On driving.

On driving.

MARK SCHLERETH: Everybody’s done it — it’s depending — depending upon how much cheating you think it is. And again, I think to me it’s setting your cruise control in a 65 mile an hour zone at 72 and think “I’m not gonna get a ticket for that because nobody’s gonna give me a ticket for going, you know, 6 or 7 miles an hour over the speed limit.”

STEPHEN A. SMITH: Well, to touch on your last point, Mark Schlereth, as just a fun way of getting into it, most brothers that are behind the wheel, we anticipate we may get pulled over if we go seven miles over the speed limit. Let me just throw that out there as an aside.

— ESPN First Take Podcast, May 21st, 2015

When I was nineteen and visiting a high school buddy at his college, a cop tailed me for two miles, flashed his lights after I parked, then sauntered up and complimented me on my impeccable driving. I’d ferried a carload of friends down from Northwestern for the weekend, and by way of a “thanks for letting us crash on your couches” offering for my (twenty-one-year-old) buddy, we’d stopped at a liquor store to pick up a case of beer and a bottle of rum just after hitting town.

Unbeknownst to me, a recently-passed law made it illegal for minors to operate any motor vehicle being used to transport alcohol, even in the trunk1. Since I’d driven, then sat chatting in the car with a friend while our twenty-one-year-old companions ducked into the liquor store, the cop who spent his evenings idling on a ridge overlooking the parking lot (fighting crime one entrapment site at a time!) pegged me for an easy mark.

It’s true. I’m a privileged dude. I grew up in a wealthy suburb outside Indianapolis. At nineteen, I was having my first interaction with the police. I answered the cop’s questions because I naively thought that’s what you do, with the denouement being confiscation of our alcohol and citations — six hundred dollars all around — doled out to me, the underage driver, and my of-age friends, accomplices to the crime.

Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that my friend riding shotty had a baggie with a quarter ounce of pot in his coat pocket. To my suddenly paranoid mind the whole car seemed to reek from the furtive smoking he’d done during our drive, but I was a wealthy-looking white kid — the cop yoinked our sack of booze from the trunk without asking to search the car.

I’m less oblivious now. My high school was pure Wonder Bread, roughly what you’d expect in a suburb full of Republican doctors and lawyers served by an illegally-bigoted real-estate association2. Big houses and pale bland robot kids. I had black friends in college, but my mild touch of Asperger’s meant I never noticed their treatment by the outside world. Hell, we were college kids. We mostly walked around campus or hung around the student housing co-op, smoking pot and playing chess. We rarely even saw the outside world together.

During graduate school my big-C Consciousness score bumped from dead zero to something I hope is at least passable. My brown-skinned colleagues were routinely belittled by their advisors, and there weren’t many of them, and all the janitors were black and Latino, and the verbal abuse showered upon them was worse. Very frustrating to see. Although it’s shameful that it took me so long to notice.

White-looking white dudes in this country are free to be placidly oblivious. Maybe a bit less easily now — shortly after I finished my Ph.D. the national media started giving some coverage to the most egregious police abuses, like murdering people in the street3 — but, given all the “War on Police” coverage rolling on Fox News4, it can’t be that hard to remain ignorant.

As far as my own blindness goes, I’m trying to atone. I’ve done a lot of reading lately; I went through twenty-three years of education without picking up a single book by Hurston, Baldwin, Ellison, or Morrison. I’d blame my teachers but, at some point, didn’t it become my own damn fault?

Still, better late than never. I teach now, twice a week at the local jail. I volunteer with Pages to Prisoners, an advocacy organization that sends free packages of books. I run a correspondence writing program for inmates across Indiana, hoping that I can help some of our nation’s most stigmatized citizens find an audience for their stories.

And I drive really, really slowly. Like 27 in 30 m.p.h. zones. Like consistently below the speed limit, even downhill. Because heartbreaking work from contemporary thinkers like Michelle Alexander got me thinking about the Fourth Amendment.

When it comes to harping about the Bill of Rights, Democrats yelp most about the First Amendment, Republicans about the Second … although Republicans will invoke the First, too, when it comes to their right to emblazon courthouses with religious iconography, or to deny pizza to homosexual weddings (only tasteless straight people would even consider serving greasebomb pizza at a wedding, but still), or to banish mandatory medical information from their “pregnancy crisis centers.” The First and Second Amendments bogart all the big press.

