by J.D. Tuccille
April 30, 2003

An Epidemic of Legalized Theft

If you invade a home or stick up a business, you can expect the roughest of treatment. Homeowners and small business people are generally applauded for defending family, property and livelihood with the most forceful means possible. But if you raise your larcenous sights beyond home appliances and the few dollars in the till, and actually try to steal an entire building or parcel of land, you might well get away with your crime without consequence -- so long as you're a government official.

That's the gist of "Public Power, Private Gain," a new report by Dana Berliner, senior attorney for the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice. The Institute for Justice has made a name for itself in recent years by defending families and small business people against government regulatory abuses. Increasingly, Berliner and her colleagues have been called upon to defend low- and middle-income homeowners and independent businesses against land grabs by government officials working on behalf of politically connected corporations. These thefts are justified in the name of "economic development" -- a bland term for ripping out low-income neighborhoods and small businesses to make way for high-dollar developments that fill tax coffers.

Berliner reports that, just for the years 1998 to 2002, she found 10,282 filed or threatened seizures of private property by government officials for the benefit of developers, casinos, chain retailers and other potential sources of taxes and campaign contributions. She cautions that this number is low, since most such incidents go unreported. Connecticut -- the only state to track such land grabs -- reports 543 condemnations, while only 31 made the newspapers. These legalized muggings include:

Such legalized theft of private property has hardly slowed since the report was written. A quick news search on the Internet reveals a scheme by San Jose, California, to steal a largely Latino shopping center for "redevelopment," a plan to force a Newark, New Jersey, body shop owner to surrender his land to a condominium developer, and an April 18 Kansas Supreme Court ruling giving county authorities a free hand to take private property and hand it over to new owners to boost economic growth.

The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution allows government officials to exercise eminent domain to seize private property "for public use." Property owners must be paid "just compensation" for their losses. In textbooks, schools and roads are often cited as justification for exercising eminent domain, since theyŐre considered to benefit the public at large. Even with these textbook examples, it's easy to imagine the injustice inherent in grabbing a homeschooling family's house to make way for a public school, or plowing a highway through the yard of a bicycle-riding small-growth advocate. The fact that "public use" is often in the eye of the beholder led early legal authorities to describe eminent domain as "the despotic power." Even the Supreme Court has used that term to describe forcible property acquisitions.

Property owners still lose when "just compensation" is paid for their stolen buildings and land -- just as they would if they arrived home to find that a burglar had left a few dollars in place of family heirlooms. Owners may be unwilling to part at any price with a house handed down from generation to generation or purchased as a dream home. A small business may be doomed when compelled to move to new location thatŐs beyond easy reach of a carefully cultivated clientele

To help property owners fight such land grabs, the Institute for Justice created the Castle Coalition, which offers advice, tools and allies for defending homes and businesses. The Coalition's Website advises, "If you want to prevent the condemnation of your property, you will have to turn up the heat and make the condemnation into a major political and public relations headache for the powers that be."

When the courts are unwilling to impose consequences for government officials' crimes, property owners must wage extended campaigns to harass and embarrass officials and drive favored developers off in search of easier pickings.

In an age when politicians find it so easy to steal valuable land for their pals, property owners have to rely on themselves to make sure that such thefts are deterred and punished.

Ah well, and so much for the power of argument. So back you go to Full Automatic or to my home page.

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Copyright (c) 2003 Jerome D. (Il Tooch) Tuccille. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Il Tooch is prohibited. Mess with me and I’ll use your polished skull as a beer mug.