I just read that the parents of an autistic high school student arrested in a drug sting operation in Temecula, California, last December have filed suit against the school district. The parents were “initially happy their son had made his first and only friend last year at school,” but became suspicious when his “school friend” kept making excuses for not coming over. The “friend,” actually Riverside County Sheriff’s Deputy Daniel Zipperstein, “pressured their lonely and vulnerable son with more than 60 text messages over about three weeks into buying half a joint from a homeless man.”
The very existence of “sting operations,” by which law enforcement personnel solicit illegal activity — in other words, perform acts which are illegal on their faces in the course of their official duties — speaks volumes about the nature of the state and its laws. When the first professional police forces were created in London and New York in the early 19th century, they were regarded as simply hired functionaries who got paid to perform the same “posse comitatus” functions (preserved in the archaic practice of “citizen’s arrest”) within the competency of all citizens. The proposition that professional police be granted special status over and above that of their fellow citizens would never have been tolerated.
I’ve never understood the logic by which someone in uniform can commit an act that’s defined as illegal by statute, in the course of a sting operation, without themselves breaking the law. If it’s illegal for a citizen to offer drugs or sexual acts for sale, or to solicit their sale from others, how is it legal for a cop to offer to buy or sell drugs from a citizen?
The answer, of course, is that the state cannot operate on the same logic as its citizens. I once told a coworker that, when it came to drug and sex work sting operations, cops should be subject to the same anti-solicitation laws they’re enforcing on us. Her response: “But then how would they catch people who do that stuff?”
Good question. Obviously, they couldn’t. The state simply can’t function unless it gives its own functionaries, with a wink and a nudge, an exemption from the laws that everyone else is supposed to obey.
The state couldn’t enforce laws against drugs, sex work, or any other consensual activity if it were literally bound by laws like the due process guarantees in the Bill of Rights. Imagine how the Drug War would fare if the Fourth Amendment were enforced literally, without any of the “reasonable expectation of privacy” or “probable cause” or “good faith” lacunae the courts have read into it — if cops actually had to have a warrant specifying the place and what they were looking for before they could set foot on your property? Imagine if civil forfeiture were treated as a violation of the Fifth Amendment, and the state couldn’t take your possessions without first charging you with a crime and persuading a jury to convict you. Under those terms, it wouldn’t matter if the substantive restrictions on drugs were as harsh as those in Singapore — they would be dead letters in practice because they were unenforceable.
Civil forfeiture was first introduced in the revenue collecting arms of government, because it was understood from the beginning that a literal interpretation of the common law prohibition on seizure of property without due process of law would render the tax laws unenforceable. Going through the ordinary criminal law process to collect from tax evaders would cost more than the revenue was worth.
Civil forfeiture by an administrative law body, based on a preponderance of the evidence, was originally a form of prerogative law in England. Prerogative courts like Star Chamber derived their procedural rules from the Roman civil law, as it was codified under Justinian. The proliferation of prerogative courts under the Stuarts was among the things that led to both Charles I and James II losing their thrones. But even after the accession of William and Mary, it was understood that customs and revenue were an exception to the common law’s “universal” due process requirements.
It was customs officials, operating under Admiralty law, who rubbed American colonials the wrong way and helped bring on the American Revolution. But even after the ratification of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, it was quickly established in case law that the prohibition against seizing property without a jury trial didn’t apply to customs and revenue — because it couldn’t.
So in the end, it doesn’t matter what the law says, or even how it explicitly restrains the state on paper. If government needs an unwritten exemption from the law to do what it wants, it will get it.
• Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory.