Regulatory Outrage

Just when you think government couldn’t be more outrageous, you read a story like the one in The New York Times last weekend about Edward Young, who was put away for 15 years. His crime was possessing seven shotgun shells. Not a gun, mind you, just the ammo.

When William Killian, the United States attorney, was asked why he wanted to send a man to prison for 15 years for innocently possessing seven shotgun shells, he replied, “The case raised serious public safety concerns.”

Law and order types think this is all hunky-dory; liberty lovers, not so much. If you wonder if those alleging government abuse are just kooks wearing tinfoil hats and imagining a government conspiracy around every corner, a quick read through Randall Fitzgerald’s Mugged by the State: Outrageous Government Assaults on Ordinary People and Their Property will raise your blood pressure and force you to see the government in a totally different light.

If the outrages that Fitzgerald chronicles don’t make you rip the book into pieces and burn it in your fireplace, you may race through it in one sitting.

The book hits close to home. My late father was a barber, cutting hair in tiny Abilene, Kan. An inspector from the state capital stopped by his one-chair shop and complained there was hair on the shop’s floor. My dad promptly replied, “Of course there is hair on the floor, you dumb-ass. This is a barbershop!”

Dad may have annoyed the government bureaucrat with his irreverence, but whatever the infraction was, a broom took care of it. Fitzgerald writes about Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs routinely fining and harassing small businesses, including barber shops. A barber was fined $150 for giving a trim on his back porch. Another was fined $250 for allowing girl scouts to wash cars in his parking lot, and one was actually fined $150 for, you guessed it, having “too much hair on the floor.”

These fines feed regulatory bureaucracies, leading to bloated budgets. The enforcement of petty rules becomes the justification for their existence. This mentality has taken over police departments. Here in sleepy Auburn, Ala., police officers were given quotas of 100 contacts per month, according to former police officer Justin Hanners. He protested the policy and was fired. In an interview with ReasonTV, Hanners pointed out how excessive this quota system is. “That’s 72,000 contacts a year in a 50,000-person town.”

“There are not that many speeders, there are not that many people running red lights to get those numbers, so what [the police] do is they lower their standards,” said Hanners.

Fitzgerald appropriately starts Mugged by the State with the war on drugs. This outrageous policy has led to millions of people being locked up and billions of dollars in personal property stolen by law enforcement using asset forfeiture laws.

Nothing makes a point like putting a face on it. Fitzgerald does this very effectively in his book. After spending 10 days in the Caribbean, Judith Roderick was arrested by the Thurston County Narcotics Task Force upon arrival at SeaTac airport. She had done some trust work for a customer who turned out to be an alleged drug dealer. The 55-year-old tax consultant was charged with money laundering and paraded through the busy airport in handcuffs.

But that was only the beginning.

Her bank accounts were frozen, denying her the resources to hire an attorney. All her business records were seized along with her computer and her boyfriend’s two Harley Davidson motorcycles. Her niece and two young children were held at gunpoint while police seized her property. Then the Task Force filed for a court order to seize her house.

She fought the charges valiantly, with no resources and with her business reputation destroyed. The state insisted she knew the 42 acres she wrote a trust agreement for had been purchased with drug money. Ultimately, the prosecution admitted it had no evidence. It agreed to drop all charges against her if she’d sign over the trust on the 42 acres. She did, “even though she had no claim on the property.”

Ms. Roderick sued for unlawful arrest and imprisonment, and malicious prosecution. She settled for $100,000 from the defendants after her case dragged on for a year.

The arbitrary do-gooding arm of the New York government cost Jerrold and Ellen Ziman $700,000 and the use of their building. The Zimans moved to Greenwich Village from California so Jerrold could act on Broadway. They bought a brick townhouse, which had been divided into rental units. They thought they’d be able to evict the three tenants, since they would be owner-occupants.

New York changed its law after they purchased the property and would not allow the tenants to be evicted. So the Ziman family of four was left to live in 341 square feet of their own home, while the other 1,023 square feet were occupied by three adult men who paid a combined $440 per month in rent. Rent that could not be raised because of rent control laws.

If federal environmental laws aren’t bad enough, states have piled on with similar statutes. The author tells how homebuilder Lin Drake ran afoul of both U.S. and Utah wildlife agencies when he bought and developed land for a subdivision.

Although no prairie dog holes were found on Drake’s property, a federal employee claimed to have seen a couple of the critters. Unfortunately, they dashed away too quickly to be filmed. However, the employee’s word was enough evidence to have Drake charged with violating the U.S. Endangered Species Act when he started prepping the land for development.

Virginia dry cleaner Bill Griggs was hit with a double-barreled shot of regulation when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) showed up for a surprise audit. And if that wasn’t bad enough, later, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) paid a visit. Griggs was forced to close down part of his business to satisfy the EPA, and it took two years to resolve the issues raised by OSHA.

Fitzgerald’s chapter on eminent domain tells stories, each as infuriating as the next, about government stealing property to benefit connected private interests. A couple of the cases are well known. Widow Vera Coking battled Donald Trump in Atlantic City when the developer was able to get a New Jersey state agency to condemn her home. This allowed Trump to purchase the property and construct a limousine staging area.

In the other case, the city of Mesa, Ariz., attempted to steal Randy Bailey’s brake shop for being a “blight influence.” The city wanted to hand the property to a politically connected hardware store owner who coveted the high traffic corner. The city’s attempt was thwarted, thankfully, by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian legal advocacy group.

Fitzgerald is careful not to depress his readers (too much), and ends Mugged by the State with ways to fight back. His appendix contains contact information for more than a half dozen public interest legal foundations, including Institute for Justice.

Governments at all levels are using force to bully and steal from property owners and ordinary citizens. However, people should know they are not alone. There are resources out there with which to fight city hall and win.

The old joke “We’re from the government and we’re here to help” is, unfortunately, not funny anymore.


Doug French

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