Stealing Camp Zoe: The Forfeiture Gang Strikes

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Mike Johnston’s
first hint that something unusual was happening at Camp Zoe was
the presence of four police officers at Tiffany Hall, the campground’s
dining area.

“I wondered
if the police might be looking for someone’s missing kid,” Mike
recalled to Pro Libertate. “But as I walked through the camp
I saw a couple more, and then a couple more — and then I saw a bunch
of guys in SWAT fatigues with assault rifles. One of them had a
German Shepherd on a leash. All of them were doing their best to
look intimidating.”

The armed visitors
who materialized at about 7:30 a.m. on November 1 were part of a
multi-jurisdictional task force
that invaded Camp
Zoe
, a popular outdoor music venue and campground in Missouri’s
Shannon County. The previous evening had brought the 2010 concert
season to an end with the final night of the fall “Spookstock” festival.

“Every letter
of the alphabet was represented” in the raid, Mike’s wife Joni wryly
observes. “There were people from the DEA, the IRS, the Highway
Patrol, from Homeland Security, the local police and country Sheriff’s
Office. There was a group from the Rolla
Police Department
, which is two counties away from here.”

Mike and Joni
were among those who had stayed overnight to help with custodial
work and other housekeeping matters. Mike had slept in later than
he had planned, so he may have still been a little groggy as he
absorbed the shock of seeing SWAT operators prowling the grounds.
While he tried to make sense of the spectacle, one of Mike’s friends
commented: “You haven’t seen what’s going on behind the bus.”

In the open
field behind the bus “there were three huge RVs surrounded by more
than a dozen other vehicles from every local police department and
several federal agencies,” Mike recounted. “One of the RVs was a
State Police SWAT command center, and another one was a communications
center for the federal agencies. And there were dozens of cops and
SWAT guys swarming everywhere.”

According to
multiple accounts, one camp staffer (who prefers not to be named)
was briefly stopped by police on nearby Highway 19 as he was driving
his children to school. He was separated from his wife and children
at the point of an M-16 rifle. The detainee was taken into the camp
and briefly questioned before being released.

Witnesses estimate
that as many as 200 law enforcement officers took part in the assault
on Camp Zoe. Given the size of that mobilization, some would expect
that the police were dealing with a heavily armed gang that posed
an imminent threat to public safety. Yet no criminal activity was
found during the raid, and not a single person was led away in handcuffs.

This should
come as a surprise only to those who persist in believing that “law
enforcement” is connected in some way to the protection of life,
liberty, and property. Those who invaded Camp Zoe didn’t find criminal
activity because they weren’t looking for any. They weren’t
there to arrest criminals; they
were preparing to steal the property
in the name of “civil asset
forfeiture.”

“From what
I saw, it looked like the people from the IRS were in charge initially,”
Mike Johnston relates. “The original search warrant was for business
records, and I saw the IRS personnel hauling off boxes full of papers,
computer drives, and other materials of that kind. Apparently they
didn’t find what they were looking for right away, so the DEA guys
were next in line.”

Camp Zoe was
placed under lock-down while the raiders rummaged through every
corner of the campground, intimidating staff and visitors and seizing
personal items (including cash). As this was going on another federal
contingent was dispatched to clean out the personal and business
accounts of Jimmy Tebeau, the musician and entrepreneur who owns
and operates the campground.

The Feds “just
siphoned away all of his money, and then filed
a civil asset forfeiture lawsuit seeking to seize his property
,”
protests attorney Dan Viets, who has volunteered to represent Tebeau.
“This would mean that he wouldn’t have the money needed to fight
the seizure in court.”

Camp Zoe was
opened in 2004 by
Tebeau
, who plays bass in The
Schwag
, a hugely popular Grateful Dead tribute band. Since coming
together in 1992, The Schwag has developed a large regional following,
playing an average of roughly 140 concerts a year in addition to
the “Schwagstock” festival performances. By some accounts, the 330-acre
Camp Zoe is Shannon County’s largest employer, and Tebeau’s entrepreneurial
accomplishments were recognized in a
resolution enacted by the Missouri legislature in July 2005
.

Tebeau himself
is not accused of a crime. Yet Camp Zoe has been seized and Tebeau’s
personal financial assets have been confiscated by a motley assortment
of “law enforcement” groups.

Under the Orwellian
standards governing federal “civil asset forfeiture,” Tebeau’s property
has already been found “guilty” of involvement in a crime. The agencies
that seized it will be permitted to keep and divide it among themselves
unless Tebeau can prove a negative — namely, that he did not knowingly
permit the sale and use of proscribed substances by others.

