L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

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25 August 2006 Blog Home : August 2006 : Permalink

The Police's Right to Keep Your Property

If the police seize your property because they believe to be "illegal" or "contraband" but then a court fails to find you guilty then obviously the police will give your stuff back won't they? In America (and I would be entirely unsurprised to find the same elsewhere) the answer appears to be "not always".

One egregious recent example was that of the firearms illegally confiscated in New Orleans last year which are only grudgingly being returned to their owners:

The NRA says ony a few firearms have been returned to their rightful owners - because the New Orleans Police Department never notified gun owners how to claim their guns, and it turned away many gun owners, after setting impossible standards for proof of ownership.

Then there are the judges in New Hampshire who seem to have decided that the police are allowed to keep CDs seized in pursuit of a piracy charge where the owner had 6 of 7 charges dropped and is found not guilty of the one that came to court:

However, the police refused to return Cohen’s CDs. In the state Supreme Court’s Tuesday ruling, Chief Justice John Broderick, writing for the majority, reasoned so poorly that it appeared as if he’d made up his mind ahead of time.

Dissenting, Justice Linda Dalianis wrote, perceptively, that “the majority does not explain how statutes prohibiting the production, publication, or sale of certain works render possession of such works unlawful.”

As the editorial goes on to point out this is not the only time the NH judiciary seems keen to let the police keep their paws on stuff that they probably ought to hand back.

It should go without saying that speculation by a few judges that a crime might have been committed is a frightening basis for taking someone’s property.

Earlier this year, Nashua police confiscated video recordings of two officers being rude to a citizen at his own home. Though police dropped all charges against Michael Gannon and admitted they could not prove the recordings were illegal, they still kept the tapes.

If someone is found with cocaine or any other item clearly illegal to possess, confiscation is easily justified. But the illegality of these items was never proven, and mere possession was not itself illegal.

If the government can seize and keep a citizen’s property by simply asserting that it is contraband, even when the assertion is unsupported by the facts, then we have entered into dangerous territory.

The precendent being set here is extremely bad for civil society and, in my opinion, for public support of the police. The police in a liberal democratic nation operate mostly on the basis of trust and consent. We, the law-abiding, permit the police to intrude and to make mistakes when they do so because we believe that they will acknowledge the errors and provide restitution. If not then the police are really not much better than a gang of mafiosi running a protection racket and they quite simply won't retain the consent of the population that helps then track down the real criminals.

UpdatesFrom the comments I'm reminded that posession of large amounts of cash is preceived as evidence of a (drug) crime and so the money will be kept regardless of whether a conviction is secured. (e.g. this case)

I should also note the Pinko Feminsit Hellcat's oustanding artciles on debt seizre earlier this month - especially this one

Update 2 As noted by a commenter below the actual ruling makes it clear that this case is not quite as open and shut as the NH paper tries to make out. However, as with the money seizure case linked to, I still think that the judges are probably wrong. In this CD case, the issue is that the CDs are in fact admitted to be unauthorized copies. However as I read it, so long as the copies do not leave Cohen's possession then he has committed no crime. Hence the CDs should be returned and he should either negotiate with the copyright owner for the right to sell or he should keep them in his possession. The point is we have the presumption of innocence and unless we are moving to the dosgy area of the government interfering to stop us committing crimes, we have the right to our possessions and the presumption that we will not commit a crime with them. This is precisely the point at issue in the New Orleans case. Guns could have been used to commit crimes so guns were removed whether or not the owners of the guns had any intention of committing crimes or not.

I despise l'Escroc and Vile Pin