizure of the assets. The owner can attempt to get his presumed guilty assets back if he can jump through all of the right hoops.
The first hoop usually is posting bond for the privilege of trying to reclaim his own property. To its credit Michigan did eliminate this hoop. Posting bond can be a challenge when all of the owner's money and other assets have been taken from him.
The national government has developed a nasty habit of seizing bank accounts for the dastardly deed of the account owner making too many deposits of less than $10 thousand. A sheriff in Florida took cash from anyone caught in his county carrying more than a hundred dollars. He claimed that anyone carrying $100 or more must be dealing in drugs.
In most cases of civil asset forfeiture no person is even charged with a crime, leave alone convicted. Civil asset forfeiture should be abolished. A criminal conviction should be prerequisite to forfeiture. Unfortunately abolition isn't going to happen soon.
Squeezing the the profit from fines and forfeitures would greatly discourage enforcers from pursuing money instead of criminals. No one involved in collecting fines and forfeitures should be allowed to benefit from the collection.
All fines and forfeitures should be put in a separate fund where they couldn't be spent by or for government. The money could be used to reduce taxes, compensate crime victims, or some other worthy purpose. With the profit removed from fines and forfeitures, don't expect the fund to ever grow large.
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Albert D. McCallum