Sunday, July 13, 2008

Perverse Government Incentives

I found this article in one of my favorite magazines, the Economist. So if you've ever wondered what happens to all that money and stuff police officers confiscate each and every year from drug runners and other so-called dregs of society then click the link.

Some highlights (lowlights?):

"[The confiscated money and stuff] was meant to help out and encourage local law
enforcement by giving officers some discretionary income. In most cases it
does...A district attorney in west Texas took his whole staff to Hawaii for a
training seminar. Another spent thousands of dollars on commercials for his
re-election campaign."

Vacations to Hawaii and TV commercials. Awesome.

"But the asset-forfeiture programme has various problems. Some poorer counties
have come to rely on drug money to pay for their basic operations. Even in
counties that are not strapped for cash, there is an extra incentive for
sheriffs to go after money, so they may have more interest in the southbound
traffic than in people heading north."

If the officers get to keep the stuff they take, then they're probably more inclined to take things. Apparently law enforcement in some counties is financed using much the same methods as those employed by 9th century Norseman. Erik the Red would be proud.

"Another concern is that the government has broad powers to seize assets. In
criminal cases, forfeiture follows a conviction and so it requires a guilty
person. In civil cases, the property itself is considered guilty, and the
government has only to show by “a preponderance of the evidence” that the money
or gun or car was somehow shady. That is a lower standard than the “beyond a
reasonable doubt” used in criminal cases."

It appears in some places in America you can be pulled over by an officer and have him/her take your stuff on a whim...*ahem*...I mean according to the "preponderance of the evidence". Surely we can trust our well-trained, dutiful officers not to abuse these obscenely powerful positions.


"Sometimes the patrolman gets things wrong. In 2005, for example, Javier
Gonzalez was stopped in South Texas with about $10,000 in cash in a gym bag. He
was going to visit a sick aunt and planned to use the money to make funeral
arrangements. He was pulled over, and the cash was seized. The police report
said that he seemed nervous."

People make mistakes. Sure. But when "he seemed nervous" fits into the "preponderance of the evidence" it may be time to study more closely the sort of incentives facing our officers and to reformulate those incentives that lead them to expropriate otherwise law-abiding, peaceful citizens of their personal property.

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