Crime / JusticeIamA I'm Robert Everett Johnson, an attorney at the Institute for Justice. I fight the government for a living, and earlier this month my lawsuit to end civil forfeiture in New Mexico made the front page. AMA!
Sep 13th 2016 by FreeRangeLawyer • 11 Questions • 4950 Points
EDIT 2PM ET: Thanks everybody! Got to sign off! Catch you on the air! --Tom
I wake up at 4:58 a.m. Monday through Friday to get ready for my show. On Point is a national live call-in show, and we’re on the air from 10AM to 12PM ET. We produce the show at WBUR in Boston.
A few things you may not know about me? I was a dynamiter in Alaska’s oil fields back in the day. I produced Chinese kung fu films out of Hong Kong. And my current job with NPR started as emergency coverage of the attacks on September 11, 2001.
Before On Point, I was a foreign correspondent, newspaper editor, and writer. I spent 10 years in Asia —India, Hong Kong and Japan — starting at the South China Morning Post, then as a correspondent for the Boston Globe. I started my reporting career covering the refugee exodus from Vietnam and the post-Mao opening of China.
What else? I was raised on a farm in Illinois. I studied American history at Yale and Gandhi’s independence movement at Andhra University, India. I love rhubarb.
Here's a link to On Point: http://www.wbur.org/onpoint
A few of my favorite guests: Annie Leibovitz: http://onpoint.legacy.wbur.org/2007/05/28/photographer-annie-leibovitz Peter Drucker: http://onpoint.legacy.wbur.org/2004/12/08/management-guru-peter-drucker Jewel: http://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2015/09/22/jewel-2015-new-album-live-performance Bill Russell: http://onpoint.legacy.wbur.org/2009/05/22/hoops-with-bill-russell
The Albuquerque Police appear to have gone rogue by flagrantly ignorning state law. Is there any prospect that they would also simply ignore a court order to stop such forfeitures?
By any chance did you and your wife do a student exchange to a town in the centre of Ireland last year?
EDIT: Seeing as this is the top comment, you crazy people, make sure you buy this game. Also thank you to whoever gilded me.
I love your show and one of my favorite things about it is how you politely cut off people when they are being crazy. How did you hone that skill? Is it something you are aware of while you do it? Does it come in handy during family gatherings?
Perhaps! The ordinance was actually declared unconstitutional years ago, and the City just kept on taking cars on the theory that it was a trial court decision and only bound the City in the one case where it was entered. Eventually the City made some narrow changes to the law to "fix" the problem identified by that decision (without really addressing the underlying issues) and kept on doing what it's doing.
But rest assured we plan to keep fighting until we've shut this program down. If the City doesn't follow a decision, there are things we can do to make sure they come around. One way or another this does have to end.
Radio techniques do not work for family gatherings! Trust me! On air, I'm always looking to get the value a caller brings. When we've got it, we're done. On Point is not about chit chat. We've got big stuff to wrestle with. But I always try to extend respect, and look for the value, the insight that's there.
How's the language learning going? Is Finland like Norway where everybody knows English, so you can attempt to speak their language, but they'd rather you not for risk of butchering it further? :)
Dude... You hit the nail on the head. It is EXACTLY that. :)
I try to speak Finnish, and take courses and such, but everyone who wants anything beyond a "Can you direct me to the deli counter?" conversation gives up and gets to the nittygritty in English. :D
I love Madison! Studied Telugu at the University of Wisconsin there before spending a year in India. Great town! Say hi to my old friend Joe Elder. Sincere and thoughtful? Well, shouldn't we be sincere and thoughtful? I mean, not stupidly sincere and not without some sass, but I think public radio listeners want and deserve genuine, thoughtful inquiry. My intereview style was fist shaped in newspapering, I guess. I was a reporter, starting at the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. But the sincereity is probably a midwest thing too. Illinois born and bred. On a now seventh generation family farm south of Bloomington. Very sincere, beautiful people.
All things considered, think you could take Ira Glass in a one on one fight?
Nah, that would just make them look bad.
We did, yeah.
EDIT: I've been asked to elaborate, so I will... We got the request and immediately felt like it was only fair that if it was within our power, we'd do it. We want everyone to be able to play and have fun, so we put in a little bit more work.
Yeah, no doubt. Unless he had Sarah Vowell with him. Or did that death stare thing. Then I'd be in trouble.
Since when have police cared about looking bad? They flagrantly break the law in this country and rarely face repercussions for their actions beyond paid vacations.
Oh, that was you guys? Respect.
When was CAF instituted as law? How was this found as a fair and due process of law? What other laws should the public be more aware and force a change in legislation?