Missouri state
law dictates that forfeiture proceeds be given to the School Building
Revolving Fund, which is administered by the state’s Department
of Revenue and subject to official audits. However, this isn’t the
case when the assets are seized as part of a joint (or “hybrid”)
operation with the Feds.

The Justice
Department’s manual on asset forfeiture describes this as “equitable
sharing” of revenue proceeds, and explains that it is intended “to
increase or supplement the resources of the receiving state or local
law enforcement agency” and can be used by the recipient “for any
permissible purpose as long as shared funds increase the entire
law enforcement budget.”

This helps
explain why practically every federal agency represented by an acronym
— as well as every local police agency — joined the Gadarene
rush to invade and occupy Camp Zoe.

If, on the
other hand, the raid had been a purely local affair, it could have
been “adopted” by the Feds after the fact. In congressional testimony,
former deputy assistant attorney general Joe Whitley described
how such an “adoption” takes place: “We receive a case which is
in every aspect a local case, been worked on pretty much by the
local agencies all the way from beginning to end, and we put our
cover on it.”

Under either
approach,police agencies are typically permitted to keep at least
eighty percent of the haul. The objective “is to reward the help
we get from our brother and sister law enforcement” agencies, explained
former Justice Department official Jerry McDowell in 2000.

Since these
“rewards” are doled out in explicit and willful defiance of state
forfeiture laws, what McDowell is describing is a criminal syndicate,
one far larger than any of the private criminal gangs whose depredations
supposedly justify the forfeiture racket. Steve Kessler, a former
prosecutor and recognized expert on forfeiture laws, has described
the practice of asset forfeiture as “unquestionably the largest,
most lucrative business in the United States.”

Much of the
money subject to federal forfeiture through “equitable sharing”
is never reported to state governments. In Missouri, notes Eapen
Thampy of Americans for Forfeiture Reform
, a non-profit
civil liberties group
, “prosecutors and law enforcement have
been able to systematically dodge requirements on how forfeited
property is reported and recorded.”

In many instances,
Thampy reports, civil
forfeitures are filed as such “until prosecutors can convince defendants
to not contest the claim, at which point the forfeiture action can
be re-filed as an administrative forfeiture because the property
is now abandoned or unclaimed.”

Furthermore,
“prosecutors around the state routinely send in incomplete records
that detail only a small fraction of the total forfeitures around
the state,” Thampy continues. Most of the recorded forfeiture proceedings
“are marked `pending’ in the year they are audited,” and prosecutors
seldom if ever revise the records to reflect whether or not the
seizure was connected to an actual criminal conviction, as state
law requires.

As a result,
literally millions of dollars harvested through asset forfeiture
in Missouri are diverted from their legal use and funneled into
the coffers of law enforcement agencies. The same racket is operating
in practically every other state.

In northern
Texas, reports
the Amarillo Globe-News
, officers in the State Department
of Public Safety have hauled in at least $14.6 million through asset
forfeiture over the past five-and-a-half years. However, “only about
6.4 percent — or roughly $935,000 — of those seizures have remained
in the area to benefit regional law enforcement agencies and taxpayers”;
the state police simply chooses “to bypass Panhandle state courts
in exchange for Amarillo’s federal court when the largest amounts
of money are at stake.”

Predictably,
this “has left some I-40 district attorneys frustrated and raised
concerns the federal court route gives DPS an easier and larger
payday at the expense of local counties and taxpayers,” observes
the paper. Which is to say that the “problem” isn’t the fact that
the DPS is plundering people in defiance of the law, but rather
that the State Police insist on Bogarting the booty.

The federal
forfeiture racket has turned I-40 into huge revenue stream for police
and prosecutors. That stretch of highway is just one of several
coveted forfeiture corridors. The municipal government that afflicts
Tenaha
, a one-stoplight town located on U.S. Highway 59, has
profited immensely from
shakedowns carried out by local police
: Any driver stopped by
police for any reason can expect to be relieved of anything of value
in his possession.

Should a “suspicious”
amount of cash be found during the traffic stop, the motorist and
any passengers will be placed under arrest for “money laundering”
or drug-related charges, and given an ultimatum: Sign away the loot,
or face prosecution.

This form of
extortion-robbery works best when the victim is carrying an unusual
but relatively small amount of cash — say, less than $5,000 — that
wouldn’t be enough to compensate for the hassle and expense of mounting
a legal defense.

