TCS Daily

We're From the Government and We're Here to Help

By Radley Balko - November 10, 2003 12:00 AM

Dan Peruchi, father of four, enjoyed fixing up old cars and reselling them. Because the dealers he worked with dealt mainly in cash, he usually had lots on hand. Peruchi was driving home to Ft. Worth, Texas when he noticed the flashing lights of a police car behind him. After pulling him over, the officer asked to search Peruchi's car. Peruchi had about $19,000 in a satchel, but nothing criminal to hide, so he consented. The officer found Peruchi's cash, and immediately suspected Peruchi was involved with drugs. He called in drug-sniffing dogs, who then reacted suspiciously to Peruchi's satchel (most all of the U.S. money supply carries faint amounts of drug residue, mostly cocaine).


The dogs' reaction, no more, was enough for the West Memphis police department to seize Peruchi's money. When Peruchi protested, the police officer retorted, "Carry checks next time."


Peruchi was never arrested. He was never even charged. But his money was gone, under the absurd premise that property can be guilty of a crime, even if its owner isn't. The police department deposited Peruchi's money into its own operations budget, as it was permitted to do under Arkansas' drug forfeiture laws. Peruchi was told that if he tried to fight the county, his case would be turned over to the Drug Enforcement Administration. "Try fighting the feds," he was told. Even if Peruchi had won in court, his legal costs would likely have amounted to more than the $19,000 he was fighting for, and it's improbable that he would have been reimbursed for his legal fees.


Peruchi is but one of many similarly outrageous stories told the new book Mugged by the State, by Randall Fitzgerald.


Over 20 years as a reporter for Reader's Digest, Fitzgerald wrote stories about innocent people who found themselves mistakenly entangled with unforgiving environmental regulations, draconian drug laws, or coldhearted, uncompromising bureaucrats. With the sober, detailed eye of a journalist, Fitzgerald's book recounts the most egregious of his encounters in two decades as a reporter.


The stories he tells will enrage you, awe you, frustrate you, and, in a few cases, they'll absolutely break your heart.


You'll read, for example, about Bernadine Suitum, an eighty-two year old widow who promised her dying husband she'd fulfill their lifelong dream -- to build a retirement home in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Until, that is, she encountered the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, a joint state/federal environmental venture. The TRPA declared Suitum's lot -- the only vacant lot in a fully developed neighborhood -- a "stream environment zone," which prohibited her from building on the land she'd just bought with her life's savings. Today, Mrs. Suitum is blind, feeble, and confined to a wheelchair. And today, the TRPA continues its fight to prevent her from building her home -- for the second time in the United States Supreme Court.


You'll read about a farmer who had the misfortune of allowing a certain kind of endangered snail to find its way onto his property. Now, not only is the farmer prohibited from developing his own land, the federal government has told him he must spend his own money to ensure the snail's survival. If EPA officials find remnants of the snails in geese or ducks trapped in the area, for example, the farmer can be fined $5,000 for each ingested snail.


You'll read about a Boy Scout who got lost in subzero temperatures, and was forced to spend several nights in the cold because the rescue helicopter that spotted him wasn't permitted to land in the environmentally-protected wilderness where he'd wandered.


You'll read about a Montana sheep ranger fined $7,000 for shooting an endangered 372-pound grizzly that nearly killed him.


You'll read about an engineer fined $5,000 and sentenced to six months in prison because, miles away, a crewman working for the contractor he supervised nicked an oil pipeline with a backhoe, triggering a small but harmless oil spill in Alaska's Skagway River.


And you'll read about an Akron, Ohio market owner targeted for example-making by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Despite a petition signed by 36 black community members in his defense, including the entire board of Akron's NAACP, despite evidence uncovered by his attorney that the EEOC had fudged its data, shop owner Russel Vernon was still cited for race-based employment discrimination by the federal agency, and incurred $67,000 in legal fees, nearly bankrupting him. Innocent or guilty, "you don't want to mess with these people," Vernon's lawyers told him.


Fitzgerald's ax grinds against power in general. It isn't partisan. His examples come from programs and policies embraced by both Republicans and Democrats. He documents outrageous abuses carried out in the name of the drug war, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the EEOC, the EPA, and cases were city and state governments have seized land from ordinary people under eminent domain, only to hand it over to politically potent corporations and influential businessmen.


Mugged by the State vividly illustrates the hubris of unchecked power. More importantly, it does so not through polemics and screeds, but with real stories of real people with real faces and real families -- people whose only mistake was to happen upon a bureaucrat, a regulatory agency, or a police department more interested in making an example, making a point, or fulfilling a quota than in serving the people they're paid to govern.



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