But it’s the Fourth Amendment that actually needs our help. Protection from unreasonable search and seizure. As you may have noticed, I have at times had non-zero quantities of marijuana on or around my person. My youthful indiscretions were less egregious than those of any sitting president of the last sixteen years, but they were certainly prosecutable offenses. And yet. I got to finish college, earn my Ph.D., marry, raise my children. No police officer thought to poke his nose into my pockets, cluck what have we here, and charge me for the eighth that I was holding. But just last month I sent a care package to a dude my age, my height, my weight, who has been in prison since he turned 19, six years of that in solitary, all stemming from a conviction of “possession with intent to sell” a very ordinary quantity of marijuana.

Dude has no beautiful wife. No beautiful life. I sent him, among other things, some erotic stories to read5. In his letter he apologized for even asking for them, but explained that after six years in solitary he felt so achingly lonely.

All of which he earned by being black. Caught with less pot than I’ve at times had in my own vehicle.

But he was searched. I was not.

In a world with real Fourth Amendment protections, he would’ve been safe. His life could’ve been like mine. He’s my age, my height, my weight! Except for more melanin and shorter dreads, his picture even looks like mine.

The heart of the problem is that you can’t do much in this country without a car. And the illustrious members of the Supreme Court have issued a series of rulings that cumulatively result in our Fourth Amendment rights evaporating almost as soon as we step into a car6. These are lucidly described in David Harris’s George Washington Law Review essay, “Car Wars: The Fourth Amendment’s Death on the Highway.” Unless you’re prone to high blood pressure or apoplectic rage, you should give it a read.

The Supreme Court reasoned that the Fourth Amendment was designed to protect innocents. As soon as you break a law, you give up your rights. Doesn’t matter that incorrect use of a turn signal is totally unrelated to the likelihood you’re dealing drugs — once you slip up, any cop who wants can nab you. Question and answer time! Trawl for outstanding warrants time7! Stroll around your vehicle with the drug-sniffing dog time!

The tangle of laws on our roadways is brutal, too. At times it might seem impossible to know and follow them all. Worse, it is often literally impossible to follow them all.

That’s why white people should drive more slowly.

Almost every road has a posted maximum speed. In most states, if you drive one mile per hour above that limit, you’re breaking the law. Fourth Amendment rights? Gone!

I’ve got itchy feet. I listen to music in the car. I plan out stories in my head. What can I say? Sometimes my mind isn’t totally focused on the driving. So it’s pretty common for my speed to fluctuate a few miles per hour here and there. To stay consistently under the limit, I have to aim for something like eighty or ninety percent of the maximum speed. 27 m.p.h. in a 30, say. 49 in a 55. Then my slight moments of inattention won’t bump me over.

But most states’ vehicle codes also contain a clause stipulating that you are in violation of the law whenever you drive at a speed “that impedes or blocks the normal and reasonable movement of traffic.” 8 The normal movement of traffic in most places I’ve lived is about ten miles per hour above the posted limit, which means that any driver below the limit will be in technical violation of the “impeding traffic” clause9. Which means, again: Fourth Amendment rights? Gone! The courts have ruled that technical violation is all it takes. And, yes, I’ve been stopped for driving “suspiciously slowly.”

The driving habits of the majority ensure that there is no speed at which minority drivers will be safe from harassment.

You might wonder, am I ranting about all this just to protect criminals? After all, if a dude doesn’t have marijuana in his car, or coke, or pills in somebody else’s name, then he’s got nothing to fear. Right?

Let’s set aside the sheer degradation of being searched, being presumed to be and treated like a criminal, and simply point out that this supposition is incorrect. The innocent are not safe. From Douglas Husak’s Overcriminalization I learned that some states prohibit “the possession of paraphernalia — items used for a variety of purposes, such as storing or containing drugs. Defendants may be convicted without knowing that the items that qualify as paraphernalia are typically used to commit drug offenses.

This is by no means a toothless prohibition. Did you know that some people use soda straws to store or transport heroin? I didn’t. Not until I read about Tyrone Tomlin, who was arrested in 2014 in New York City — and beaten severely, causing irreparable brain damage, during his 21 days at Rikers — for possession of a soda straw. The soda in his other hand was insufficiently mitigating evidence to keep him safe and free.