In one of the
cases described
in a federal lawsuit
, an individual named Danny Green who works
as an investigator for the Shelby County Prosecutor’s Office threatened
to kidnap a couple’s children (by turning them over to the
state’s corrupt and frequently lethal child “protection” bureaucracy
)
if they didn’t immediately sign a document surrendering about $6,000
in cash.

It is in the
neighborhood of “impossible” to define a moral distinction between
institutional corruption of the kind displayed by those Texas law
enforcement agencies, and the variety frequently encountered on
the other side of the border with Mexico.

Granted, the
squabbling over lucrative forfeiture corridors hasn’t degenerated
(yet) into open warfare — but bear in mind that the ongoing depression
is still young, and official corruption will most likely take on
a much cruder aspect as existing revenue streams evaporate.

It’s important
to recognize that the civil forfeiture racket involves calculated
bribery and subterfuge on the part of the Feds.

In 1990, the
Missouri State Supreme Court ruled that forfeiture proceeds had
to be used to fund the school system. The ink was barely dry on
that ruling when Jean Paul Bradshaw, U.S. attorney for the state’s
Western District, wrote a letter suborning state and local police
agencies to defy both the court and the state legislature by inviting
the Feds to take part in forfeiture operations.

“I know all
of you in law enforcement are in desperate need for additional financial
resources,” wrote Bradshaw. “As most of you know, the money we share
through our forfeiture program goes directly to the state or local
law enforcement agency.”

One year earlier,
a DEA agent teaching a training session on civil forfeiture for
the North Carolina State Highway Patrol found little enthusiasm
on the part of his audience — until he explained that collaboration
with the Feds meant that the police got to keep most of the take.

“Then everybody’s
eyes lit up,” recalled one participant in that meeting in later
congressional testimony.

In 2000, following
five years of hearings on abuses of civil asset forfeiture, Congress
enacted a largely useless measure to “reform” the practice. The
late Henry Hyde, who at the time was chairman of the House Judiciary
Committee, had proposed an amendment (sometimes called the “Missouri
provision”) intended to end the federal kick-back scheme. Hyde’s
office was immediately “swamped by faxes from law enforcement protesting
the provision,” reported
the Kansas City Star
. Janet Reno’s Justice Department
pressured Congress into removing the amendment, which mysteriously
fell prey to a “glitch” when the measure was presented for a vote.

While an emasculated
version of the forfeiture “reform” bill worked its way through Congress,
the issue was a
hot topic at the July, 2000 National Conference of State Legislatures

in Chicago. Ballot measures demanding substantive reform of civil
asset forfeiture were passed by overwhelming majorities in several
states. This prompted the institutional equivalent of a smirk and
a shrug from the federal “Justice” Department, which continued to
play Fagin to its growing network of state and local plunderers.

The overt
thuggishness displayed by some police unions during the debate over
forfeiture reform a decade ago suggests a capacity for undisguised
criminal violence on the part of our supposed protectors that we
ignore at our peril. In its detailed series examining forfeiture,
the Star pointed out
that in many states “public officials
shrink from angering police.” Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice
Policy Foundation observed that it is “dangerous” when “non-police
public officials feel sufficiently threatened that they will not
challenge police lawlessness.”

Police unions
in Utah organized a show of force perfectly suitable to late Weimar-era
Germany.

“Last year
when we had a hearing on forfeitures,
they brought in 200 officers in uniform and just intimidated everybody,”
recalled Utah state representative Bill Wright in 2000. “As a matter
of fact, I had two ladies who said they were scared to death. I
have never been more intimidated in my life to look out there and
see 200 officers in uniform with guns on their hips, staring me
down.”

It may be
hyperbole — then again, it may not — to compare the scene Wright
described to the intimidation tactics employed by the uniformed
enforcement arm of Germany’s National Socialist Party during the
March 23, 1933 Reichstag debate over Hitler’s “Enabling Act.”

Despite the
Brownshirt-style intimidation of the state legislature and a taxpayer-subsidized
propaganda campaign depicting the asset reform ballot measure as
the work of a purported “drug legalization lobby,” the
measure was enacted with nearly seventy percent of the vote

— and immediately fell into desuetude, thanks to federal intervention.

The
Institute for Justice notes
that county prosecutors simply ignored
the law and used forfeiture assets as they saw fit, until a
federal lawsuit forced them to stop
. In 2004, Utah’s police
unions induced the legislature to overturn
the forfeiture reform measure
; accordingly, “one hundred percent
of proceeds once again go to police and prosecutors” through the
federal Crime Reduction Assistance Program (or, appropriately, CRAP).
Thus police
in Utah are once again empowered to steal any large amounts of cash
they happen to find, even when no criminal charges are involved
.

