I’ve been writing about the un-American and totalitarian horror of civil forfeiture laws for a while, and I’ve been following the issue on and off for two decades, so the latest bit of outrage to make the rounds isn’t really a surprise:
On Monday, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, the Missouri Highway Patrol and the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed a joint complaint in the Eastern District of Missouri asking to seize the 350-acre Zoe Farm, alleging rampant drug dealing and drug use at events.
According to its website, the farm, called Camp Zoe, is located 150 miles southwest of St. Louis near Salem and hosts a popular Grateful Dead festival called Schwagstock every year, as well as biker and pagan rallies and individual concerts. Once a popular summer camp for kids, the property was purchased in 2004 by Jimmy Tebeau, a member of the Schwag, a Grateful Dead tribute band. He opened the grounds to recreational camping and float trips and began hosting the festivals soon after the purchase.
In the complaint, officials said investigators spent four years monitoring and interacting with concertgoers on the farm, witnessing drug use and completing open drug deals with participants during events. Officials allege that the owner and event operators were aware of the activity and “took no immediate action to prevent” the sale and use of cocaine, marijuana, LSD, ecstasy, psilocybin mushrooms, opium and marijuana-laced food.
This is typical. Fighting crime–even drug crime–is the job of the police. But that requires a criminal trial, which means the cops need to find things like proof and evidence. That’s hard work. It’s far easier just to declare that property owners should be responsible for fighting drugs on their own property and then seizing the property when they turn out to be no better at it than the police. It’s more lucrative too, since law enforcement agencies get to keep some of the loot.
(Of course, if you try to help out the police by reporting drug crimes you believe are occurring on your property, you’re just giving them more reasons to seize the property.)
Tebeau has not been charged with a crime. Nor would he have to be for the court to approve the seizure of the property under a civil asset forfeiture law that enables the federal government to take property that is relied upon by criminals as part of an illegal money-making enterprise.
Yes, this is real. Yes, this is America. It has worked this way for a couple of decades now.
It gets worse:
[Tebeau’s lawyer, Dan] Viets, who is representing his client pro bono, said Tebeau discovered this week that officials had cleaned out his bank account, yet he has not been served legal notice on that forfeiture.
“It’s pretty darn hard to hire legal counsel if you don’t have any money — and the government knows that,” Viets said. “It’s just heavy-handed and mean-spirited, and entirely uncalled for.”
For a guy who’s working for free, Viets is being awfully polite in describing the might-makes-right thuggery of the DEA agents, the Missouri Highway Patrol officers, and the U.S. Attorney. That’s probably wise lawyering, but my way is more satifying to write about.
When I first read about Tebeau’s problems at Scott Greenfield’s Simple Justice blog, I wanted to confirm my understanding that without Viets’s generous help, Tebeau would be unable to afford a lawyer and would have to try to fight a court battle on his own, against the government, if he wanted to keep his farm. I posted this comment:
Let me see if I understand the full horror of this situation. Tebeau is effectively indigent because the feds took his money, however, because forfeiture is a civil proceeding, he’s not entitled to help from the federal defender, right? So if Viets wasn’t willing to help him pro bono, he’d pretty much just lose everything, perhaps after an attempted pro se fight?
Scott’s response blew my mind:
Almost. The procedural rules for in rem forfeitures are under the Supplemental Maritime Rules, so he would have to know, pro se, how to navigate those instead of the usual Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
That’s “maritime” as in “of or relating to navigation or commerce on the sea.” I actually thought this might be some obscure attempt at lawyer humor on Scott’s part. After a bit of googling, however, it looked like he didn’t make that up. It’s just one more example of how screwed up civil forfeiture is: The goverment is using laws about ships on the sea to seize a farm.