Have you ever driven with a soda straw in your car?

Or, how about money?

Seems ridiculous that it would be illegal to have U.S. legal tender in your vehicle. But, for some people, it is. Why? Because money is sometimes used in drug transactions. Which means that if a police officer stops someone — perfectly legal whenever any stipulation of the vehicle code has been violated, which, given that every speed technically violates either the posted maximum or the “impeding traffic” clause on most roads, means roughly whenever the officer wants — and searches the car, and finds money, that money can be confiscated. Especially if the driver looks like someone who might’ve intended to use that money to buy drugs. Or if the driver looks like someone who might’ve earned that money by selling drugs. Basically, if the driver looks black.

Police officers have seen MTV. They’ve seen videos with young black men flashing bills and braggin’ ‘bout the bricks they moved to get ‘em. Doesn’t matter that these videos are fiction, that many were produced and disseminated by white people, that studies have shown that the vast majority of both drug users and drug dealers in this country are white10. Facts are trifling things compared to how people feel.

Without Fourth Amendment protections to contend with, police officers have enormous latitude to make their prejudices come true. If the police think a certain type of person looks like a criminal, they can focus their attentions on similar-looking people, which will lead, lo and behold, to the capture of many criminals who fit that description.

To me, this sounds unfair. But because the unfairness is visible only through aggregate statistics, the risk that any particular driver will be stopped, searched, and incarcerated unfairly is considered to be merely “conjectural” or “hypothetical.” No young black male can know in advance that he will be the unlucky driver discriminated against today. So the Supreme Court has ruled that individual citizens do not have standing to introduce these statistics into any court case, even though anyone glancing at the data can see that they’re unfair11.

I’ll admit, the stakes here may seem small. When you next find yourself behind the wheel, you might feel an urge to goose the engine, nudge over the legal limit, get where you’re going a little sooner. After all, as long as you personally are not a police officer unfairly targeting minority drivers, are you causing any harm?

Yes. I would argue that you are. By contributing to the “normal” flow of traffic above the designated limit, you preclude the existence of any legal speed. This is a harm we cause collectively. But there is more: by arriving at your destination early, you profit from injustice. Those who profit from injustice are tainted by it. As a white person grappling with these issues, I find these words from Jim Wallis’s America’s Original Sin particularly instructive:

White people in the United States have benefited from the structures of racism, whether or not they have ever committed a racist act, uttered a racist word, or had a racist thought (as unlikely as that is).  Just as surely as blacks suffer in a white society because they are black, whites benefit because they are white.  And if whites have profited from a racist system, we must try to change it.  To go along with racist institutions and structures such as the racialized criminal justice system, to obliviously accept the economic order as it is, and to just quietly go about our personal business within institutional racism is to participate in white racism.

Acting alone, neither you nor I can cure the ailments of our society. But each and every one of us, individually, can forgo those perquisites allotted to us unfairly. If you, like me, look white, you could choose to violate the speed limit. You would probably face no penalty. But others, through no fault of their own, do not have that choice. They pay for your privilege.

In a world where others are required to drive slowly, shouldn’t I?



1. Indiana Code 7.1-5-7-7 stipulates, among other things, that “It is a Class C misdemeanor for a minor to knowingly transport [an alcoholic beverage] on a public highway when not accompanied by at least one (1) of his parents or guardians.” In case you were wondering about the retrograde pronoun usage, an earlier passage of the legal code stipulates that “the masculine gender includes the feminine and [sic] where appropriate, the single number includes the plural.” Equivalent laws are on the books in several other states, such as Massachusetts, but for the life of me I can’t imagine that any of these laws has made the world a safer place.

2. Harsh words, but true. It’s rumored that a company in the area once issued permits for black employees to display on the outsides of their cars because the police, knowing that black people couldn’t possibly live there, would otherwise pull them over for a little casual harassment. As recently as 1996, a black state trooper was stopped a block from his own home because a cop thought it inconceivable that he belonged anywhere nearby. The Indianapolis chapter of the NAACP brought a class action suit — this was by no means an isolated incident — that was settled in 1999, at which point the local police department claimed they would no longer systematically target older cars and black- or brown-skinned drivers.

