Many Americans may be surprised to learn their car, house, cash and jewelry can be sued by the government (e.g., United States v. One Pearl Necklace and United States v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins). And, unlike people, personal property is not presumed innocent until proven guilty. A little-known practice called civil forfeiture enables law enforcement officials to confiscate assets that they suspect were obtained illegally, without charging, much less convicting, the owner with a crime.
The Justice Department created the nationwide civil asset forfeiture program in the 1980s as a way to go after criminal enterprises. Under the department’s Equitable Sharing program, state and local police can keep up to 80 percent of the assets seized. The initiative was well intentioned: use the ill-gotten gains of lawbreakers to compensate victims and fund crime-fighting efforts. But, unsurprisingly, the practice is prone to widespread abuse. An investigation by The Washington Post documented many cases in which innocent Americans, often drivers pulled over for minor traffic infractions, had large sums of cash taken by the police on unfounded suspicions of drug trafficking. Those who can afford it pay an attorney and endure long legal battles to get their money back. But most cannot. Confiscation of cash and property has become a “routine source of funding for law enforcement” in the face of ever tightening budgets.
John Yoder and Brad Cates, former directors of the Justice Department’s forfeiture office, called for the abolishment of the program, writing in The Washington Post (9/18) that it is “at odds with our judicial system” and “unreformable.” Law enforcement officers provide a vital public service. Their efforts should be adequately funded with public money, not the police’s own ill-gotten gains.
A Proper Vietnam History
History never dies. It lives in those who experience it, study it and try to reshape its future telling. If we celebrate it carelessly, its lessons will be lost. Therefore, the Pentagon’s plan to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War with a $15 million multimedia celebration—including a website, exhibits, symposiums and oral history projects—needs an overhaul.
Its stated purpose, to “honor and respect Vietnam veterans and their families,” is worthy. The war’s context is much broader. That is why more than 500 scholars, veterans and activists have signed a petition demanding the right to correct the Pentagon’s version of history. The portions of the program now online are already riddled with errors and omissions. The 1968 My Lai massacre is described as an “incident,” as if it were an exception rather than one of many bloody scandals. The plan neglects the details of the great protests: the tear gas and beatings at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968 and the march on Nov. 15, 1969, of 250,000 anti-war protesters on the nation’s capital.
The next step is clear: turn the project over to a non-profit organization, independent of the Pentagon, led by a committee of prominent, publicly identified historians, representing all viewpoints, to advise and direct the creators. Otherwise, the end result will likely be a selective narrative of the war that can be used by the government as propaganda to support similar conduct around the world.
A Treacherous Task
Gold remains a resource curse for the Mayan people of Guatemala even as mining the precious metal continues to create fortunes for others. In this century, it is Canadian mining interests that seek access to Guatemala’s mineral wealth. Too often when powerful conglomerates secure access to a promising site, the wealth is extracted—and exported—but the ecological damage and poverty are left behind. For years, indigenous communities in Guatemala have resisted large-scale mining operations, and the resulting clash has sometimes turned violent.
An Amnesty International report released on Sept. 19 found that government policy, plowing ahead with mining agreements without consulting local communities, was exacerbating tensions in Guatemala’s mining region. In what surely comes under the heading of thankless tasks, the Catholic Church in Guatemala has been asked by President Otto Pérez Molina to mediate disputes between mine operators and indigenous communities in order to head off the potential for more bloodshed. Local bishops have in the past vigorously defended Mayan communities, particularly the bishop of Huehuetenango, Álvaro Ramazzini Imeri, who has called for a moratorium on new licenses, complaining that mining interests only “leave crumbs” behind. He has been rewarded for his outspokenness with death threats.
While it is worthwhile to intervene to keep the peace, would-be deal brokers or breakers from the church will surely be challenged to balance conflicting interests. This could be an opportunity to bring Catholic social ethics into practical civic play or for the government and mining conglomerates to co-opt local church leadership. Church officials must take care that they are not being mined for mercy by corporate or government interests with hidden agendas.