Thanks for standing up for private property and the overreach of govt powers
Dude you just brushed that off like it was something anybody would do. I remember seeing that on the front page but I had no idea it was you. That is fucking legendary and only a truly dedicated dev team that really cares about their fan base would do that. Good on you
I think NPR is pretty non-partisan, but what do you say to people claiming you have a liberal bias?
Big picture, civil forfeiture's origin story is all about the drug war. Its origins trace back much further, to admiralty law (the law of boats), but it really took off in its modern form in the 1980s with the WOD. The idea -- which I'm sure seemed reasonable at the time -- was to give law enforcement a financial incentive to take money from drug kingpins by allowing law enforcement to keep the money to fund their budgets. There's a certain logic to it: If you want police to do their job, give them a financial incentive to do it.
Of course, the problem we see is that there's a clear mis-match between the behavior lawmakers wanted to incentivize (going after cirminals) and the behavior that civil forfeiture actually incentivizes (going after the easiest, fattest financial targets). What we see in practice is that the financial incentive created by civil forfeiture gives police motive and means to take money from innocent people. Not good.
Courts bent over backwards to uphold all this because of the whole war on drugs & tough on crime context, but as we see how it plays out in the real world I think they're starting to change their mind.
As for other laws - profit-motivated ticketing is a close cousin of civil forfeiture that needs more attention. Some towns fund their entire budget imposing bogus fines and fees (see: http://ij.org/case/pagedale-municipal-fines/).
He asked me a super basic question, though. :D Didn't want to over-politicize it.
I'm just trying to call 'em as I see 'em, to ask the honest questions, to keep the facts fully in mind. God help me!
Do municipalities such as Albuquerque ever name invaluable inanimate objects as defendents? Or only things they can sell for a tidy revenue? Has there ever been a case like City of Albuquerque vs. Rock that smashed a window or City of Albuquerque vs. Cigarette lighter used for arson?
What is the least valuable thing the city has seized and named as a defendant?
What was it like moving all of a sudden to Finland and what sparked the desire or idea of making games?
It was absolutely insane. I remember the first thing that hit me was stepping off the plane. I arrived in mid-January, and as I moved out onto the causeway between the plane and the airport my nose hair froze in my nose... Like... Solid. I immediately thought "Oh, shit... What did I do?" :D
The desire to make games has always hung around. I grew up playing, and always thought about games we would make if we could. So when I started over, I thought... That's it. I'm doing the stuff I always wanted to.
Yeah, that was a weird moment. I'm note sure why he balked so hard right there. I thought all hte question were reasonable. But politicians have to just go and go and sometimes they must just lose it. I thought most of his anwers were realy refreshing.
What you do is a great service for the American people, thank you!
I'm from TN and remember John Oliver doing a big piece about our state's civil forfeiture. Please fix my home state next!
Just kidding, but how do you decide cases to pursue? Do you wait to represent a civilian challenging the state? Or do you ever look at law books and find something unconstitutional and just fight that law in court?
What symbol of state oppression will you dismantle next?
Cold rocks, good choice.
Hi Tom - great show!
Following the news can be quite depressing these days, especially considering the state of presidential elections… can you tell us about some of the people and things who are most inspiring you lately?
There actually have been some reform proposals in Tennessee, which would require law enforcement to provide greater transparency on their use of civil forfeiture: http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2016/03/31/house-approves-bill-requiring-civil-asset-forfeiture-reports/82482058/
Of course transparency isn't a fix, but it is a start. It's amazing how little information is available in some states. If we don't know the scope of the problem it's harder to convince people to fix it!
In terms of cases, we pretty much always need a client who is an ordinary person affected by the law. (Otherwise courts will throw you out saying you lack "standing" to bring the case.) Plus aside from the legalities of it, it's a lot easier to explain the injustice of a law when you have a client who puts a human face on the issue. Sometimes our clients seek us out, and sometimes we find our clients. In the case I'm litigating in New Mexico, I was looking for a client and made phone calls to people who were fighting their forfeiture cases without any help from a lawyer. My client was doggedly resisting the City's efforts to take her car even before I came on the scene and offered to help.
What is their justification for seizing the assets and reselling them?
I remember how over-heated the buildings in Finland were. I actually loved it. I pretty much hung out in my underwear all day, looking at the thick snow tumble onto the trees and the pre-existing snow to produce the fluffiest snow image you can imagine...!
You made a good move. I really miss Finland, even with its reticent people. I mean all it takes is one beer, and they become sobbing blobs of emotions... :-)
Oh, man... Way too warm indoors in winter. I have to go outside all the time to cool off.
