Crime-stopper, revenue collector?

Photographer: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Stop-and-Seize Turns Police Into Self-Funding Gangs

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.
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In his book "Why the West Rules -- for Now," historian Ian Morris draws a distinction between two ways of running a country. He calls these “high-end” and “low-end” strategies. High-end states have efficient, centralized bureaucracies and a credible legal apparatus, while low-end states rely on local authorities to do things like collecting taxes and providing security. According to Morris, high-end states are more effective at creating rich, powerful, technologically advanced civilizations, but they are also more expensive -- when resources are strained, countries sometimes revert to the cheaper, low-end solutions. Often, transitions from high-end to low-end strategies follow wars, famines and other disasters that reduce the state’s ability to finance its activities directly. 

Modern rich nations, with their extensive court systems, bureaucracies, militaries and infrastructure, look distinctly high-end compared with the feudal lands of past centuries. But in the U.S., I see some troubling signs of a shift toward low-end institutions. Bounty hunting was a recent example (now happily going out of style). Another example is the use of private individuals or businesses to collect taxes, a practice known as tax farming. A third has been the extensive use of mercenaries in lieu of U.S. military personnel in Iraq and elsewhere. Practices such as these can save money for the government, but they encourage abuses by reducing oversight.

I’ve recently been reading about an even more worrying example of low-end statecraft: Stop-and-seize. This term refers to a practice, increasingly common since the turn of the century, of police confiscating people’s property without making an arrest or obtaining a warrant. That may not sound legal, but it is! The police simply pull you over and take your money.

A Washington Post investigative report from a year ago explains:

[A]n aggressive brand of policing [is spreading] that has spurred the seizure of hundreds of millions of dollars in cash from motorists and others not charged with crimes...Thousands of people have been forced to fight legal battles that can last more than a year to get their money back.

Behind the rise in seizures is a little-known cottage industry of private police-training firms…

A thriving subculture of road officers…now competes to see who can seize the most cash and contraband, describing their exploits in the network’s chat rooms and sharing “trophy shots” of money and drugs. Some police advocate highway interdiction as a way of raising revenue for cash-strapped municipalities.

“All of our home towns are sitting on a tax-liberating gold mine,” Deputy Ron Hain of Kane County, Ill., wrote in a self-published book under a pseudonym…Hain’s book calls for “turning our police forces into present-day Robin Hoods.”

This is exactly the process of devolution that Morris describes. With government unable to pay police as much as they need or would like, police are confiscating their revenue directly from the populace. 

The threat to individual liberty from stop-and-seize is painfully clear. Without requirements for an arrest or for a warrant, the power to confiscate cash is a clear diminution of property rights. Effectively, the police have been given official sanction to commit literal highway robbery without the threat of punishment. People whose property was seized must pay a lot of money and spend a long time in court for even the chance of getting it back, and police who seize money with no good reason don't, apparently, suffer any threat of discipline. 

But stop-and-seize also presents a danger to public trust. When the cops go around taking money from innocent people to fund their own departments and salaries, it understandably decreases trust in the government and the legal system. That is something we can ill-afford at the present time, with trust in the police already at a low ebb over a series of videos of police killings. If they don’t trust the government, people will be less likely to report criminals, and possibly less likely to follow the law themselves. 

Even more fundamentally, though, stop-and-seize is part of a worrying trend of less government accountability. The lack of oversight virtually ensures that the quality of government services will decline. This has been painfully apparent in abuses by bounty hunters, mercenaries and private prisons. But if the police are transformed into independent, self-funding armed gangs, the quality of policing -- and thus the effectiveness of all our legal institutions -- is sure to decline. 

If you believe -- as many economists do -- that the rule of law is a key determinant of a nation’s prosperity, then you should be worried about this. Stop-and-seize should be stopped.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Noah Smith at nsmith150@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net