3. You could argue that Eric Garner’s death in the arms of Daniel Pantaleo was somehow accidental. But Walter Scott was clearly murdered. And these are only the men whose deaths, like horrifying low-res snuff films, were captured entirely on camera. Of the thousands of black men killed by police in the past few years, some hundred of them unarmed, it’s hard to believe — grand jury judgments aside — that no other instances constitute murder. I’d list names — they deserve remembrance — but do you realize how long that list would be?

Some of their names: 1999-2014.   2015.   2016 – present (unprocessed data).

4. Yes, the shootings in Dallas were frightening. And two officers were senselessly murdered in New York City. But the “War on Police” coverage began long before Dallas and has been incommensurate with the actual harms suffered by our men in blue. I’m not sure violence wreaked by one or two unhinged individuals constitutes a war. After the tragedy at Sandy Hook, nobody claimed there was a “War on Elementary School Children.”

5. Every prison has a unique set of regulations as to what type of books they’ll allow inmates to receive. Some prisons set a limit on quantity, others specify “no hardcovers,” or “no spiral bindings,” or, and this is trickiest for a volunteer-run organization struggling to send out free books, “no used.” This dude was at one of the “no used books, no hardcovers” facilities. Let me tell you, not many people have donated pristine paperback copies of My Secret Garden lately. I wound up sifting literotica.com for tasteful stories (I have no problem with Saxon-derived language, but no way am I sending anything with violence or the word “slutty” in it), then spending half an hour in front of our one-page-at-a-time-or-it-jams, single-sided-only printer to put together a forty-page pamphlet for him. Hopefully the guards let it through.

6. I’d like to blame this development on the usual suspects, the quintet of crusty hate machines appointed by the political right, but I can’t. Whren v. United States, for instance, was decided unanimously. This case hurts most, setting a precedent that the police may stop any driver who violates any stipulation of the vehicle code, even if that violation alone, independent of an officer’s preexisting desire to stop a particular driver, would never be considered sufficient cause to pull someone over. Because most states’ vehicle codes span many hundreds of pages, everyone commits a technical violation sooner or later. After I finished my Ph.D. and was driving a U-Haul full of books and furniture from California to Indiana, I was tailed for several miles by a Utah state trooper who eventually dinged me for failing to signal for the requisite two seconds before passing a truck. I’d signaled for only a second and a half. Of course, after he stopped me he saw past the dreadlocks, army green cap, and sunglasses to my pallid skin and nice-as-pie wife and declined to even glance in the back. So it goes.

7. Even in Justice Sotomayor’s scathing dissent to Utah v. Strieff, in which the majority seems to have been bamboozled by recent quantum mechanical evidence from dual slit experiments about time-traveling information, ruling that the future discovery of a warrant makes illegal behavior by a police officer retroactively become legal, Sotomayor acknowledges that we have a long history of permitting suspicion-less warrant trawling of anybody driving a car. “Surely we would not allow officers to warrant-check random joggers, dog walkers, and lemonade vendors just to ensure they pose no threat to anyone else,” she writes, although she knows already that she is wrong — the majority would allow this. But Sotomayor has no beef with the haranguing of drivers: “We allow such checks during legal traffic stops because the legitimacy of a person’s driver’s license has a ‘close connection to road-way safety.’ ” Make no mistake: although she writes “legal traffic stops,” the modifier is redundant. Given the state of our roadways, all traffic stops are de facto legal.

8. This is true whenever you drive so slowly that “three (3) or more other vehicles are blocked.” In the small college town where I live this takes no more than a quarter mile driving dead on the speed limit. At two or three miles per hour below, that many cars can pile up within seconds of turning from my street onto the main road.

9. Not to mention the serious risks you incur by driving at or below the speed limit on a three- or four-lane highway; outside of rush hours, traffic flows at fifteen or more above on every city-circling interstate I’ve driven.

10. This claim is obviously subject to numerous assumptions. It’s difficult to accurately assess the frequency of illegal activities: I’ve lied on surveys before, and I can’t be the only one. Even though every survey indicates equivalent rates of drug use across ethnicities, disparities could exist. But it seems unlikely. Among people I’ve known, use of all drugs seems to be roughly correlated; I haven’t met people who never smoke, never drink, but are willing to drop acid or snort a line of coke. And the abuse rates for legal drugs, for which I imagine the data are more trustworthy, suggest that white people are slightly more interested in escaping reality than other ethnicities. As far as the racial distribution of drug dealers goes, the data are even more fraught. Total numbers are lower, which by itself means less trustworthy statistics, and it must seem even riskier to admit on a survey that you’ve been selling. So this conclusion is based instead on data that suggest people buy drugs from dealers who look like them. Again, there are caveats — even if everyone uses drugs at the same rate, and everyone buys drugs from dealers who share their ethnicity, it may be that some populations of dealers serve far more customers than others, which would mean fewer individual dealers.

