Two Case Studies in American Freedom

The 24 September 2006 issue had a couple of stories which proved to be a bit controversial, so I did a bit more research on them.

First, the stories:

Land of the Free

In 2003, Californian Emiliano Gomez Gonzolez was pulled over in Nebraska. State troopers searched his car and found $124,700 in cash in a cooler in the back seat. Gonzolez said he had tried to buy a truck with the cash, but it was sold by the time he got there, and he had hidden it in the cooler to avoid robbery. But a police dog detected traces of drugs on the money, so police confiscated it. Gonzolez was not found in possession of any drugs, and he was not charged with any crime. A federal court ruled police had to return the cash, but the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently overturned that decision, saying that because the money “may have been” the proceeds of a drug deal, the police could keep it. (Associated Press) …“Equality Before the Law” —Nebraska’s state motto.


Home of the Brave

In 2003, the Pitchfork Records store in Concord, N.H., was raided by police. Owner Michael Cohen was arrested. The charge: pirating music; 500 CDs were confiscated. But disk after disk turned out to be legitimate, and he was eventually tried on only one charge of piracy. He was acquitted when the judge determined even that CD was legal. Yet prosecutors refused to return the confiscated CDs. Cohen appealed all the way to the state Supreme Court, which ruled that the state government can proceed with destroying Cohen’s property. (Manchester Union Leader) …“Live Free or Die” —New Hampshire’s state motto.

Can’t Be That Bad…?

Not surprisingly, there was a fair amount of outrage. There was also a fair amount of incredulity — people just didn’t believe things in the U.S. could have gotten that bad. Worse, many thought the stories couldn’t possibly be true. Thus, I decided to find out for sure what the truth was — at least, as far as is possible.

Before doing that, I checked my source stories to see if my summaries were accurate. I believe they are, within the limits of condensing a 559-word story into 135 words (Nebraska), and a 382-word story into 89 words (New Hampshire). Naturally, even those longer stories were themselves condensed versions of the “real” stories behind them.

So what are the real stories? These are both court cases. Not only regular court cases, but appealed court cases: it should be fairly easy to find the actual court decisions and read the originals. Indeed I have been able to find the appeals court decisions, and not only read them but have them below for you to download to read too, if you wish.

First, Nebraska

This case is actually worse than I thought: the interrogation of Gonzolez was done by an officer who didn’t speak Spanish, and Gonzolez is only partially fluent in English. There are indeed some suspicious circumstances (heck: having nearly $125,000 in cash in the car is at least somewhat suspicious on the face of it!), but there is still no proof that the money is related to drug sales. So did Gonzolez have an explanation for the huge amount of money? Yes:

Manuel Gomez testified that he had given Gonzolez $65,000 in cash, which was a combination of money that he had borrowed from his father-in-law and his own personal cash savings, with the expectation that Gonzolez would help him buy a refrigerated truck for the produce business. Gonzolez testified that he gave $40,000 of his own money, plus $20,000 from a friend, Andres Madrigal Morgan, as an investment in Gomez’s truck. Consistent with Gonzolez’s account, Andres Madrigal Morgan testified that he contributed $20,000 in proceeds from a vehicle sale to Gonzolez’s investment in the truck.” (USA v. $124,700 in U.S. Currency, bottom of p3 and top of p4).

That sounds plausible — especially considering many immigrants do not have bank accounts, but it wasn’t good enough for the court; they still upheld the seizure. One judge dissented. Judge Lay first noted that no drugs or paraphernalia were found. He also noted earlier cases which showed that much of U.S. currency has traces of drugs on them, and thus “(a)s a result, this fact is virtually ‘meaningless and likely quite prejudicial.'” (ibid, bottom of p9)

The bottom line: the report in True is really quite factual, especially considering how much it was condensed. I consider it outrageous that the government can not only seize money it “thinks may be” involved in a crime somehow, but then upholds that seizure even in the face of a plausible explanation and a lack of any criminal evidence, even after significant investigation has been done. And all in the name of the “war on drugs” — otherwise known as a war between the government and its own citizens. A war we are all losing.

Then, New Hampshire

This one is indeed a case of the newspaper source that I used only reporting half the story. Yes Cohen, the music store owner, was exonerated. And yes, the state affirmed that even so, his confiscated property should be destroyed. Why? What possible justification could there be for that?

Here’s what the story I used as my source didn’t say: he was exonerated because “the State was unable to prove that Cohen knew or should have known that the tapes were created without the permission of the owners or performers.” (New Hampshire v. Cohen, top of p2). Yet the court found tapes/CDs indeed were created without the permission of the owners or performers, and thus were illegal copies under copyright law. As illegal contraband, they are to be destroyed. That sounds totally reasonable to me.

So why is destroying them reasonable? Let’s say that instead of CDs, the seized property was a kilo of cocaine. The defendant is able to show he didn’t know about the drugs — say, someone dumped them in his car while it was parked. Whew! He was able to be exonerated. Does that mean he gets to keep the cocaine? Of course not: it’s illegal, and few would argue that the state shouldn’t destroy it once the trial is over.

Still, there was a dissent in this case, too. While the dissent agreed that copyright applied to the recordings, “the majority does not explain how statutes prohibiting the production, publication, or sale of certain works render possession of such works unlawful. Thus, I disagree with the majority’s conclusion that the compact discs at issue may constitute per se contraband.” (ibid, bottom of p5, underlining from the original)

It does irritate me when a supposedly unbiased newspaper only prints half the story, so I can understand it when people are irritated when True repeats it. Just remember that True is news commentary — it’s not meant to be a full exploration of all possible sides of an issue but, rather, it’s meant to be a retelling of news stories for the purpose of commentary. In that sense, this story was fully accurate — to the source that was identified with the story. It is not possible for me to research every story looking for bias, and even if it was possible, that’s beside the point of news commentary.

For those who sneered that there was something “not true in True,” you forget what the entire concept of the column is. Stories are true — true to the source identified in the story. Beyond that, there has for years been a statement as to what I mean by “This is True”, and it’s right here for your inspection (scroll down to the subhead, “Is it really ‘true’?” (emphasis from the original).

Here are the two court decisions, if you’d like to read them (PDF files; right click to download): Nebraska (36K), New Hampshire (72K).

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2 Comments on “Two Case Studies in American Freedom

  1. The first story happens far more often than you think. Search for “Policing for profit”. A local TN news channel runs fairly regular reports about innocent people having large sums of cash seized from the police. Anything from just receiving an inheritance to bringing cash in an attempt to purchase a car from a seller on eBay. Some of the clips even show different police agencies fighting over who gets credit for legitimate busts, presumably because that agency gets to keep the money.

  2. Of course these things happen in the United States. I envy those who have lived such sheltered lives that they have never seen or experienced such atrocities. Government agencies do far worse than that, believe me. I have actually had someone say to me, “oh, that doesn’t apply to us,” when I quoted the Constitution as evidence that what they were doing to me was wrong. As long as people keep their heads in the sand and refuse to believe that such things happen right here, in the United States, those things will continue to happen, and it will even get worse.


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