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How far have property rights been eroded?

By Vin Suprynowicz

Vin Suprynowicz

March 2, 2003

An e-mail correspondent wrote in, responding to my Feb. 16 column, in which I tried to point out some of the unstated presumptions underlying the federal government's threats (backed up by a chorus of unquestioning editorialists) to arrest or fine anyone in Texas or Louisiana who didn't come across quickly enough in turning over Columbia space shuttle debris:

"Love your columns. But in the 'Government is in Charge' column, I think you missed something. Having pieces of the space shuttle fall on your land isn't really the same as someone willfully throwing it there and then complaining that you kept it. It's more like an auto accident in which the force of the accident throws one of the cars onto your lawn. You don't get to keep the car. An insurance company pays you for you damages and the car goes back to its owner, generally, no?"

I responded:

That's an excellent point, and well worth examining.

It's certainly true that we have been gradually acclimatized to believe our so-called "property rights" do not extend to preventing police and tow truck operators and deputies with bloodhounds from trespassing on our land without seeking our permission for any number of reasons -- gathering data and evidence being one of many.

What other commonly tolerated exceptions to our so-called "property rights" can we think of ... besides the biggest one, of course -- the fact that the government will seize our land if we don't pay it rents in the form of "property taxes," the same way medieval peasants had to pay rents to the lord of the castle to keep living in huts that had belonged to their families for generations?

What if a single mother raising four small children dials 9-1-1 because one of her children is choking on a piece of candy? The responding EMTs find no evidence that the children are abused, injured or malnourished, but they do note (remember, the young mom wasn't expecting company -- and as it turns out her washing machine had been broken for a week) that the place is dirty and unkempt.

"Just to be on the safe side," they phone in a report of these conditions to the county "Child Welfare" agents. Can those county agents follow the firemen right into your home and seize and take away your children, without any other "probable cause," court warrant, or due process?

It happened to Alexandera Dykes of Colorado Springs (whose parents live in Las Vegas) in February of 2000.

What if "narcotics officers" decide to climb a fence marked "no trespassing" and hike two miles onto private property and seize marijuana found growing there and charge the property owner with a drug felony, without any kind of warrant or other probable cause? Would the courts rule that was an acceptable intrusion on our so-called "private property rights"?

Courts in Kentucky and Tennessee have done just that. In fact, in the case of retired millionaire Donald Scott of Malibu, Calif., they found plainclothes police agents did nothing worthy of indictment on Oct. 2, 1992, when they cut a security chain, ran up the driveway with their slavering dogs, burst into the Scott household at dawn with drawn guns, terrifying Mrs. Scott in her kitchen as she made her morning coffee, and shooting Mr. Scott dead as he awakened and came running down the stairs in answer to her screams, all because they claimed to have seen "marijuana plants growing under the trees" while flying over in a helicopter.

Needless to say, the drug cops had submitted no photographs of the marijuana plants ... because no marijuana plants were ever found. Accompanying the police were park rangers who had tried unsuccessfully to convince Mr. Scott to sell them his property so they could annex it to an adjoining park. That'll show him.

Now, let us examine how the federal government would behave in your "accident throws a car onto the lawn" example ... with just a few minor details changed.

In our revised hypothetical case, the driver of a stolen car gets in an accident which seriously injures several innocent parties, at which point his car spins out of control, crashes through a fence, and comes to rest on the front lawn ... of the Red Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C. Police, firemen and tow truck operators show up to remove the car as "evidence," and to arrest the driver. The guards and an assistant Chinese consul of low standing tell them, "No way, we think you're all CIA agents who have set up this incident to get in here and plant listening devices. And furthermore, we're giving sanctuary to the driver, who is a Chinese national."

Would the D.C. police go, "Tough crap, buddy, we're coming in?" Of course not. They would refer everything to to State Department ... which would work out a compromise that would probably never see the car returned or the driver put on trial in this country. This is the way our modern state deals with other property owners which it considers to be truly "sovereign."

But how much more sovereign should American citizens be -- given that we are supposedly the bosses of these overpaid government goons -- compared to the representatives of some blood-stained foreign kleptocracy, who are "only guests," and "only renting," at that?

Why are American sovereign citizens treated with threats of fines and arrest should we fail to jump to attention and scour our property for the junk a careless federal agency has dumped on our land (they could have politely requested the help of the citizens of Texas and Louisiana, offering to compensate them for any trouble and inconvenience.) Why was their first instinct instead to resort to threats of armed force? And why, in contrast, would they show so much more courtesy, respect and consideration to the representatives of the bloodthirsty butchers of Tiananmen Square?

Next time: the answer.

Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.




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