Stealing Camp Zoe: The Federal “Forfeiture” Gang Strikes

Posted: November 23rd, 2010 by Militant Libertarian

by William N. Grigg

Mike Johnston’s first hint that something unusual was happening at Camp Zoe was the presence of four police officers at Tiffany Hall, the campground’s dining area.

“I wondered if the police might be looking for someone’s missing kid,” Mike recalled toPro Libertate. “But as I walked through the camp I saw a couple more, and then a couple more — and then I saw a bunch of guys in SWAT fatigues with assault rifles. One of them had a German Shepherd on a leash. All of them were doing their best to look intimidating.”

The armed visitors who materialized at about 7:30 a.m. on November 1 were part of a multi-jurisdictional task force that invaded Camp Zoe, a popular outdoor music venue and campground in Missouri’s Shannon County. The previous evening had brought the 2010 concert season to an end with the final night of the fall “Spookstock” festival.

“Every letter of the alphabet was represented” in the raid, Mike’s wife Joni wryly observes. “There were people from the DEA, the IRS, the Highway Patrol, from Homeland Security, the local police and country Sheriff’s Office. There was a group from the Rolla Police Department, which is two counties away from here.”

Mike and Joni were among those who had stayed overnight to help with custodial work and other housekeeping matters. Mike had slept in later than he had planned, so he may have still been a little groggy as he absorbed the shock of seeing SWAT operators prowling the grounds. While he tried to make sense of the spectacle, one of Mike’s friends commented: “You haven’t seen what’s going on behind the bus.”

In the open field behind the bus “there were three huge RVs surrounded by more than a dozen other vehicles from every local police department and several federal agencies,” Mike recounted. “One of the RVs was a State Police SWAT command center, and another one was a communications center for the federal agencies. And there were dozens of cops and SWAT guys swarming everywhere.”

According to multiple accounts, one camp staffer (who prefers not to be named) was briefly stopped by police on nearby Highway 19 as he was driving his children to school. He was separated from his wife and children at the point of an M-16 rifle. The detainee was taken into the camp and briefly questioned before being released.

Witnesses estimate that as many as 200 law enforcement officers took part in the assault on Camp Zoe. Given the size of that mobilization, some would expect that the police were dealing with a heavily armed gang that posed an imminent threat to public safety. Yet no criminal activity was found during the raid, and not a single person was led away in handcuffs.

This should come as a surprise only to those who persist in believing that “law enforcement” is connected in some way to the protection of life, liberty, and property. Those who invaded Camp Zoe didn’t find criminal activity because they weren’t looking for any. They weren’t there to arrest criminals; they were preparing to steal the property in the name of “civil asset forfeiture.”

“From what I saw, it looked like the people from the IRS were in charge initially,” Mike Johnston relates. “The original search warrant was for business records, and I saw the IRS personnel hauling off boxes full of papers, computer drives, and other materials of that kind. Apparently they didn’t find what they were looking for right away, so the DEA guys were next in line.”

Camp Zoe was placed under lock-down while the raiders rummaged through every corner of the campground, intimidating staff and visitors and seizing personal items (including cash). As this was going on another federal contingent was dispatched to clean out the personal and business accounts of Jimmy Tebeau, the musician and entrepreneur who owns and operates the campground.

The Feds “just siphoned away all of his money, and then filed a civil asset forfeiture lawsuit seeking to seize his property,” protests attorney Dan Viets, who has volunteered to represent Tebeau. “This would mean that he wouldn’t have the money needed to fight the seizure in court.”

Camp Zoe was opened in 2004 by  Tebeau, who plays bass in The Schwag, a hugely popular Grateful Dead tribute band. Since coming together in 1992, The Schwag has developed a large regional following, playing an average of roughly 140 concerts a year in addition to the “Schwagstock” festival performances. By some accounts, the 330-acre Camp Zoe is Shannon County’s largest employer, and Tebeau’s entrepreneurial accomplishments were recognized in a resolution enacted by the Missouri legislature in July 2005.

Counter-culture entrepreneur: Tebeau on stage.

Tebeau himself is not accused of a crime. Yet Camp Zoe has been seized and Tebeau’s personal financial assets have been confiscated by a motley assortment of “law enforcement” groups.

Under the Orwellian standards governing  federal “civil asset forfeiture,” Tebeau’s property has already been found “guilty” of involvement in a crime.The agencies that seized it will be permitted to keep and divide it among themselves unless Tebeau can prove a negative — namely, that he did not knowingly permit the sale and use of proscribed substances by others.

Missouri state law dictates that forfeiture proceeds be given to the School Building Revolving Fund, which is administered by the state’s Department of Revenue and subject to official audits. However, this isn’t the case when the assets are seized as part of a joint (or “hybrid”) operation with the Feds.

