The DEA and the Missouri Highway Patrol are attempting to seize a large tract of land in central Missouri known as Camp Zoe. Zoe is owned by Jimmy Tebeau, front man for the Schwag, the band that gives name to the Schwagstock festivals held on the property several times a year. (Full disclosure: I have camped at Zoe numerous times, both for Schwagstocks and private gatherings of friends.) The DEA and highway patrol allege that Tebeau knowingly allowed people to sell drugs on the property, but Tebeau has not been charged with any crime. However, that’s not necessary because under the rules of civil asset forfeiture, it is the property–not the person, who has all sorts of troublesome rights–that is charged with the crime.
This procedure is rooted in medieval superstition–essentially, people believed that property used to commit a crime was haunted–and biases the outcome in the government’s favor in a number of ways. First and foremost, in a civil case the government can win with a preponderance of the evidence as opposed to the much higher burden of a reasonable doubt necessary to convict a person of a crime. Also, since there is no person on trial, the owner has no Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and anything he says could be used later if criminal charges are ever brought.
Under Missouri state law this seizure would be impossible because Missouri requires the owner to be convicted of a related felony before the property can be forfeited to the state, but since the feds are involved that minor detail becomes unnecessary. The Missouri Highway Patrol also stands to profit handsomely from pursuing forfeiture at the federal level instead of the state level should they be successful. That’s because under the rules of equitable sharing, the federal agency will kick back up to 80% of the proceeds from the forfeiture, which assuming Zoe sold at its $600,000 assessed value, would give the highway patrol up to $480,000. On the other hand, property forfeited through Missouri state law must be given to a state fund for school construction to remove any incentive for police to enrich themselves by stealing property, but the federal government has given them an easy way of working around the obvious intent of state forfeiture reforms.
Finally, I wonder how much property the feds could seize under the rationale that drugs are produced or sold on them. I think we can safely include every venue ever played by the Grateful Dead, Widespread Panic, the Flaming Lips, Government Mule, Phish, and Moe, among others. Furthermore, even land already owned by the federal government would not seem to be immune. Rainbow gatherings are held regularly on National Forest land and the Black Rock Desert where Burning Man is held is federal property, and I don’t think anyone can credibly claim the government doesn’t know what sort illicit activities occur at these events. Simply put, if these are the standards, massive amounts of private property is subject to seizure anytime the DEA decides to investigate.
Update: I wrote a new post detailing how you can help stop the government from taking Camp Zoe and prevent similar incidents in the future, which you can read here.
Update II: I edited this entry and added a paragraph along with a sentence here and there and posted it to The Lesson Applied, another blog I write for from time to time. The new material mostly shows that asset forfeiture distracted the police from enforcing the laws they are supposedly trying to uphold. (I think those particular laws are stupid, but the police don’t–or at least claim not to). I promise I will continue to cover this story as it develops.