Off The Rails

By James Baxter, NMA President

Rationality, Rule of Law, Equal Treatment, Limited Authority, and the Balance of Power between the branches of government are a sampling of the “rails” that guide our society’s actions. On occasion, often in response to a crisis, real or imagined, the society runs off these rails and the principles and ideals we aspire to are rendered unrecognizable.

Stark examples from the past include placing Japanese citizens in internment camps during World War II, or our recent national exercise in rationalizing torture of “suspected terrorists,” following the 9-11 attack.

However, more insidious is the incremental corrosion of those rails that ultimately leads to their dissolution or abandonment. The “canary in the mine” is often the citizen in a vehicle on a public road. It is in this environment that individuals are at greatest risk of having their property confiscated, their privacy compromised, their dignity humiliated, and their rights ignored.

In the interest of fighting crime, the war on drugs, finding terrorists, public safety, or generating revenue for government coffers, legislative bodies have granted almost unbridled authority to enforcement agencies, and the courts have typically consented.

It has become accepted dogma that private citizens in private vehicles shall have no expectation of privacy when on a public roadway or in a private area open to the public.

Police officers have the authority, in reality, to stop any vehicle, any place, for any reason, real or fabricated. Police officers have the courts’ permission to intimidate, coerce, threaten, or deceive vehicle occupants into giving up their right to NOT have their vehicle searched. If some rare soul has the temerity to object to the search they will likely be arrested, and then the vehicle will be searched.

One of the long honored rails on which our society has depended is that the courts should not profit from their decisions and the police should not profit from the laws they enforce. The conflict of interest in doing otherwise should be glaringly obvious.

If a judge’s wage, benefits, and retirement are dependent on the fines he assesses, can he be fair and unbiased? Yet, traffic fines, fees, and forfeitures are the singular profit center for many court systems. No one, at least of prominence, seems to notice the conflict of interest inherent in this system?

Recent publicity regarding the use of civil forfeitures exemplifies the extent to which law enforcement practices can be perverted in the name of profitable policing.

Civil forfeitures turn the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” on its head. First the police use any one of dozens of reasons to stop a vehicle, most often “speeding,” and then they manipulate the situation to permit a search — if the driver objects they can bring in the infallible “drug sniffing” dog, one that has never failed to detect drugs, and then the search commences.

If anything illegal is found, no matter how insignificant or arcane, everything of value, including the vehicle is confiscated. Should there be nothing illegal but there is a large quantity of cash, that too will be confiscated on the grounds that it must be the fruit of some crime — unless the owner can prove otherwise.

The rationalization of “civil forfeitures,” like the rationalization that supports courts and enforcement agencies using their authority and power to generate revenue for their own benefit, is proof of our society having gone far astray of its ideals and principles.

The fundamental question is “just how high will the piles of dead canaries have to be before we react and put our society back on the rails that lead to the ideals we profess?”

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