Policing for Profit, from Google to the Little Guy

The major stories, in Rhode Island, have seemed to deal mainly with that which the government has given away — $75 million in guaranteed borrowing for 38 Studios, untold billions for public-employee pensions.  Last week, though, some attention turned toward something that the government took away:  $500 million in forfeited cash from Internet behemoth Google.  The central question, on that topic, has been whether it isn’t just “common sense” to use local towns’ share of the money to cover a funding crisis for pensions.

With a bit of conspicuously good timing, Washington Post columnist George Will wrote, on Friday, about the dangers of asset forfeiture as a reward for law enforcement:

This town’s police department is conniving with the federal government to circumvent Massachusetts law — which is less permissive than federal law — to seize [Russ Caswell’s] livelihood and retirement asset. In the lawsuit titled United States of America v. 434 Main Street, Tewksbury, Massachusetts, the government is suing an inanimate object, the motel Caswell’s father built in 1955. The U.S. Department of Justice intends to seize it, sell it for perhaps $1.5 million and give up to 80 percent of that to the Tewksbury Police Department, whose budget is just $5.5 million. The Caswells have not been charged with, let alone convicted of, a crime. They are being persecuted by two governments eager to profit from what is antiseptically called the “equitable sharing” of the fruits of civil forfeiture, a process of government enrichment that often is indistinguishable from robbery.

The instances aren’t a perfect parallel.  The motel’s transgression was in renting rooms to clients who used them to sell illegal drugs, while Google’s was in selling advertising services to companies selling legal drugs illegally.  The complaint against Caswell is that he didn’t do enough to curb illegal activity on his property, while Google ostensibly had some understanding that its clients’ activity wasn’t entirely above-board.  Caswell was the target of confiscation, while Google agreed to hand over the money to put the matter to rest.

The biggest difference, arguably, is that Google will go on earning its millions, finding ways to make up for the money it lost to several police agencies, including the North and East Providence PDs.  The Caswell family may be left destitute if it does not retain its property.

Both constitute the argument against allowing police agencies — and the governments they more broadly represent — from profiting from their activities.  In proportion to their need for more revenue, they will target major companies (which will pass on the costs to the shared economy) and small businesses alike.  The more the incentives are internalized, the more the public’s “common sense” will become the cover for an increasingly aggressive model of revenue collection.

Exceptions can too easily become the rule when an entity can both make up the rules and profit when they are broken.  As both the Caswell and Google cases illustrate, the profits won’t even necessarily come from those who broke the law.

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