The Hidden Cause of BLM Riots
Civil Asset Forfeiture is just the beginning of Policing for Profit
Remember the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the civil unrest that followed? It seemed like a powder keg had gone off. The media was quick to blame the officer involved, but it never mentioned a corrupt and broken system of policing-for-profit that had plagued Ferguson residents in the tense years building up to the climactic shooting.
In the backdrop of the riots that rippled outward from Ferguson is an unreported increase in unconstitutional fines and fees that are eroding trust in law enforcement and turning routine traffic stops into highway robbery.
William R. Maurer is the Managing Attorney of the Washington state office of the Institute for Justice, which engages in litigation in the areas of economic liberty, private property rights, educational choice, & freedom of speech. Maurer last joined my show to discuss how the politically powerful use government to usurp private property from average folks. The Institute for Justice is well known for its litigation in the Kelo case, which sparked a revolution of state legislation to prevent egregious eminent domain “takings” of property such as the one that befell Suzette Kelo and her “little pink house.”
Although the IJ lost that particular case, their track record in defending our every day constitutional liberties in court is unparalleled.
Is your government telling you that you need a license to braid hair or massage horses? Call the IJ.
Had your car stolen through civil asset forfeiture so the city can buy new militarized police gear? Call the IJ.
And now, if you’ve been one of a growing number of victims of exorbitant fees for non-crimes like “having mismatched blinds, kiddie pools in the front yard, and basement windows without drapes,” you might consider calling the Institute for Justice.
Maurer joined me to talk about the IJ’s 14th suit challenging abusive fines and fees since discovering this new form of policing-for-profit, whereby some cities have begun to collect a majority of their operating budget from large fines over small-to-non-existent violations.
One city, Pagedale, MO, has increased its fines by 495% since 2010, but Maurer notes that statistics cannot convey the real harms of these excessive fines, which sink citizens in a spiral of debt, poverty, and more infractions.
While it may seem hopeless to those whose cases are never elevated to the higher courts, the IJ is providing a voice for victims, and it’s our job to amplify that voice until more states pass laws to cap the percentage of city revenue that can be raised through fines and fees. We need to convey the root causes behind the riots and unrest, and the anger vented against the culprits in government rather than innocent business owners.
Listen or read the interview summary below:
One day, Bill Maurer was scrolling through Twitter when he saw a story about a small St. Louis suburb called Pagedale that would change the trajectory of his work for the Institute for Justice. The story reported on an increase in abusive fines and fees:
“Basically, Pagedale had made everything illegal. It was illegal to have [everything from] a kiddie pool to a Cable TV dish in front of your house. It was illegal to have a crack in your driveway, or mismatched curtains, or to not have drapes on your basement windows.”
Pagedale was engaged in what many now call “policing for profit.”
Instead of finding legitimate sources of revenue (or else cutting spending) they basically decided to turn their code enforcement system into a revenue generating machine.
In a city of just 3,000 people — most of whom were under the poverty line — the Pagedale municipal court was hearing an average of 240 cases per weekly hearing.
It was simply impossible for a lot of these folks to pay the tickets.
Maurer thought to himself that this couldn’t be constitutional.
He describes the vicious cycle of poverty it creates, where fines would exceed citizens’ ability to pay, meaning they would get more violations until they would be arrested and jailed, losing their jobs and their furthering hampering their ability to pay the fines.
It was just a really abusive system.
It turns out Pagedale was not a unique case.
Remember Ferguson, Missouri, where unrest originally broke out after the shooting of Michael Brown? Those riots took place against the background of mounting frustration against the municipality’s greed.
Cities in Colorado received over 90% of their revenue from fines and fees.
Alone, residents in these abusive cities felt helpless to fight back and in some cases, the Pagedale city government officials threatened them for challenging the fines or expressing their frustration. This is where the Institute for Justice decided it had to step in to protect people’s liberty and property, which was being unjustly deprived.
As a law firm that specializes in suing the government, IJ has begun to level the playing field — using the 7th and 8th amendments (against excessive fines and fees and cruel and unusual punishment respectively) to establish new precedents in these cases.
The excessive fines clause is based on a restriction in English law dating back to Henry I in around the year 1100, when the King had abused his power to strip citizens of everything they owned.
The founders put this restriction in our Bill of Rights, recognizing that the purpose of a fine is to punish — not to financially destroy someone or strike them into poverty.
Maurer also brings up the due process clause, which prevents the police, prosecutors, and judges from having a financial interest in the outcome of your case.
The related issue of civil asset forfeiture has an ugly history, linking the state and local law enforcement to federal agencies like the DEA, which engage in so-called “equitable sharing” with local government when money, guns, or other valuable assets are seized in the process of prosecuting crimes. The rise of federal drug statutes, therefore, became a cash cow for local police departments, which were allowed to keep a large portion of the assets they seized — rightly or wrongly.
Maurer tells the story of another IJ client — Brittany Coleman — who was a victim of an explosion of ticketing in Brookside Alabama, a town with very little real crime.
From 2011 to 2018, for instance, it had only recorded 55 serious crimes. No rape, and no murder. In 2017 and 2018, it didn’t have any serious crimes at all. But they decided that they were going to supplement their budget, and start handing out tickets as much as they possibly could — to the point where the number of tickets in terms of revenue that they issued went up by 640%.
Coleman was pulled over for tailgating her boyfriend. Her car was seized and towed and she was left with her child waiting to have somebody pick her up. Maurer distinguishes between the acceptable forms of forfeiture, where the practice actually deters and punishes real crime from these cases. In this case, Coleman had done nothing wrong.
Going back to the Michael Brown incident, Brown had been stopped for violating an actual ordinance called “Manner of Walking.” Whether or not Brown had done something wrong prior to his “Manner of Walking” violation is beside the point: if you turn everything into a crime, you will end up with more negative encounters between police and innocent civilians, and more violations of our constitutional liberties.
The IJ successfully defended Coleman, but most defendants are not so lucky. For now, the IJ is trying to set new precedents at the level of each district court, to make municipalities think twice before issuing so many frivolous tickets. The threat of litigation may have played a role in the reduction in fees and vehicle impounding in the city of Chicago, which was basically Organized Crime meets Big Government.
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