Favorite spot in the US is a little curve in Kickapoo Creek where I grew up chasing tadpoles. Favorite spot in the world? That's tough. I lived in India, Hong Kong, Japan. Spent ten years all over Asia. Love the Himalayas. Loved Bali back in the day. Loved Ajanta and Ellora, the cave temples in India. Loved Afghanistan before it got wrecked. And Italy. Who doesn't love a good spot in Italy?
Did you have any prior experience to game development?
How's the citizenship game coming along?
Do the huge taxes there live up to the hype that the world gives them?
The highest tax bracket is only 10% more than in the U.S., so... not really. :D
Citizenship is coming along nicely. In a few years, I will likely be a dual citizen. :D
Keep it real, baby!
What recourse does the common citizen have when those tasked with enforcing the law ignore the law?
I imagine its a bit of a mine-field. Good work my man, wishing you the best.
Also... whats the Nintendo NX look like? You got a dev kit yet? ha ha ha
That's why we have courts, and we need good judges who are willing to stand up to elected officials and enforce the law. Of course litigation is expensive, and the common citizen can't always afford to fight. In that case -- call IJ!
Haven't seen it! :D Don't have the NX devkit, no.
What state has the worst laws in place that are overly harsh to it's residents?
Is Finland the country where you go to saunas co-ed, completely naked, and no one thinks anything of it?
Edit: Thinks, not things.
Honestly, so many of them are bad it's not really a fair question. We did a study ranking the states' civil forfeiture laws and assigning them grades. Only 14 states and D.C. got grades of C or better. The majority failed.
If you find yourself in a situation where a police offer is looking to seize your property, what actions should we take on the scene or directly afterwards to either prevent the forfeiture or to best prepare ourselves for getting the property back later on?
After that, the Finnish government saw viability in our project, and threw us a little more funding.
This is what I don't understand. In the USA, I can go over $100K in debt with student loans. But I can't get a loan for a small business in the same manner. It's not even remotely easy unless you already have funding and collateral. Forget about grants, they're pretty much non-existent.
"Lawyer, please." Then: Silence. Silence. Silence. Silence.
Also: "No you can't search there. No I don't consent to search."
Finland has dedicated themselves to investing in their own people. The same, sadly, cannot be said of the US, in my opinion.
I remember a case from not too long ago in my home state, Illinois, where a couple was pulled over a couple driving to Utah to see a specialists for a medical issue. The cop searched the car without consent or a warrant and found over $100,000 in cash in the car. The cash was seized and transferred to the federal government. If i remember correctly over 25 states received a D or worse in terms of their civil forfeiture laws.
I guess my question is how can people prevent this from happening to them? Also what needs to be done to improve these laws?
Thanks for the great post!
You would think that access to financing to create businesses would be something the USA would foster. With it's pledge to "create jobs". But from my experience in starting my own business here, that's not the case. The only easy financing I have is equipment leasing though a commercial bank. Getting a bank loan would have required 35-50% down and/or collateral. Neither of which I have. So essentially my only options are angel investments and/or venture capital. SBA suggests asking friends or family, but I grew up poor so none of my friends and family have money to invest.
I'm a Veteran too, aside from education I haven't found any benefits in the small business sector aside from free advice/workshops.
Ugh, crazy story. That kind of roadside seizure is super common, but it makes me mad every time.
There's a lot of changes that need to be made to the nation's forfeiture laws, but I think the big ones can be boiled down to two: First, nobody should have their property taken without being convicted of a crime. And, second, law enforcement shouldn't be able to keep the money; it should go to the general fund to be appropriated by the legislature. That way we take away both the means and the motive to take property from innocent people.
Ironically, New Mexico amended its laws in 2015 to make both those reforms. We hold up New Mexico's reforms as a model for the rest of the country to follow. The problem here is that city officials in Albuquerque aren't following the reform law! So even once reforms are passed, it's still important to follow-through and make sure they're enforced.
Just quick, unsolicited advice:
As a vet, use that GI bill. Study your ass off, and hustle to become an expert in your field, then leverage that reputation with investors. Network. Fellow veterans will likely show you love. Meet everyone you can and see how you can help them, and how they can help you.
If Civil Forfeiture doesn't go away - how do you see this changing the relationship between citizens and their government?
Nordic people are reticent, but it's all because it's considered to be polite not to disturb other people. We value our personal space, and being as nice as we are we value your personal space as well.
