This article is republished with permission from the Foundation for Economic Education.
Doug Nelson, a 73-year-old grandfather and Vietnam veteran, had just finished his late shift at the US Postal Service. He pulled into his driveway a little after midnight and was getting out of his car when he suddenly found himself with a gun to his head. The carjackers demanded his keys, which he promptly handed over.
The police recovered the vehicle several days later. But when it came back, it carried some extra baggage: over $2,000 in tickets the carjackers had racked up by racing past speeding cameras.
Doug and his wife Nancy were understandably distressed by the fines and notified the District of Columbia that the traffic infractions were committed by the carjackers. Nancy says the District simply responded by telling them, “You owe.” They tried appealing the decision by sending in more information—still, nothing.
The Nelsons felt certain they only needed to get face-to-face with an actual human in order to clear the mess up. They made an appointment with a hearing officer, traveled downtown, and waited for an audience. The hearing officer wouldn’t help them. They went back to the police for help. Time after time, their requests were ignored or denied.
The ramifications from the ordeal began to snowball. Because of the outstanding tickets, the couple was unable to obtain tags for their car, ultimately leading to their inability to use it for six months. The two front-line workers had trouble getting to work, to the grocery store, or to see their grandkids as a result.
Throughout that time, they continued to plead for help. At one point, the Nelsons discovered a special appeals board where they could make their case. The catch? In order to have access to that board they would need to pay all the fines upfront. Over the six months, those fines had doubled to more than $5,000.
Finally a local media outlet, ABC 7News, stepped in. The outlet reached out to multiple officials about the case, none of whom would agree to an interview. But the media poking around did finally produce some results. After six months, and running up against the story’s deadline, the city of DC dismissed all of the tickets and penalties against the Nelsons. They sent ABC7 News the following statement from the DC Department of Motor Vehicles:
DC DMV had been communicating with Mr. Nelson since he began the adjudication process related to the six citations issued on November 2, 2020. The initial police incident submitted as part of that process was incomplete and failed to establish that the vehicle was stolen when the citations were issued. Subsequently, DC DMV received a more complete incident report with additional details related to the carjacking incident involving Mr. Nelson’s vehicle. As a result, DC DMV Adjudication Services has dismissed the six tickets, as well as the related fines and penalties.
This was of course news to the Nelsons, who told reporters that the District never alerted them to the tickets being dismissed, nor had they been “communicating” with anyone throughout the process. Instead, for six months their communication had been a series of one-way interactions in which they consistently presented the facts and the District only told them to pay all of the tickets—and then it would decide whether payments were justified.
How Local Governments Police for Profit
This Kafkaesque story exemplifies multiple chronic government failings.
Let’s start with the failure to clear, solve, and prevent crime in the first place. Police maintain abysmal crime clearance rates, especially when it comes to property crimes. They only clear (which means they merely identify a suspect) 19 percent of the property crimes reported to them each year, meaning the vast majority of people who commit crimes get away with it and are free to commit more offenses.
Victims of crime often struggle to obtain help from the justice system when their rights are violated, and many are harmed as a direct result of the system not doing its job to prevent crime in the first place.
Americans not only struggle to obtain justice from the system they fund, but increasingly, that same system violates the very rights it is supposed to protect. Many aspects of the justice system seem to be more about revenue collection in order to finance budgets and salaries than about justice or public safety. DC bureaucrats grunting “you owe” at elderly carjacking victims in response to their plea to clear up an obvious mix-up is a vivid case in point.
Much has been written about “policing for profit” and examples of the practice abound. Law enforcement heavily fines citizens for mundane infractions like fare-hopping, zoning violations, permit restrictions, and vague offenses like “disturbing the peace.” Not only do they collect revenue off citizens by imposing these fines, they also waste countless tax dollars pursuing this easy money instead of solving real crimes.
Similarly, police devote large portions of their time to enforcing victimless “crimes” like the War on Drugs. Not only is it easier to bust people for a joint than it is to solve a real crime, it’s also more profitable. That’s thanks to a practice called civil asset forfeiture where police can seize people’s property for merely the suspicion of a crime. In 2015, the Treasury and Justice departments pocketed more than $5 billion in their respective asset forfeiture funds. For comparison, that same year, the FBI reported burglary losses of $3.5 billion. You read that right, the police stole more from American citizens than robbers did.
And then there is of course the enforcement of traffic violations, one of local governments favorite ways to pickpocket citizens. In many cities, ticket revenue makes up a significant portion of municipal budgets. One way local governments have worked to pad their pockets is through the use of traffic cameras, which can of course send out a far higher number of citations than even your most aggressive police officer. (And law enforcement departments aren’t particularly interested in who was behind the wheel during alleged driving infractions. Just ask the Nelsons.)
Eight states have outlawed traffic cameras and many argue they are unconstitutional. Rightfully so, they violate the Fourth Amendment’s protections against search without cause and prevent individuals from accessing the right to face their accuser.
Government Is No Less a Robber
The District of Columbia’s disdainful, revenue-ravenous treatment of the Nelsons seems hardly less mercenary than that of the carjackers.
But their conduct would come as no surprise to Lysander Spooner, the 19th century political theorist. “The fact is,” Spooner wrote in his book No Treason, “that the government, like a highwayman, says to a man: Your money, or your life. (…) The government does not, indeed, waylay a man in a lonely place, spring upon him from the road side, and, holding a pistol to his head, proceed to rifle his pockets. But the robbery is none the less a robbery on that account.”
The District of Columbia unjustly deprived the Nelsons of the use of their car for far longer than the carjackers did (months as opposed to days). Though the ticket-issuing bureaucrats didn’t literally hold a gun to Doug Nelson’s head, they did so figuratively, as every government command is backed by the threat of deadly force. To paraphrase Spooner, “the carjack is nonetheless a carjack on that account.”
At most, the government should only have the power to protect the liberty and property of individuals. The more it is empowered beyond that, the more it will use that power to enrich itself by violating the very rights it is charged with protecting.
And judging from the Nelsons’ ordeal, it can’t even be trusted with the power to regulate street traffic without abusing that power to fleece its citizens.