If this were the case, though, we might expect incarceration rates to even out in the end. A naive expectation would be that high-volume dealers would receive longer sentences. That’s not what’s happened, though. Instead, black people are incarcerated at a much higher rate for nonviolent drug crimes, and they receive consistently longer sentences than white people for seemingly-identical infractions. Despite the fact that the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project serves a set of fourteen states where the population is only between five and ten percent black, about a third of the inmates we help are black (setting aside what it even means to be black in this country, a question far too tangled to be dealt with in a footnote).

11. This case, City of Los Angeles v. Lyons, really was decided by a quintet of hate machines. A black driver was stopped for a minor traffic violation, dragged from his car, and choked until he passed out. In an ensuing court case, the driver sought to change Los Angeles police department policy such that future drivers would not be choked. His lawyer documented that most drivers choked this way were black. The Supreme Court threw out that evidence and dismissed the case. Justice Marshall wrote a dissent that clearly describes the harm caused by willful blindness to this type of statistical evidence: “Since no one can show that he will be choked in the future, no one — not even a person who, like Lyons, has almost been choked to death — has standing to challenge the continuation of the policy.

On civil forfeiture, racial profiling, and outlawing self-harm.

On civil forfeiture, racial profiling, and outlawing self-harm.

aa-asset-forfeiture-great-oneI spent most of breakfast today blathering about civil forfeiture.  So K claimed I should write an essay about it.  I thought that sounded ridiculous, because I figured everyone already knew about it.  Indeed, a brief internet search revealed that even John Oliver did an extended piece on it; sure, we don’t have a television, but we have computers and an internet connection, and K often watches John Oliver while pumping milk for N.  Maybe it’s just that she’s less angry, in general, than I am, so she’s less compelled to know these things.

But there are a few features of civil forfeiture that I think are particularly funny / horrible.

I’m writing about a world with a criminal justice system rather similar to our own, as in what we have in the contemporary United States, except my world is slightly more logical.  Still horrible, obviously, because the horror is, for me, the entire draw toward writing about it… just more internally consistent.  As in, yes, black people are still massively over-represented in prisons.  But instead of being locked up for drug possession, they’re locked up for “intent to self-harm.”  After all, ingesting a drug (and then not driving, operating heavy machinery, etc.) hurts no one but yourself.  Ingesting a drug and then driving obviously threatens others, and so should be illegal, but that’s a crime that predominantly white people commit (based on statistics for the ethnicity of those causing alcohol-impared driving fatalities), so it’s possible to get things like the claim that civil forfeiture of an automobile used by a drunk driver is disproportionate to the offense, even though drunk drivers kill people, but civil forfeiture of money (from small amounts of cash scrounged up from the floor of a car in a traffic stop, up to hundreds of thousands of dollars) that police think might be used / has been used to buy drugs, is reasonable.  Even though the worst that might happen is the person who volitionally bought the drugs might overdose and die.  Unless, of course, that person drives while intoxicated, but dangerous driving should be an offense in itself, without regard for why you’re driving poorly.

To me, outlawing self-harm itself seems more logical than outlawing drug possession.  Especially something as innocuous as, say, cocaine.  This essay doesn’t condone illegal activity, obviously, but if you were going to take cocaine, you should drink it as a tea, or chew the leaves, practices that’ve been employed safely and responsibly for millennia.  Yes, cocaine is bad for you if you purify it and cram it up your nose – but try doing that with caffeine or nicotine.  Or, rather, don’t, cause you’ll die.

But it’s perfectly legal to possess purified caffeine, or nicotine liquid, or azeotropic ethanol-water (190 proof – quite easy to drink yourself to death with).  Whereas the most serious risk of harm that you’d be courting with possession of cocaine isn’t that you’ll hurt yourself with it, it’s that you’ll get busted and spend time in jail and potentially lose your money and home.

The latter being where civil forfeiture comes in.

