Eminent domain, municipal fines and civil forfeiture are arguably the most pressing threats to private property rights today. From Connecticut to California, in the last two weeks each of these threats made headlines.
Municipal fines came under fire last year after a report by the Department of Justice revealed that many municipalities in St. Louis County Missouri were using fines to fund large portions of their budgets. Last week, Vice debuted a documentary film, Debtor’s Prisons: Life Inside America’s For-Profit Justice System. The first part of the documentary focused on Pagedale, Missouri’s abuse of non-traffic municipal fines. Valarie Whitner, a client in IJ’s class-action against Pagedale, described how Pagedale has fined her over the past decade for infractions like failing to paint her brick garage and having bamboo growing in her yard. The city even threatened to demolish her home if she did not pay her fines.
In West Haven, Connecticut, property owners are being threatened with eminent domain. The trouble began when the city passed a Municipal Development Plan authorizing the use of eminent domain to take the homes and business of long-time residents to build an upscale outlet mall. Although the city initially claimed it would avoid using eminent domain, the New Haven Register recently wrote that the town appears to be ready to use eminent domain to seize remaining properties in the proposed project area. The Institute for Justice is working with these property owners to protect their land from being unconstitutionally seized.
In California, a proposed bill could weaken post-Kelo reforms meant to curb eminent domain abuse and re-establish municipal authority to use tax-increment financing (TIF) to subsidize politically-favored development. The bill, AB 2492, includes a provision that would allow officials to designate an area as blighted if the “annual median household income is less than 80% of the statewide, countywide, or citywide countywide or citywide” plus a non-objective factor such as “deteriorated streets or commercial structures.” A column on the San Francisco Chronicle noted, if the bill is passed it could allow local officials to “cherry-pick the data” for blight designations.
There was also good news for Californian property rights this week. A major bill, SB 443, was recently sent to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk. SB 443 would provide two major improvements to the state’s forfeiture law:
- Requires a criminal conviction before agencies could receive equitable-sharing payments from the federal government on forfeited real estate, vehicles, boats and cash valued at under $40,000. This would mostly close the equitable-sharing loophole.
- Raises the threshold to forfeit seized cash under state law, from $25,000 to $40,000.
California was ranked the second worst state for federal forfeiture in IJ’s report Policing for Profit. Between 2000 and 2013, the Department of Justice paid local and state agenecies more than $696 million or nearly $50 million a year on average. If the bill is signed into law, California would join the 17 other states that have reformed their forfeiture laws over the past two years. The San Francisco Chronicle published an editorial earlier this week calling on the governor to sign the bill into law.