Compared to today's government seizure laws, Robin Hood was an amateur

Compared to today's government seizure laws, Robin Hood was an amateur
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The tales of Robin Hood are a romanticized version of wealth redistribution. Robin meted-out "justice" against the corrupt taxation by Prince John and the strong-arm tactics of the Sheriff of Knottingham by robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. 

Today, there are some prosecutors who have reversed the paradigm found in the Robin Hood legend, and are instead seizing from the poor in order to give to the government. Unlike the fictional character, who was clearly violating the law, these prosecutors work within the legal system to redistribute wealth to their agencies.

Case in point: recently in one of Arizona's poorer counties, a young man was pulled over while driving his parent's car and arrested for possessing some marijuana. The officer read the teenager the Miranda Warning, which typically includes: "You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you." 

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However, instead of charging the teenager in criminal court as you would expect, the county prosecutor chose civil asset forfeiture (CAF) and civil court in order to seize the family car. At that point, the teenager was no longer charged with possession of an illegal drug and under the assumption of innocent until proven guilty; instead, the case became the county vs. the family car. The car — or asset — was deemed guilty until proven innocent. However, seizing the vehicle not only punished the teenager, but it also punished the entire family, who were not involved or charged.

 

CAF and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) laws were originally enacted by the federal and state governments in order to target the financial assets of national and international organized crime and drug cartels, whose crimes are very difficult to prosecute. However, with increasing regularity, county attorneys and even state attorneys general have targeted average citizens, who cannot be categorized as an organized criminal enterprise, and who typically cannot afford to defend themselves. In other words, low-hanging fruit. And because they are prosecuted in civil instead of criminal courts, these targeted individuals do not qualify for a public defender to represent them and their property during the complex legal process. Too often, average citizens who attempt in vain to defend their property without legal counsel lose it due to technicalities, such as missing a filing date or incorrectly filling out a form.

Critics of CAF and RICO complain that some prosecutors have even chosen not to seize assets in cases where there is a victim, due to the fact that victims are entitled to restitution. Instead, it is more profitable to prosecute assets in victimless crimes, where the forfeited assets are only distributed to one recipient: the government.

Here in Arizona, it is estimated that CAF and RICO seizures generate as much as $50 million annually, and that the vast majority of those assets go to government agencies instead of restoring the victims of crime.

There is a growing national concern about how these assets and dollars are spent by individuals and their agencies, who by the way, retain the assets even though they do not have the authority to directly appropriate money into their agency budgets. The million dollar question remains: are these funds and assets being used for legitimate law enforcement activities, or do they simply become a slush fund with little or no accountability?

Fortunately, there are Arizona county attorneys and police officials who have established independent oversight in order to ensure that the civil process is fair, and that the assets are used for legitimate law enforcement activities and for victim relief. However, some government officials have actually spent these assets on dinners, parties, personal travel, expensive hobbies, political promotion, and even gifts in violation of the state's Gift Clause.

Recently, Arizona investigative reporter Valerie Cavasos examined the spending of RICO funds by the office of Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall. Among Cavasos' findings were two checks to "The Weather Bus." According to Cavasos' report, the Weather Bus has nothing to do with fighting crime and cartels; it is a "rolling science laboratory."

"LaWall also approved $600 to the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and $500 to the Pima County Sheriff for events recognizing accomplishments of staff," reported Cavasos. "The Juneteenth Festival Committee also received $2,000 and LaWall approved nearly $4000 for Neighborhood Associations."

According to RICO expert, Aaron Ludwig of the Counter-Racketeering Group, "Neighborhood Associations generally fight blight - pay for graffiti removal. That's not anti-gang."

With some law enforcement agencies struggling to make ends meet, as Pima County claims it does, there can be no legitimate justification for using these monies on activities that are not obviously and directly related to curbing the actions of criminals. The frivolous spending might serve the political interests of prosecutors, but we must serve the public’s interests and tighten up RICO expenditure rules.

An FBI investigation found that over an 18-year period, personnel within the Pima County Sheriff's Office laundered RICO funds in a conspiracy to misuse those funds. Of course, good laws are not made from bad examples, so the antics in Pima County are an extreme example, and should not be considered as the sole basis for reforms.

However, the fact remains that the misuse within Pima County did occur, which bolsters the argument for further investigation, reform and independent oversight of the very agencies entrusted to protect us against unlawful behavior.

Bob Thorpe (@AzRepBobThorpe) is an Arizona state representative and chairman of his chamber's committee on Federalism, Property Rights and Public Policy.