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On June 23rd, 2011, Democratic Governor Bev Purdue of North Carolina signed into law House Bill 427 (aka the “Run and You’re Done” Act), allowing North Carolina’s law enforcement to seize the vehicle of anyone accused (not convicted) of speeding away from a police officer. The car is then held pending the trial of the defendant on a felony offense.

Notably, the law as written does not protect the rights of innocent automobile owners very well. The bill does not even require (if I read it correctly) for innocent owners to be notified that their property is being taken; the only legal  requirements are that the police advertise in local newspapers for two weeks and post handbill notifications of the seizure around the place of seizure. Finally, law enforcement gets to keep (and may not sell) any high-performance vehicles that are seized (read: some cops like their toys).

The proceeds from automobile sales are delegated to law enforcement costs relating to the seizure first, with the remaining proceeds to be sent to the county school fund of the county where the seizure took place, as per North Carolina’s General Statute 90-112 (d1).

So it’s worth asking: Why precisely is this a bad law?

There are several reasons. First, this law gives police a revenue incentive to seize cars at will and file felony charges wherever an alleged speeding violation occurs. Second, this law allows police to seize  cars with little to no due process protections for innocent property owners, particularly those who are out-of-state or do not live in the county where the seizure happens. Third, evidence from other states where similar laws are enacted indicate that it is very likely that proceeds of forfeiture will not end up in North Carolina’s county school funds and that law enforcement will retain a majority of forfeiture proceeds.

The first argument is simple: we should not add profit incentives to law enforcement incentives. When police have a profit incentive to enforce laws, they over-enforce them, and the public is harmed because individuals are punished cruelly and excessively. Profit incentives undermine the links between democratic processes and law enforcement, incentivizing law enforcement to ignore actual public safety concerns in the hunt for profit in the day-to-day practice of law enforcement. TheNewspaper, a journal on the politics of driving, describes several real-life scenarios to illustrate this point:

Such charges could apply to drivers who have done nothing seriously wrong. In 2009, a Minnesota State rammed the minivan of a man accused of not using his turn signal, then arrested him for “eluding police” because he took less than a minute to find a place to pull over that was not covered in snow. He had his three small children in the car at the time. In 2008, a woman drove less than 10 MPH over the limit followed the general advice of waiting to find a well-lit area before pulling over. She was arrested by Greene County, Missouri police and only escaped charges when the incident hit the news.

The second argument is also simple: North Carolina’s new law contains only bare protections for the rights of innocent property owners. If my sister borrows my car and it get seized in North Carolina while I’m on vacation in France, I could lose my car without ever receiving notice of the seizure and there is no protection afforded in the law for my rights once the seizure has been finalized as a forfeiture. Such a situation would be manifestly unjust to me (or any innocent property owner in a similar situation).

The final argument is one that legislators should pay particular attention to. North Carolina is like Missouri and Indiana in that state law mandates forfeiture proceeds go to school or education funds. However, both Missouri and Indiana provide instructive examples as to why law enforcement should NOT be allowed to directly retain forfeiture proceeds. Specifically:

  • Law enforcement has ignored a provision in the Missouri constitution directing all forfeiture proceeds to education. In 2010, Missouri law enforcement funneled some $19 million in forfeiture proceeds through federal channels, evading state laws in order to directly retain that money for agency budgets.
  • In Indiana, prosecutors and law enforcement have used a provision in state law allowing them to deduct law enforcement expenses from forfeitures to keep the lion’s share of forfeiture proceeds. Attorney Paul Odgen found that only 1 out 92 Indiana counties could demonstrate compliance with Indiana law sending forfeitures to education.

North Carolina’s citizens should demand that this law be repealed or at least be substantially modified to protect their rights as citizens to not be victimized by over-aggressive law enforcement, to have due process protections when their property is taken by the government, and to deny law enforcement any loopholes through which funds can be circumvented from North Carolina’s education fund.

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