This is a seriously great question and one I've been mulling over for an hour ago (and, honestly, even before you asked it). This kind of thing is seriously corrosive. I have clients who always believed in this country, some of whom came here from other countries to escape tyranny, and the thing they always say is that they never thought this could happen to them in America. But of course it is happening all the time.
Constitutional limits on government exist to protect individuals, of course, but there's also a sense in which those constitutional limits are necessary to protect the basic legitimacy of government. If government can't be kept within its proper limits, people are going to lose faith in the whole idea of democratic government.
Personal space?! BOOOORING. ;)
Is IJ hiring new lawyers, and how competitive is the hiring process? What sort of experience or other things do you all look for in an applicant?
Have you got your r's rolling yet?
We're always hiring! http://ij.org/opportunities/employment-opportunities/?p=job%2FoUIN3fwc
It's very competitive, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't apply. We're looking for smart people with the skills to do the job -- not any particular type of experience or resume check marks. The important thing is to convince us you're smart, energetic, personable, and passionate about the issues.
Do you or your organization target any issues other than CAF, and if so, what are they?
Tappara vai Ilves? :)
We do! IJ has four pillars -- property rights (e.g. civil forfeiture, eminent domain), economic liberty (e.g. occupational licensing), first amendment (e.g. speech licenses), and school choice. You should check out our website! http://ij.org/issues/
Tough question... I choose... Neither. Tampere Saints! (American Style Football team! ;D )
Do you have any advice for someone looking into pursuing a similar line of work? In paralegal school not sure if I should go to law school? Would love to focus on human rights violations. You are too cool.
How long did it take you to learn Finnish?
A lot of lawyers try to dissuade people from going to law school, but I'm not one of those. I'm the rare lawyer who actually loves his job. But I do think people need to think really seriously about why they want to go to law school and what their plan is to make it financially feasible. Law school is extraordinarily expensive, and some people end up taking out a lot of loans that become an albatross they can't pay off or lock them in high-paying jobs they hate (or both). Don't become one of those people! But if you have a passion for human rights work you should talk to people in the field and see if you can come up with a realistic plan to get from A to B. Plan, plan, plan, then do. Good luck!
Still learning. :D
Is there a lot of backlash from the government? Do they target your friends/family to keep you quite?
What was the most difficult thing about moving suddenly to another country (other than the language barrier)?
I did a pretty weird shift. In something like 10 days I went from military air traffic controller, to unemployed civilian, to expat in a country where I know a handful of people (only my girlfriend for any length of time).
The difficult part was for sure social isolation. In winter, people aren't just walking the streets in small towns during the day, so getting out and meeting new people was pretty hard.
This was my question. The constitution seems super clear on this issue in both the 5th amendment and the 14th. As written it's not a gray area open to interpretation, it's as clear as possible that the government can't take your property without due process.
Wow, I feel a sense of idolism toward you. You did exactly what my dream is. I'm twenty and just joined the navy, and I plan to move to england when I get out to be with my best friend. So, I guess I have two questions:
1) were there any difficulties or any resistance from the U.S. government about your move?
2) did you apply for citizenship in your new country, and how hard was that to accomplish? I plan on making it to England and never looking back.
Thanks in advance, for your service, and for just reminding me that what i'm doing isn't crazy; that it could be the best decision of my life.
For better or worse, "it's super clear in the text of the constitution" is not always the winning legal argument it should be. For a long time judges were very accepting of civil forfeiture, partly because they saw it as a way for government to get tough on crime. But we're making progress, and courts are starting to see that many of the people targeted through civil forfeiture aren't actually criminals. It turns out the constitution gives criminal defendants rights for a reason, to prevent innocent people from being punished. We've abandoned that principle with civil forfeiture, and now we're seeing what a mistake that was.
Wow. Never been told I'm idolized. Feels like that moment in Fable "Hero... Your renown grows." :D
There wasn't any difficulty, beyond them just moving me to my home of record (Nevada). So I ended up just taking one seabag of stuff, which was fine, because I only owned like... 2 boxes and a seabag anyway. :D
I haven't applied for citizenship yet. I need to be fluent in Finnish and have lived here for 5 years. Once I meet those requirements, I will apply to be a dual-ie.
Do you work closely with Robert McNamara? I met him at an IHS seminar, he's a great guy. Wish you all the best in your continued efforts to fight for the people. If you ever need some help with data analysis of any kind please feel free to reach out!
Sorry if that was over the top. It's just that i spent a good part of last night talking to her and making plans. And you know, i kinda feel crazy at times. Im going across the atlantic on a hope. Ive never even left the states! But to hear from someone who ACTUALLY DID IT, it's just very reassuring. And on top of that, ive always wanted to design video games.