The Justice Department’s manual on asset forfeiture describes this as “equitable sharing” of revenue proceeds, and explains that it is intended  “to increase or supplement the resources of the receiving state or local law enforcement agency” and can be used by the recipient “for any permissible purpose as long as shared funds increase the entire law enforcement budget.”
This helps explain why practically every federal agency represented by an acronym — as well as every local police agency — joined the Gadarene rush to invade and occupy Camp Zoe.

If, on the other hand, the raid had been a purely local affair, it could have been “adopted” by the Feds after the fact. In congressional testimony, former deputy assistant attorney general Joe Whitley described how such an “adoption” takes place: “We receive a case which is in every aspect a local case, been worked on pretty much by the local agencies all the way from beginning to end, and we put our cover on it.”

Under either approach,police agencies are typically permitted to keep at least eighty percent of the haul. The objective “is to reward the help we get from our brother and sister law enforcement” agencies, explained former Justice Department official Jerry McDowell in 2000.

Since these “rewards” are doled out in explicit and willful defiance of state forfeiture laws, what McDowell is describing is a criminal syndicate, one far larger than any of the private criminal gangs whose depredations supposedly justify the forfeiture racket. Steve Kessler, a former prosecutor and recognized expert on forfeiture laws, has described the practice of asset forfeiture as “unquestionably the largest, most lucrative business in the United States.”

Much of the money subject to federal forfeiture through “equitable sharing” is never reported to state governments. In Missouri, notes Eapen Thampy of Americans for Forfeiture Reform, a non-profit civil liberties group, “prosecutors and law enforcement have been able to systematically dodge requirements on how forfeited property is reported and recorded.”

In many instances, Thampy reports, civil forfeitures are filed as such “until prosecutors can convince defendants to not contest the claim, at which point the forfeiture action can be re-filed as an administrative forfeiture because the property is now abandoned or unclaimed.”

Furthermore, “prosecutors around the state routinely send in incomplete records that detail only a small fraction of the total forfeitures around the state,” Thampy continues. Most of the recorded forfeiture proceedings “are marked `pending’ in the year they are audited,” and prosecutors seldom if ever revise the records to reflect whether or not the seizure was connected to an actual criminal conviction, as state law requires.

Highway robbery: Texas state police swarm a vehicle in search of loot.

As a result, literally millions of dollars harvested through asset forfeiture in Missouri are diverted from their legal use and funneled into the coffers of law enforcement agencies. The same racket is operating in practically every other state.

In northern Texas, reports the Amarillo Globe-News, officers in the State Department of Public Safety have hauled in at least $14.6 million through asset forfeiture over the past five-and-a-half years. However, “only about 6.4 percent — or roughly $935,000 — of those seizures have remained in the area to benefit regional law enforcement agencies and taxpayers”; the state police simply chooses “to bypass Panhandle state courts in exchange for Amarillo’s federal court when the largest amounts of money are at stake.”

Predictably, this “has left some I-40 district attorneys frustrated and raised concerns the federal court route gives DPS an easier and larger payday at the expense of local counties and taxpayers,” observes the paper. Which is to say that the “problem” isn’t the fact that the DPS is plundering people in defiance of the law, but rather that the State Police insist on Bogarting the booty.

The federal forfeiture racket has turned I-40 into huge revenue stream for police and prosecutors. That stretch of highway is just one of several coveted forfeiture corridors. The municipal government that afflicts Tenaha, a one-stoplight town located on U.S. Highway 59, has profited immensely from shakedowns carried out by local police:  Any driver stopped by police for any reason can expect to be relieved of anything of value in his possession.

Should a “suspicious” amount of cash be found during the traffic stop, the motorist and any passengers will be placed under arrest for “money laundering” or drug-related charges, and given an ultimatum: Sign away the loot, or face prosecution.

This form of extortion-robbery works best when the victim is carrying an unusual but relatively small amount of cash — say, less than $5,000 — that wouldn’t be enough to compensate for the hassle and expense of mounting a legal defense.

In one of the cases described in a federal lawsuit, an individual named Danny Green who works as an investigator for the Shelby County Prosecutor’s Office threatened to kidnap a couple’s children (by turning them over to the state’s corrupt and frequently lethal child “protection” bureaucracy) if they didn’t immediately sign a document surrendering about $6,000 in cash.

It is in the neighborhood of “impossible” to define a moral distinction between institutional corruption of the kind displayed by those Texas law enforcement agencies, and the variety frequently encountered on the other side of the border with Mexico.

Granted, the squabbling over lucrative forfeiture corridors hasn’t degenerated (yet) into open warfare — but bear in mind that the ongoing depression is still young, and official corruption will most likely take on a much cruder aspect as existing revenue streams evaporate.

To plunder and suppress: A Utah state trooper grabs the loot. 

It’s important to recognize that the civil forfeiture racket involves calculated bribery and subterfuge on the part of the Feds.