Oh, but, right… I’ll get to it in just a moment, I swear!… but here’s one last reference to attempt to show that my internally-consistent world isn’t totally ridiculous.  Here’s an opinion piece from the New York Times about the harms caused by suicide being illegal in India.

So, okay… civil forfeiture time!  Just a handful of fun facts, presented at random.  Because there are other, better resources out there if you’d like to learn about this.  Which, you should learn about it.  If you live in the United States, that is.  Because it’s horrible, and the whole idea of the social contract means that by living here and paying your taxes and being a law-abiding citizen and whatnot, you’re aiding and abetting the practice.

Aw, man.  So, despite linking to it in the first paragraph of this, I only now watched the John Oliver piece.  And it was nice, but… all the victims are white people?

That’s not exactly the usual outcome of civil forfeiture.  Here’s a quote from Sarah Stillman’s article on the practice:

The public records I reviewed support Rulli’s assertion that homes in Philadelphia are routinely seized for unproved minor drug crimes, often involving children or grandchildren who don’t own the home. “For real-estate forfeitures, it’s overwhelmingly African-Americans and Hispanics,” Rulli told me. “It has a very disparate race and class impact.” 

And, later in her piece, when discussing a particular district that employed the practice egregiously:

Patterns began to emerge. Nearly all the targets had been pulled over for routine traffic stops. Many drove rental cars and came from out of state. None appeared to have been issued tickets. And the targets were disproportionately black or Latino. A finding of discrimination could bring judicial scrutiny. “It was a highway-piracy operation,” Guillory said, and, he thought, material for a class-action lawsuit.

But that was a daunting prospect. “Class actions involving race discrimination are extremely hard to win,” Guillory said. “Most of them go down in flames.”

Which, right, in that quotation there’s a reference to the fact that race discrimination lawsuits are difficult to win.  Often people talk reference the case Los Angeles v. Lyons.  A man was nearly killed by the police using a chokehold during a traffic stop, and he attempted to sue for the police to stop using those chokeholds.  But even though data existed showing that most of the people these chokeholds were used against were black, and Lyons himself was black, he couldn’t prove that the police would stop and choke him in particular again.  Even though the next victim would probably be black, that victim probably would not be Lyons, and so his case was thrown out because he didn’t have standing.

Which, to read more about this and other such horrors, you should look up Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow.”   I wrote one essay that mentioned her work earlier, but I’m not sure if I stridently recommended it when I mentioned it last time.  But you should read it.  It’s a very scary, very well-written book.  I don’t agree with all her conclusions, and I think she leaves out some important information and reasoning, but the legal analysis she does present is very good.  And she does so much so well that I can recommend it wholeheartedly despite my contentions.

But the basic idea seems to be roughly that a person needs standing to bring a case, and even when statistics exist to show that an average black male is in danger from a practice, that’s (stunningly, foolishly) discounted as evidence that any particular black male is in danger.  So no one has standing.

What often seems to happen is that cash is taken from someone driving – our traffic laws are so horrible that there is always a pretext to stop someone, and as pointed out in Alexander’s book police are also allowed to stop someone if they fit the profile of someone involved in the drug trade, which includes “too scrupulous following of traffic laws.”  So if you violate any traffic laws – if you drive 31 in a 30 m.p.h. zone – or if you *don’t* violate any traffic laws, and therefore fit the profile of a drug dealer, you can be stopped.  I don’t even look much like the usual victims of these crimes – I have dreadlocks, sure, but also receive all the privileges afforded to those whose ancestors lived in sufficiently mild climates that the genes for melanin production degraded over time.  As in, I’m a white dude, having lost one of the evolutionary hallmarks of what makes us human: here’s a quote from Quillen and Shriver’s Nature review on the evolution of skin pigment:

However, not all selective events were recent.  For example, patterns of genetic variation at EDN3 support selection on pigmentation in the common ancestors of all humans prior to their divergence.  Some researchers have suggested that this may reflect the initial darkening of skin pigmentation in pre-human ancestors as they lost the fur that protects the light skin of our chimpanzee cousins.

But, right, despite my appearance normally giving me all sorts of legal perquisites in this country, I was pulled over in a drug-bust-style stop in Utah.  K and I were moving from California so we were driving a Uhaul through, a police officer followed me for two miles, and eventually he pulled me over because I hadn’t signaled for the requisite two seconds before passing a truck – I used my turn signal for only 1.5 seconds before changing lanes.

