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Money for nothin’ and the cars are free

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Sometime soon, the Jefferson County Legislature will vote on a law that would allow them to seize cash and personal property from people charged with misdemeanor drug and gun charges. They should be ashamed of themselves.

The idea arose from a discussion of the synthetic drug craze that recently hit the county. Because these toxic and potent yet not entirely illegal drugs seldom if ever result in felony charges against those found in possession of them, the theory went, a property seizure statute that applies to misdemeanors would add some incentive to leave these synthetic drugs alone. While not a particularly potent argument, and one that cannot on its surface be shown to be true, at least it isn’t hypocritical.

The hypocritical part kicks in when the legislators let slip their real reason for this law: they are drooling over the prospect of seizing property and cash to toss into their budget mix. Sort of a money for nothing and the cars are free plan.

Legislator Scott Gray has enthusiastically endorsed the idea, and he has made no bones about his approval of the economic aspects of the proposal. Others have jumped aboard, and the only thing that stands in the way of this Lilliputian juggernaut are Mike Behling and maybe Phil Reed, the two legislators who have expressed opposition to this plan.

Right now, police can seize personal property for a number of felony charges. Taking away the smoked-glass BMW of a midlevel drug dealer is not a penalty many people would ever lose any sleep over. (But it still might not pass the equality test.)

With the new law in place, you could be taking away the family SUV of a college student who has borrowed Mom’s car for a night.

Or the tractor-trailer of an independent operator who inadvertently gets caught at Fort Drum’s gate with a licensed pistol that just doesn’t happen to be licensed in this state.

Or the otherwise vital cash of a teenager who just got paid for a minimum wage job with money that is supposed to go for tuition and books, or groceries, or off campus housing.

Let’s face it — misdemeanor crime is a piddling deal. If it wasn’t, it would be a felony. If the Jefferson County Legislature wants to go after synthetic drugs, it should put some real pressure on the state to outlaw those substances. Then, when it is a crime to possess bath salts the same way it’s a crime to have heroin, the felony level gets triggered and all bets are off.

Here’s who will be hurt with a misdemeanor seizure law: young fools who haven’t learned any better; poor people with no political “juice” simply because they are poor; families who are connected to the “crime” in only the most peripheral ways; and working stiffs who commit minor gun violations. These are not folks who should be targeted for exceptional punishment, and seizure of property is exceptional.

Mr. Gray has blithely assured everyone there are plenty of “safeguards” in place to prevent abuse of this discretionary punishment. That it is discretionary is reason enough not to trust it, because when the application of a law is subjective, rather than objective, society has a problem. That it is being applied to misdemeanors is even more reason to reject it. We have tiers of crimes because it is recognized that some crimes are worse then others and deserve greater punishment than others. When you apply a heretofore felonious application to a lesser crime without elevating the overall status of that crime, you are putting our justice system out of whack. And frankly, a county legislature should never be trusted to make judgments on our justice system.

As for the many “safeguards” the legislature is touting, while it is true that judges will review prosecutorial decisions to seize property, who reviews prosecutorial decisions not to seize property? This speaks to the heart of the randomness and subjectivity of the law — Cindy Intschert and her successors will be making arbitrary decisions on what to seize, what to leave alone. It would be bad enough if the decision is based on the egregiousness of the misdemeanor. It will be unconscionable if it comes down to whether the vehicle is a new Cadillac Escalade, or a six-year-old Kia Soul.

Finally, we should all find the avarice of our legislators appalling. Seizing personal property as a function of making budget goals is not democratic. It smacks of the lowest kind of official greed. And no matter what the legislators say now, it won’t be evenly applied because it cannot be evenly applied. Every decisions will be in some measure arbitrary and capricious.

This is a bad idea being rushed through the system. The Legislature needs to step back, calm down and think this one through. No matter how much lipstick you put on this proposal, it’s still gonna be a pig.

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