The District of Columbia has been running an extortion ring on motorists ensnared by speed and traffic cameras. The program was going well until it came to the attention of The Washington Post and DC’s very own Inspector General.

The scam involves forcing motorists to pay for violations they did not commit. It is quite effective because it is a better use of the victim’s time to simply pay the fine than contest it, and the DC government makes no effort whatever to resolve even the most egregious thefts from its citizens.

According to Dana Milbank, a political columnist not widely thought of as a bomb thrower, a “senior” District of Columbia official said, when explaining to an investigator how tickets are issued in the nation’s capital, “you are guilty until you have proven yourself innocent… That has worked very well for us.”

DC police chief, Cathy Lanier, called the Inspector General’s report “flawed” and “sensationalist.” She went on to say that there was widespread support for the District’s use of automated speed and red light cameras. Apparently, the chief law enforcement officer of the District of Columbia is unaware of the notion that “widespread support” is not an appropriate legal justification for theft.

In 2013, the scam yielded $172 million.

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Not to be outdone the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice and state and local police forces came up with “highway interdiction.” Following 9/11, the legislative climate was conducive to passing-without-reading virtually any law that related even remotely to safety. Such laws provided excellent cover for the concept of asset forfeiture.

Michael Sallah, Robert O’Harrow and Stephen Rich outed the practices authorized by our Congress and amplified by state legislation in a three part Washington Post series that is well worth the considerable time required. Parts 1 2 and 3.

The stakes are much higher in highway interdiction than with traffic cameras because the zealous police officers can seize anything they find in the car including contraband or cash and, thanks to the concept of “equitable sharing” they get to keep a portion of the booty. Training programs have been created to teach them how.

What could go wrong?

In a shocking development — shocking only to those who pass laws without reading them — there are contests to see which officers can steal the most and there are websites on which to exchange high-fives over successes. All that is needed is something really suspicious like a cracked windshield, excessively tinted windows, a twitchy carotid artery suggesting nervousness or a Hispanic appearance.

According to the authors, “There have been 61,998 cash seizures made on highways and elsewhere since 9/11 without search warrants or indictments through the Equitable Sharing Program, totaling more than $2.5 billion. State and local authorities kept more than $1.7 billion of that while Justice, Homeland Security and other federal agencies received $800 million.”

It looks like that number was billion with a “b.”

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But wait, there’s more.

According to The Economist, without even getting in the car, law enforcement agencies can snatch billions of dollars per year from corporations just by threatening to criminally indict them and, again, the prosecutors get to keep a portion of the take. Since 2000, there have been almost 2500 corporate convictions or deferred and non-prosecution agreements.

“In January, using 2013 figures that will surely be dwarfed by this year’s tally, Eric Holder, the attorney-general, announced that criminal prosecutions of companies resulted in the Justice Department collecting $5.5 billion in direct payments and played a part in the collection of another $2.6 billion by other federal agencies, states and designated recipients. This represented almost three times the $2.8 billion cost of the 94 United States attorneys’ offices and the Justice Department’s main litigating divisions, he said. That was a bit misleading because the payments included some won by agencies and states, whereas the costs were just those borne by the Justice Department. But the idea Mr Holder was putting over—that prosecutions can be treated as a government profit centre—is gaining ground. In February Manhattan’s federal prosecutor, Preet Bharara, announced that his office alone had, over a fiscal year that differed slightly from Mr Holder’s, collected $2.9 billion.”

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One wonders how behavior might change if citizens treated their governments like governments treat their citizens. By indicting them, for example, and prosecuting them as criminals.

Really? You Still Trust the Government?

Troppo Berk The Team

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