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All Your Property Are Belong to Us

On November 18, 2010, in Drug War, federal, by John Payne

Eapen graciously asked me to post my commentary on the Camp Zoe seizure here, and I am happy to oblige. I plan on covering this story thoroughly as it develops, so expect to hear more from me in the future.

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Missouri Highway Patrol are attempting to seize a large tract of land in central Missouri known as Camp Zoe. The land is owned by Jimmy Tebeau, front man for The Schwag, the band that gives name to the Schwagstock festivals held on the property several times a year. The DEA and highway patrol allege that Tebeau knowingly allowed people to sell drugs on the property, but Tebeau has not been charged with any crime. Such charges are not necessary, however, because under the rules of civil asset forfeiture, it is the property — not the person, who has all sorts of troublesome rights — that is charged with the crime.

This procedure is rooted in medieval superstition — essentially, people believed that property used to commit a crime was haunted — and it biases the outcome in the government’s favor in a number of ways. First and foremost, in a civil case the government can win with a preponderance of the evidence as opposed to the much higher burden of a reasonable doubt necessary to convict a person of a crime. Also, because there is no person on trial, the owner has no Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and anything he says could be used later if criminal charges are ever brought.

Under Missouri state law, this seizure would be impossible because Missouri requires the owner to be convicted of a related felony before the property can be forfeited to the state. The feds are involved, though, so that minor detail becomes unnecessary. The Missouri Highway Patrol also stands to profit handsomely from pursuing forfeiture at the federal level instead of the state level, should they be successful. That’s because under the rules of equitable sharing, the federal agency will kick back up to 80 percent of the proceeds from the forfeiture, which — assuming Zoe sold at its $600,000 assessed value — would give the highway patrol up to $480,000. Property forfeited through Missouri state law must be given to a state fund for school construction in order to eliminate any incentive for police to enrich themselves by confiscating property, but the federal government has given them an easy way of working around the obvious intent of state forfeiture reforms.

The police allege that Tebeau knowingly allowed people to sell drugs at Camp Zoe. That’s a difficult allegation to prove, because unless they have proof that he was involved in dealing drugs — which seems doubtful, considering the lack of a criminal charge — it would require knowing his mental states. However, according to the official statements of the DEA and the Highway Patrol, the law enforcement agents deliberately allowed and contributed to the sale of drugs on the property. This highlights a contradiction in law enforcement goals caused by asset forfeiture. It seems that the police were pursuing the property instead of trying to prevent crimes. Undercover agents buying drugs could have arrested any dealers that sold to them on the property and made a show of it to deter other people from doing the same, but instead they chose to pursue a forfeiture case, in which they stand to gain over half a million dollars, by allowing people to sell drugs for four years.

Finally, I wonder how much property the feds could seize under the rationale that drugs are sold there by visitors. I think we can safely include every venue ever played by the Grateful Dead, Widespread Panic, the Flaming Lips, Government Mule, Phish, and Moe, among others. Furthermore, even land already owned by the federal government would not seem to be immune. Rainbow gatherings are held regularly on national forest land, and the Black Rock Desert where Burning Man is held is federal property. I don’t think anyone can credibly claim that the government doesn’t know what sorts of illicit activities can occur at these events. Simply put, if these are the legal standards, massive amounts of private property are subject to seizure anytime the DEA, or another federal regulatory agency, decides to investigate.

(Headline reference here for any of you who don’t remember the early 2000s.)

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1 Response » to “All Your Property Are Belong to Us”

  1. [...] government has finally brought charges against Jimmy Tebeau, the musician who owns Camp Zoe, which the government is currently attempting to take through civil forfeiture. The case looks like thin gruel. Saint Louis’ River Front Times [...]

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