"Property is surely a right of mankind as real as liberty. The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence."
More than merely altering the procedural requirements of the forfeiture system, we must analyze the underlying concerns of governmental power over individuals, as well as the motives and incentives for governmental action in seeking that power. Individual liberty, property rights, and individual choice must prevail to maintain a free society. The crisis mentality must be lifted, allowing us to create a reasoned and limited system of government based on the protection of individual freedom.
The stakes are high, sometimes even matters of life and death. Shortly before 9:00 a.m. on October 2, 1992, Donald Scott, a 61-year-old millionaire, was shot dead by federal agents in his Malibu, California home. Thirty law enforcement officers from the Los Angeles Sheriffs Department, Los Angeles Police Department, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the National Park Service, and the California National Guard stormed Scotts 200-acre ranch. They burst into the home to serve a search warrant and to seize marijuana plants said to be growing there. Awakened by the noise of someone bursting into his home, Scott came downstairs to investigate, gun in hand, only to be shot and killed by a sheriffs deputy.
A search of the ranch found no marijuana and no contraband. The warrant was issued on the statement of a federal agent who claimed that, while flying 1,000 feet above the ranch and without binoculars, he saw marijuana growing below. Unfortunately, the real motive was much more sinister.
The raiders saw the federal forfeiture laws as a convenient means to seize a piece of property they desired. The warrant was based on misstatements and omissions and was later deemed invalid. The intruders were hoping that they might find something in the house that would allow the federal government to bag the $5 million ranch.
The real motive was to increase the size of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, a National Park adjacent to the Scott ranch. Scott had repeatedly refused to sell his ranch to the Park Service. U.S. Park Service officers took part in the raid, though they had no jurisdiction to do so. Ventura District Attorney Michael Bradburys investigation discovered that the value of the ranch was discussed at pre-raid briefings, where agents reviewed property appraisal statements and a parcel map showing adjacent land sales in the area. As Bradbury noted, there was no reason "law enforcement officers who were investigating suspected narcotics violation would have any interest in the value of property sold in the same area other than if they had a motive to forfeit the property."
In this case, as in many others, forfeiture law became the reason for law enforcement action and not merely an incidental consequence. Though there are great harms in either case, the danger to life, liberty and property is greatest when the pecuniary desire for confiscation alone motivates the government to act. It was not until after this incident that California realized the need to seriously commit to reforming the incentive structure which motivates many forfeitures in America today. It no longer permits agencies to use property they seize. Californias system should be examined, for it has passed more significant seizure reforms than any other state.
Lord Acton could have been thinking of asset forfeiture when he penned his famous dictum that, "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." When the government gains extensive powers such as those in asset seizure and forfeiture laws, combined with the creation of perverse incentives which bring benefits to the state or its officials for the exercise of that power, tragedies like the death of Donald Scott should be expected. Though we do not have evidence of a tragedy of this magnitude yet occurring in Michigan, this war makes such casualties inevitable in one degree or another.
With this reports information, the next time one attends a government auction, he should wonder whether it is Mrs. Benniss car he is buying. Similarly, the next time we flip through the Sunday paper and see an advertisement for a government auction, we shouldnt just glance and move on to the next page. Instead, we should be worried and wonder, even if we know we would never commit a crime ourselves, whether someday the things for sale will be the things we now call ours.