When it examined
the practice of civil asset forfeiture a decade ago, the Kansas
City Star confirmed that the federal kick-back scheme was
operating in at least half of the states — that is, in every state
the paper had time and assets to investigate. This corrupt arrangement
has, in principle, federalized every state and local police agency
involved therein: The police can seize any money or other valuable
property they can find and use it fund their operations in defiance
of any limits imposed on them by the population to which they should
be accountable.

“A lot of state
agencies, like the GBI [Georgia Bureau of Investigation], prefer
to work federal cases because we know it will go directly into our
asset forfeiture bank,” admitted GBI official Mark Jackson. The
same is true of any other state or local police agency. And this
arrangement results in skewed and potentially dangerous priorities:
Why should police focus on offenses against person and property,
rather than on low-risk, high-yield federal forfeiture raids?

One ironic
but eminently predictable result of this corrupt arrangement is
the growing trend toward tardy enforcement of narcotics warrants.

“There’s been
a pattern of SWAT raids and other drug enforcement actions in which
the police were very late in executing a narcotics-related warrant,”
Eapen Thampy of Americans for Forfeiture Reform pointed out to Pro
Libertate
. “This makes sense if the real objective

is to `forfeit’
money believed to be the proceeds of a drug transaction. If the
police had arrived on time, they might have prevented a sale, but
then they’d be stuck with the product, rather than the proceeds.
So they wait until after the deal is supposed to have gone
down, then they carry out their SWAT raid and take the money
instead.”

This is a double-decker
sandwich of official dishonesty: The police insist that SWAT teams

must be sent
to serve “no-knock” drug warrants in order to prevent the destruction
of evidence — and then they wait until the evidence is gone so that
they can grab the cash. The contraband ends up in the street, and
the money (less the amount skimmed by the Feds) ends up in the hands
of police and prosecutors.

The ongoing
effort to confiscate Camp Zoe follows this formula perfectly. The
paramilitary force arrived long after any alleged criminal
behavior took place. Because of the involvement of multiple federal
agencies, a criminal conviction isn’t necessary in order for the
forfeiture to be consummated. And proceeds from the sale of the
property — as well as the money stolen from Jimmy Tebeau’s bank
accounts — would go directly into the coffers of state and local
law enforcement, after the Feds take their cut.

According to
the forfeiture complaint, both local and federal law enforcement
officials spent four years building a narcotics investigation at
Camp Zoe. The document claims that Tebeau both permitted and “profited”
from the sale of drugs on his property. At least some of those sales
allegedly involved undercover police operatives, in their familiar
role of breaking the laws they’re supposedly enforcing.

Under the Fifth
and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as the equivalent provisions
in the Missouri state constitution, the criminal allegations against
Tebeau must be proven in court before his property can be
taken. The civil forfeiture complaint against Camp Zoe is intended
to permit the police to profit from alleged criminal behavior
without proving that Tebeau ever committed a crime.

“If they succeed
in seizing Camp Zoe, we can expect the same tactics to be used against
music venues nation-wide,” Dan Viets told Pro Libertate.
“This is a major test case that is being watched very carefully
by people who hold music festivals and other large events, and who
might find their property and profits subject to seizure without
even being accused of a crime, let alone convicted of one.”

Those
seeking to steal Camp Zoe — and their stenographers
in the local press — are betting heavily that the mainstream public
won’t rally to the defense of a counter-culture outpost owned by
a bass-playing entrepreneur in dreadlocks.

William Jon
Cox, a former prosecutor and police sergeant,
points out
that the current War on Drugs grew out of cynical
political calculations of this kind. For reasons rooted in sheer
political opportunism, the Nixon administration devised the drug
war as a cultural conflict pitting the “Silent Majority” against
the “Damn Dirty Hippies.”

Nixon enjoyed
an immediate (albeit short-lived) political benefit. The impact
on the culture of law enforcement was much more dramatic and enduring:
The federalization and militarization of “local” police is almost
entirely an outgrowth of the War on Drugs, which now poses a potentially
lethal threat to the very concept of due process and property rights.
This is why everybody who claims to cherish individual liberty protected
by law — whether they are Dead-Heads or Ditto-Heads — should support
Jimmy Tebeau’s effort to save Camp Zoe from the federal forfeiture
gang.

November
26, 2010

William
Norman Grigg [send him mail]
publishes the Pro
Libertate
blog and hosts the Pro
Libertate radio program
.

The
Best of William Norman Grigg

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