Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | August 17, 2013

Links for Saturday: Asset Forfeiture, Air Travel, Payday Loans

Just a handful of items:

1. Sarah Stillman wrote an article in The New Yorker about civil asset forfeiture. In a previous post, I noted Megan McArdle’s post commenting on Stillman’s piece. Ilya Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy also has a post about the New Yorker article. Writes Somin (emphasis added):

Despite such abuses, New Yorker writer Sarah Stillman writes that “The basic principle behind asset forfeiture is appealing. It enables authorities to confiscate cash or property obtained through illicit means, and, in many states, funnel the proceeds directly into the fight against crime.” I disagree. The idea that government can seize your property without ever having to prove that you committed a crime is deeply unjust, and creates dangerous perverse incentives for police, especially in cases where they or the local governments they work for get to keep the assets seized. The Texas jurisdiction discussed in Stillman’s article is particularly egregious, since it focuses its abusive behavior on out-of-town drivers who have little or no political leverage in the area, and face unusually high costs if they choose to contest the seizures.

A variety of reforms could help diminish asset forfeiture abuse. For example, police could be banned from keeping the proceeds, and state and local governments should give owners the right to contest seizures quickly and cheaply. In some states, current arrangements allow the authorities to hold forfeited property for many months without giving the owner any opportunity to challenge the seizure, thereby violating the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Ultimately, however, the best solution is to abolish civil asset forfeiture completely. If a person is convicted of a crime, he or she can be duly punished, including in some cases with financial penalties. Stolen or illegally acquired property can then be returned to its rightful owners. But there is no good reason for the authorities to be able to seize property merely because they suspect it might have been used in some illegal transaction. Moreover, once such a system is established, it turns out to be very difficult to prevent it from becoming highly abusive.


2. In Slate, Christie Aschwanden looks at the carbon footprint of air travel and speculates about why air travel does not tend to evoke the same kind or degree of environmentalist opprobrium as, say, driving a Hummer: “it’s easy to act like an environmentalist when it means buying cool new stuff like reusable grocery bags, a high-efficiency washer, or a hybrid car. When doing the green thing requires actual sacrifice or a substantial change in lifestyle, well, that’s where most of us draw the line.”

Via McArdle, who has some thoughts of her own: “So why, pray tell, do we spend so much time talking about suburban sprawl and sport utilities, and so little time talking about FedEx and European vacations? The question answers itself, doesn’t it? Giving up air travel and overnight delivery is much more personally costly for the public intellectuals who write about this stuff than giving up a big SUV. If you live in one of the five or six major cities that contain virtually everyone who writes about climate change, having a small car (or no car), is a pretty easy adjustment to imagine. On the other hand, try to imagine giving up far-flung vacations, conferences, etc. — especially since travel to interesting locales is one of the hidden perks of not-very-well remunerated positions at universities, public policy groups, nongovernmental organizations, and yes, news organizations.”

See also this Althouse post.

3. ProPublica has an article about payday loans and the efforts of payday lenders to fight state efforts to regulate such loans:

Outrage over payday loans, which trap millions of Americans in debt and are the best-known type of high-cost loans, has led to dozens of state laws aimed at stamping out abuses. But the industry has proved extremely resilient. In at least 39 states, lenders offering payday or other loans still charge annual rates of 100 percent or more. Sometimes, rates exceed 1,000 percent.

Last year, activists in Missouri launched a ballot initiative to cap the rate for loans at 36 percent. The story of the ensuing fight illuminates the industry’s tactics, which included lobbying state legislators and contributing lavishly to their campaigns; a vigorous and, opponents charge, underhanded campaign to derail the ballot initiative; and a sophisticated and well-funded outreach effort designed to convince African-Americans to support high-cost lending.

Do read the whole thing. Supporters of the 36% rate cap in Missouri tried an initiative because the state legislature was not a promising avenue:

The issue caught the attention of Democrat Mary Still, who won a seat in the state House of Representatives in 2008 and immediately sponsored a bill to limit high-cost loans. She had reason for optimism: The new governor, Jay Nixon, a Democrat, supported reform.

The problem was the legislature. During the 2010 election cycle alone, payday lenders contributed $371,000 to lawmakers and political committees, according to a report by the nonpartisan and nonprofit Public Campaign, which focuses on campaign reform. The lenders hired high-profile lobbyists, and Still became accustomed to their visits. But they hardly needed to worry about the House Financial Institutions Committee, through which a reform bill would need to pass. One of the lawmakers leading the committee, Don Wells, owned a payday loan store, Kwik Kash. He could not be reached for comment.

Eventually, after two years of frustration, Still and others were ready to try another route. “Absolutely, it was going to have to take a vote of the people,” she said. “The legislature had been bought and paid for.”

A coalition of faith groups, community organizations and labor unions decided to put forward the ballot initiative to cap rates at 36 percent. The main hurdle was collecting the required total of a little more than 95,000 signatures. If the initiative’s supporters could do that, they felt confident the lending initiative would pass.

The article goes on to detail the organization of the signature drive and the extreme steps that the high cost lending industry took, on the ground and in the courts, to combat the signature drive (emphasis in original):

Predominantly African-American congregations in Kansas City and St. Louis made up a major part of the coalition, but the issue crossed racial lines and extended into suburbs and small towns. Within one mile of Grace Episcopal Church in Liberty, a mostly white suburb of Kansas City, there are eight high-cost lenders. “We think it’s a significant problem and that it was important for people of faith to respond to this issue,” said McCann, who leads the church.

Volunteers collected signatures at Catholic fish fries during Lent and a community-wide Holy Week celebration. They went door to door and stood on street corners.

In early January 2012, a number of clergy opened their mail to find a “Legal Notice” from a Texas law firm and sent on MECO’s behalf. “It has come to our attention that you, your church, or members of your church may be gathering signatures or otherwise promising to take directions from the proponents’ political operatives, who tell churchgoers that their political plan is a ‘Covenant for Faith and Families,’” said the letter.

Please be advised that strict statutes carrying criminal penalties apply to the collection of signatures for an initiative petition,” it said in bold type. Another sentence warned that churches could lose their tax-exempt status by venturing into politics. The letter concluded by saying MECO would be watching for violations and would “promptly report” any. …

(It appears that no civil suits or criminal actions were ever initiated.)

MECO’s efforts sowed confusion in other ways. In April 2012, a local court sided with MECO in one of its lawsuits against the initiative, throwing the ballot proposition into serious jeopardy for several months until the state Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s ruling. During those months, according to video shot by the rate cap’s supporters, MECO’s employees out on the streets warned voters who were considering signing the petition that it had been deemed “illegal.”

I seem to recall from studying for the bar, years ago, that states used to have usury laws that forbade high rates of interest. But I guess that was a different time. Hat tip to Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber.


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