by Vin Suprynowicz 

9:58 am March 17th, 2008 It’s a long-established tradition of meddlesome governments, seeking to outlaw behaviors which — unlike robbery and assault — produce no “victim” anxious to cooperate with authorities: When the first unenforceable law doesn’t work, ban another activity, previously considered innocuous, to help enforce the first.When authorities developed radar guns to enhance “speeding ticket” revenues from those seeking to make good time on long stretches of empty highway, citizens started buying radar detectors. Instead of eliminating needless speed limits on rural straightaways (where most accidents are caused by driver fatigue, not speed) and settling for enforcement of the sensible “reckless driving” laws, some money-hungry state governments turned to … banning radar detectors.

And here I thought it was only totalitarian regimes that punished people for tuning in the “wrong” radio signals.

When the ban on imported cocaine led some entrepreneurs to make substitute drugs out of cold pills — creating a wave of “meth lab” explosions in previously peaceful neighborhoods — manufacturers were pressured to remove otherwise innocuous ingredients, till today “Sudafed” doesn’t work the way it used to, because it no longer contains any pseudoephedrine.

Stymied in their efforts to stop even wealthier entrepreneurs from providing drugs and “sinful” services to willing customers in violation of federal edict — in part because the criminals had become sophisticated enough to hire fancy lawyers and install middlemen between themselves and the dope — Congress in 1986 enacted laws which enabled federal police to seize a suspect’s homes, cars, boats and cash before he’d been convicted of anything, under the newly thought-up prohibition against “money-laundering.” The law makes it a crime to transport money across a border with the intent to conceal the source, ownership or control of the funds.This is a dangerous law even when used as intended, since it sets a precedent which could be used in future to seize the cash and property of anyone deemed “too rich,” simply by asserting — no trial necessary — that any such vast wealth had to come from some criminal activity (“Can you PROVE where you got it all?”) and that holding it comprises the new crime of “hoarding,” anyway.

(G-men should stand forewarned: After the revolution, the crime will be to own homes, cars, bank accounts, investments — even kids’ college educations — paid for out of “unclean” money seized from the citizens under the false claim that this nation has ever had a “direct” income tax. Which means federal salaries. Find us the part of the Sixteenth amendment that reads “and said income taxes may be collected as a direct tax, with a duty of payment made incumbent on the average citizen, rather than as an indirect excise as dictated in Article I, Section 9 for any tax not capitated.”)

But even setting that objection aside, no one familiar with federal law enforcement will be surprised to learn the G-men are now using the “money-laundering” statute in cases never contemplated by Congress.Last October, the U.S. Supreme Court heard an appeal in the case of Efrain Santos, convicted of running an illegal lottery, or bolita, in northwest Indiana.Santos was sentenced to five years in prison on the gambling offense — and another 17 years for “money laundering,” based on the government’s contention that he was “laundering” his illegal proceeds by using them to compensate his employees and pay off the winning bettors.In a similar case heard by the high court earlier this month, officers stopped Humberto Cuellar in Schleicher County, Texas, about a hundred miles from Mexico after his car swerved onto the shoulder of the road. Authorities subsequently found more than $80,000 in cash in a secret compartment in the car. Cuellar was convicted of international money laundering and sentenced to 6-and-a-half years in prison.

In Washington this month, justices seemed rightly skeptical of the assertion that merely hiding cash in a car headed for Mexico — absent evidence that the suspect sold drugs, managed a prostitution ring, or anything else nefarious — constitutes international money laundering, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.“No grand design” was shown, said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, echoing the skepticism of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer and David Souter. “All he is is a courier.”In the October case of the illegal Indiana lottery, it was Justice Antonin Scalia who took a turn chiding a Justice Department lawyer for stretching the purpose of the money-laundering law. “Come on,” Justice Scalia said. “Nobody runs a gambling operation without paying off the winners. It’s not going to last very long. To make the paying off of the winners a separate crime from running the gambling operation seems to me quite extraordinary.”The justices are right to be skeptical.

The government brought money laundering cases against 1,347 people in 2006, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.Are we to believe they laid hands on 1,300 major drug kingpins in one year? 1,300 big-time “Godfathers” like Efrain Santos and Humberto Cuellar?It’s all too easy to say, like Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Polly, “Well, they probably committed other crimes when we weren’t looking.”Cynical commentators used to refer to such police-invented crimes as “driving while black.” The court should take firm steps, right now, to halt this pattern of overcharging, often designed to make the loaded-up prison sentence look so onerous that even innocent defendants may be tempted to “take the deal” in hopes of getting out before their small children are grown.

It is not a crime to “possess a lot of cash while Hispanic.” And those who will not stand up and say so, right now, may live to echo Pastor Martin Niemoller, who recalled that “There was no one left to object, when they finally came for me.” 

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