Thanks so much for answering.
Edit: didn't even see the fable reference. You rock. Not my favorite game, but it was fun and silly, and honestly it felt like Sims, with guns and murder and a plot. I enjoyed it
Bob is the best. That's how I ended up at IJ: I was out drinking with Bob at a bar, and I said "geez I'd love to work at IJ." And he said, "you should!" And I said: "You're right!"
Don't be afraid to take chances. Even if you fail, you'll have one hell of a story, and better perspective. Totally worth it. :D
Hi, I'm very interested in this - from what I've seen, they are actually bringing charges against material goods, such as 'City of XXX Police versus $3516.72'. How can inert material matter be charged with a crime and taken to court?
Also, could these seizures be considered 'Theft Under Color of Authority'?
I for one am horrified at the lengths government agencies will go to to disrespect property rights of citizens, REGARDLESS of any criminality. I don't even believe that Drug Sellers should have their stuff seized through criminal forfeiture. Thank you so very much for taking this fight on. You have my respect and support(ive words, at the least).
Hi, Awesoem game, might grab a copy off steam! How long did it take you to develop this game? How many members on the team, what did each member bring to the team, and finally, how were you qualified to develop games, coding skills, designer perhaps. And another finally, how high were studio expenses when developing this game?
Thanks! You're absolutely right that the whole theory here is that inanimate property is somehow guilty of a crime. Seems crazy to me, but there you have it.
"Theft under color of authority" isn't a bad way to put it. If you want to get all legalistic, I'd say the government is taking peoples' property in violation of due process and is doing so under color of state law.
Hey there! From concept to release, we sunk about 2 years in. We didn't decide to become a company until it started to materialize a little more firmly.
Our team is now 10 members. I'm qualified in terms of writing, business development, and in terms of producing and release management. A lot of people forget you need someone to help coordinate between teams, communicate to outside parties (Xbox, PlayStation, etc.), and so forth.
We didn't take any pay during production, so our expenses were rent, and utilities.
Didn't you just do an AMA not that long ago?
Regardless, what's up shipmate?
I did like 4 months ago, yeah. :D
Not much! Just... launched a game. ;)
When Finns hibernate during the winter, what do they stock up on?
How did the idea of a Game Studio begin? I mean Even if your writing skills are on point there would be Many other opportunities? Why exactly video Gaming ?
I went to work for other studios first. I decided to apply at game studios because they work in English usually, and I love games. There was an open position helping a local studio communicate with the English players, and I snagged it for a few extra bucks per month. Then I fell in love as they gave me cooler assignments (like world building, dialogue editing, etc.) and decided I wanted to stay in gaming. :D
How did you know that sehe was the Love of your life... I mean if you met in Highschool i cant believe that you knew back then that you are going to see here a second time. Didnt you have any Trust issues? Or didnt she have any? I know these questions are personal but its ama, Right.
We made the relationship work for YEARS before I decided she was the one. We were friends for two, then dated for 2. Sure, there are little hiccups, but we both decided to make it work, and (most importantly) acted accordingly. This means prioritizing the relationship, honesty, communication, etc. above all things.
I would stay in on Friday nights skyping her for 8-10 hours, talking about life, the universe, and everything. I would wake up at 4 AM before PT to Skype her. I'd come home after a 10 hour day, and Skype her. I'd send her viber messages about my day, etc. Communicating a lot, and prioritizing a relationship really does a lot for trust issues.
Thanks for putting yourself in the public like this. It takes true courage to put your personal life up for scrutiny.
That said I want to ask a complicated question. I'm sure there is no short and easy answer.
I have been developing a new RPG. I have all the combat math tuned and everything is on paper (I'm old). How do I go about turning it into a digital game? I can code HTML, CSS scripts and have a solid understanding of the object oriented Bethesda language. What language(s) do you suggest I learn? Is there a suite of software considered to be universal (like Maya is to animation)?
I have spent 3 years getting my game to function. For what it's worth (nothing) my friends enjoy the game. I will learn any language and/or software. Where do I start?
Find a mentor, I would say. Someone you can trust that knows design. Put your game up to their peer review (use an NDA if you want to be 100% sure they don't take anything). Perhaps learn C#, and start working with Unity.
Have you heard of the theory that Finland is not real? It's a big conspiracy that people believe. Can you give us your input on that?
I vaguely recall something like this, but don't know the specifics. It sounds like some debate team stuff people do "prove Finland exists or does not exist based on argumentative reasoning". Hahaha.
Verdict: Goofy. If it ain't real, some people are trying REAL hard to convince me. ;)