Not that I should complain much – the cop didn’t steal all our boxes of books, after all – I included the anecdote just as further evidence that if they want to stop you, they will.  At least I was given an excuse: members of the community Alice Goffman wrote about in “On the Run” seem to have been stopped and frisked or thrown onto the ground with no rationalization ever given.

So, police officers stop might stop you.  Especially if you have dark skin.  And then they take your money.  Again from Stillman’s article:

Yet only a small portion of state and local forfeiture cases target powerful entities. “There’s this myth that they’re cracking down on drug cartels and kingpins,” Lee McGrath, of the Institute for Justice, who recently co-wrote a paper on Georgia’s aggressive use of forfeiture, says. “In reality, it’s small amounts, where people aren’t entitled to a public defender, and can’t afford a lawyer, and the only rational response is to walk away from your property, because of the infeasibility of getting your money back.” In 2011, he reports, fifty-eight local, county, and statewide police forces in Georgia brought in $2.76 million in forfeitures; more than half the items taken were worth less than six hundred and fifty dollars. With minimal oversight, police can then spend nearly all those proceeds, often without reporting where the money has gone.

So it’s unsafe to have money in your car.  But not all people living in this country have equal access to banking facilities.  Look, even if I got stopped by a police officer trying to steal my money, all I’d have with me is, what, twenty, thirty dollars?  For anything more expensive than that, I pay with a credit card. But if you’re too poor to have credit cards, if nobody’s offering you one of those free-checking-and-a-debit-card bank accounts, then you have to carry cash – it’s the only way you’ll be able to pay for anything.  For a family of 2.1, it’s not unusual for us to spend well over a hundred dollars at a time grocery shopping – I’d hate to lose that much money because a police officer decided to steal it from me, and no way could anyone afford to hire a lawyer to get such a small sum back.

To put it more concretely, why don’t I quote a paragraph from a 1999 ACLU letter to Congress regarding civil forfeiture:

One example of the type of case that does not receive publicity is the case of an African-American man from Virginia Beach, Virginia. He was stopped by police on June 16, 1998, while driving from Virginia Beach to Wilmington, Delaware. The police officer who stopped him claimed that a taillight was out, which was untrue. Once stopped, the officer subjected him to a search by a drug dog, claiming that he “looked like a drug dealer.” The officers asked him if he was carrying drugs, guns or money. He replied that he had $3,500 in cash. The officer seized the money, claiming that it must be the proceeds of drug dealing.  

And, right, I didn’t mean to get carried away on that tangent about racial profiling.  It’s just, I don’t know, I had linked to it so I figured I should watch the John Oliver segment.  And it did seem strange to me that everyone shown, in interviews and in the little cartoon graphics and tv-show-like re-enactments, was white.

Because a major reason why civil forfeiture seems so horrible is that cops steal money to use for their own retirement funds or year-end bonuses or luxuries at the office from poor black people.  It’s yet more data that gets left out of analyses about how regressive much of the United States tax code is (with the point being that this analysis looks at actual taxation – but when you add in other sources of funding, like civil forfeiture, poor people are paying even more): if the police need more money to do their jobs, why are they stealing it from poor people?

So… this essay is already pretty long, and despite my intent, I haven’t really talked about the particulars of civil forfeiture.  But, really, you can read other sources for that.  I still think everyone already should’ve heard about it.

Because it is true: civil forfeiture is wacky. It’s legal actions against stuff, like money or homes or possessions … police can take things from your car or home without charging you (or anyone) with a crime … you have to spend large sums of money to get your stuff back, often you have to spend money just to get a hearing to maybe get your stuff back … and your stuff is presumed guilty – you have to show a preponderance of evidence proving that your home or ipad or cash was not involved – or about to be involved – in any crime.  Which is ridiculous.

To me, given the way the logic of civil forfeiture works, it seems like if you’re about to spend cash at a fast food restaurant, and the person behind you in line might buy drugs later that night, and your cash would be given to that person as change, a police officer should be allowed to steal your money.  Because it’s the physical dollar bill that’d be charged with intent to commit a crime, and, yeah, if that dollar bill would be given in change to someone who would buy drugs with it, then that dollar bill is no less guilty than many other items stolen through civil forfeiture laws.