Paved With Gold

There’s money to be made on the streets. You won’t be making it. You’ll be paying it. It’s been there for decades, but to the extent municipalities didn’t make the roads go cha-ching, it was merely self-restraint. That’s gone. It started with the drug dealers. Move on to the drunk drivers. Now, it’s anyone with the misfortune of being in the crosshairs.

Denver cab driver Semere Fremichael got caught up in an undercover prostitution sting. He was innocent—he thought she wanted a ride, not sex for pay—and was acquitted by a judge.

His taxi, however, got taken for a rough ride. Denver’s Fox affiliate has an excellent two-part investigation showing how the city attorney’s office is using civil asset forfeiture to cash in by snatching vehicles like Fremichael’s for even low-level crimes, and even when their owners aren’t convicted.

This isn’t hard to follow. Property used in the commission of a crime, purchased with the proceeds, or substitute proceeds, or which “facilitated” a crime, is forfeitable to the sovereign. Because this is usually pursued as an in rem action against the property, a legal fiction, it’s civil and the burden of proof is preponderance of the evidence. It was originally probable cause under federal law, but that was too easy even for Congress.

In 2016, Denver made more than $2.4 million, seizing more than 1,800 vehicles enforcing the civil forfeiture component of its public nuisance abatement laws. Civil forfeiture is a controversial procedure that allows cities (and states and the federal government) to seize and keep somebody’s assets and property without actually convicting them of a crime.

As is usually the case, this made perfect sense when enacted because nobody ever believes a law will be abused at the time. And there’s a problem that demands a solution. So we get a solution, which has some fuzzy edges so the bad dudes won’t figure out a way to circumvent it, and everyone is happy. Until it starts its inevitable slide down the slope as government realizes they’ve got a law, they’ve got a need for money, and the two fit together very nicely.

Denver put the screws to Fremichael, according to Fox reporter Rob Low, offering him a civil version of a plea deal: He could get the car back in 30 days if he gave them $1,000. Or he could demand a civil hearing. If he lost, it would cost him $6,000 and he could lose the car for a year. He took the deal, and says he probably lost an additional $2,500 because he couldn’t use his cab for a month, even though he committed no crime.

This is the “small potatoes” version of the scam. A mere thousand to get his own car back? It would cost him far more to hire a lawyer. It would cost him far more to live without it while fighting to get it back. It’s a business decision. And Denver would much rather have his cash than his car, which will sit in an impound lot until it rots, then get auctioned off for pennies. They don’t want pennies when they can get thousands with no effort.

But this is an old story, likely one you already know well. There is a new cash machine to be found on the streets as well.

Oklahoma has finalized a deal with a Massachusetts company to use license-plate scanners to catch uninsured drivers, and the firm expects to issue 20,000 citations a month starting as early as next year.

The program, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, involves setting up automated high-speed cameras on highways around the state to detect uninsured vehicles and mailing their owners a citation with a fine of $184, according to the District Attorneys Council.

Well, this sounds different. After all, no one has a right to drive uninsured, and no one wants to be on the receiving end of an accident with an uninsured driver. Is there an issue?

Gatso USA, a Beverly, Massachusetts-based company that specializes in red-light-running and speeding detection systems, will initially get $80, or 43 percent, of each fine. Its cut will decrease to $74 after two years and $68 after five years, according to a contract approved by the state after months of legal review and negotiation. The company could expect to bring in $1.6 million a month, or $19 million a year, if the 20,000 citations are issued monthly. Gatso is a subsidiary of a Dutch company.

A private contractor will make a ton of money off this program. Then again, it will handle all the start-up and carrying costs, taking the burden off government and law enforcement and, in essence, handing over a plug and play system for them to milk to their heart’s content. Some, of course, will be outraged that a private contractor will make bank on a public offense, but those scanners cost money, the systems cost money, and Gatso is paying. It’s just business.

And like drug dealers and other random criminals, nobody feels sorry for uninsured drivers. While you might take issue with the Gatso’s cut, you won’t have a problem with uninsured drivers getting $184 citations, right? They deserve it, and more.

Except when the citation lands in your mailbox because some scanner made a boo boo. Tech is great, until it isn’t. Tech fails all the time because we have unwarranted faith in it even though it lets us down constantly. Dirt on a plate, a cover, a bent plate, or just random errors, could turn that miraculous scanner into a weapon for the unwary. And Gatso, not to mention the cops, has a huge incentive to collect as much money as possible, because money is good.

What to do? Hire a lawyer to fight a $184 ticket? Lose a day of work, maybe lose a job because you lost a day of work, fighting city hall? The innocent will be swept into the mix along with the guilty, and it will be your problem to fix their problem at your expense.

Vehicle owners who receive inaccurate citations can avoid payment by showing that they were insured at the time they were scanned.

Seems easy enough. It always does. But it also shows that they realize there will be mistakes because the system isn’t foolproof, and there will be consequences.

Citations will come from the company, not district attorneys. If vehicle owners don’t pay the citations, the information gets forwarded to district attorneys for potential prosecution.

Those paying and getting insurance also avoid other penalties that would come from a traditional citation, like a license suspension, said Trent Baggett, executive coordinator of the District Attorneys Council.

“All we want is for people to get their insurance,” he said.

All they want is money. This is just the latest way the streets give up their gold.

17 comments on “Paved With Gold

  1. REvers

    Note that you won’t get prosecuted unless you fail to pay the District Attorney’s Council. That makes it a protection racket. Give them the cash and they go away.

    1. SHG Post author

      This has become a common feature rather than bug to overcome the necessity of personally ascertaining whether a car is insured by asking for proof of insurance. And for the most part, people are a lot happier paying without prosecution or points, so they won’t complain.

    1. SHG Post author

      It sounds like authoritarian heaven, which looks exactly the same for progressives or conservatives except for the color of the line down the middle of the road.

  2. rxc

    “Property used in the commission of a crime, purchased with the proceeds, or substitute proceeds, or which “facilitated” a crime, is forfeitable to the sovereign.”

    So why aren’t they able to seize every car that is used to travel faster than the posted speed limit? Is this because moving violations (and even parking violations) are not considered to be a “crime”?

    1. SHG Post author

      Most traffic offenses are infractions, falling below the level of a crime. At least there still needs to be an arguable crime involved.

      1. REvers

        Traffic offenses are misdemeanors in Oklahoma. So are parking tickets, for that matter.

        Let’s not give our legislizards any ideas, shall we?

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