William Grigg of Pro Libertate has an excellent investigative piece up on the seizure of 352 acres of the Camp Zoe festival ground in southeast Missouri. The article contains one of the best overviews of asset forfeiture laws and their history I’ve read in a while, with particular attention paid to Texas, Utah, and Missouri, and also to the origins of the Department of Justice’s Equitable Sharing (read “money laundering” program). The entire article is worth reading, and I excerpt particularly a comment from Dan Viets, the attorney representing Jimmy Tebeau in the Camp Zoe forfeiture:
“If they succeed in seizing Camp Zoe, we can expect the same tactics to be used against music venues nation-wide,” Dan Viets told Pro Libertate. “This is a major test case that is being watched very carefully by people who hold music festivals and other large events, and who might find their property and profits subject to seizure without even being accused of a crime, let alone convicted of one.”
The Camp Zoe seizure is being promulgated on the basis of a 4-year investigation that found drug and contraband transactions were rampant on the festival property. Though there were legal options for the government to pursue, like arresting criminals and trying them in a court of law, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the other agencies involved in this seizure are arguing that the more appropriate remedy is to seize the Camp Zoe property independent of a criminal conviction; there is also some indication that landowner Jimmy Tebeau may be prosecuted based on the crack-house laws.
In other words, the government is literally arguing that it has the ability to take large plots of land based on the allegation of criminal activity instead of prosecuting the criminal activity. This raises huge issues on a number of fronts; since this is real property, there is reason for developers and any large property owner to be concerned that a government official may see their property and initiate a similar forfeiture. And for those who argue that drug forfeitures like these are desirable, I must point out that regardless of Tebeau’s culpability in this matter, it is a dangerous thing for the government to begin policing for profit and not to prosecute crime. The government never rolls back its authority under these laws, and laws that are first used to seize property on the basis of drug activity become the basis for property takings on more arbitrary parameters.
Moreover, there are First Amendment concerns with the taking of real property as a redress for criminal activity. Judges typically sentence with regard to incarceration, rehabilitation, and restitution; seizures or forfeitures that happen prior to a criminal trial implicate a host of First Amendment rights, including the right to assemble, and the right to engage in expressive conduct.