In 1990, the Missouri State Supreme Court ruled that forfeiture proceeds had to be used to fund the school system. The ink was barely dry on that ruling when Jean Paul Bradshaw, U.S. attorney for the state’s Western District, wrote a letter suborning state and local police agencies to defy both the court and the state legislature by inviting the Feds to take part in forfeiture operations.

“I know all of you in law enforcement are in desperate need for additional financial resources,” wrote Bradshaw. “As most of you know, the money we share through our forfeiture program goes directly to the state or local law enforcement agency.”

One year earlier, a DEA agent teaching a training session on civil forfeiture for the North Carolina State Highway Patrol found little enthusiasm on the part of his audience — until he explained that collaboration with the Feds meant that the police got to keep most of the take.

“Then everybody’s eyes lit up,” recalled one participant in that meeting in later congressional testimony.

In 2000, following five years of hearings on abuses of civil asset forfeiture, Congress enacted a largely useless measure to “reform” the practice. The late Henry Hyde, who at the time was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, had proposed an amendment (sometimes called the “Missouri provision”) intended to end the federal kick-back scheme. Hyde’s office was immediately “swamped by faxes from law enforcement protesting the provision,” reported the Kansas City Star. Janet Reno’s Justice Department pressured Congress into removing the amendment, which mysteriously fell prey to a “glitch” when the measure was presented for a vote.

While an emasculated version of the forfeiture “reform” bill worked its way through Congress, the issue was a hot topic at the July, 2000 National Conference of State Legislatures in Chicago. Ballot measures demanding substantive reform of civil asset forfeiture were passed by overwhelming majorities in several states. This prompted the institutional equivalent of a smirk and a shrug from the federal “Justice” Department, which continued to play Fagin to its growing network of state and local plunderers.

The overt thuggishness displayed by some police unions during the debate over forfeiture reform a decade ago suggests a capacity for undisguised criminal violence on the part of our supposed protectors that we ignore at our peril. In its detailed series examining forfeiture, the Star pointed out that in many states “public officials shrink from angering police.” Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation observed that it is “dangerous” when “non-police public officials feel sufficiently threatened that they will not challenge police lawlessness.”

Police unions in Utah organized a show of force perfectly suitable to late Weimar-era Germany.

“Last year when we had a hearing on forfeitures, they brought in 200 officers in uniform and just intimidated everybody,” recalled Utah state representative Bill Wright in 2000. “As a matter of fact, I had two ladies who said they were scared to death. I have never been more intimidated in my life to look out there and see 200 officers in uniform with guns on their hips, staring me down.”

It may be hyperbole — then again, it may not — to compare the scene Wright described to the intimidation tactics employed by the uniformed enforcement arm of Germany’s National Socialist Party during the March 23, 1933 Reichstag debate over Hitler’s “Enabling Act.”

Despite the Brownshirt-style intimidation of the state legislature and a taxpayer-subsidized propaganda campaign depicting the asset reform ballot measure as the work of a purported “drug legalization lobby,” the measure was enacted with nearly seventy percent of the vote — and immediately fell into desuetude, thanks to federal intervention.

The Institute for Justice notes that county prosecutors simply ignored the law and used forfeiture assets as they saw fit, until a federal lawsuit forced them to stop. In 2004, Utah’s police unions induced the legislature to overturn the forfeiture reform measure; accordingly, “one hundred percent of proceeds once again go to police and prosecutors” through the federal Crime Reduction Assistance Program (or, appropriately, CRAP). Thus police in Utah are once again empowered to steal any large amounts of cash they happen to find, even when no criminal charges are involved.

When it examined the practice of civil asset forfeiture a decade ago, the Kansas CityStar confirmed that the federal kick-back scheme was operating in at least half of the states — that is, in every state the paper had time and assets to investigate. This corrupt arrangement has, in principle, federalized every state and local police agency involved therein: The police can seize any money or other valuable property they can find and use it fund their operations in defiance of any limits imposed on them by the population to which they should be accountable.

“A lot of state agencies, like the GBI [Georgia Bureau of Investigation], prefer to work federal cases because we know it will go directly into our asset forfeiture bank,” admitted GBI official Mark Jackson. The same is true of any other state or local police agency. And this arrangement results in skewed and potentially dangerous priorities: Why should police focus on offenses against person and property, rather than on low-risk, high-yield federal forfeiture raids?

One ironic but eminently predictable result of this corrupt arrangement is the growing trend toward tardy enforcement of narcotics warrants.

“There’s been a pattern of SWAT raids and other drug enforcement actions in which the police were very late in executing a narcotics-related warrant,” Eapen Thampy of Americans for Forfeiture Reform pointed out to Pro Libertate. “This makes sense if the real objective
is to `forfeit’ money believed to be the proceeds of a drug transaction. If the police had arrived on time, they might have prevented a sale, but then they’d be stuck with the product, rather than the proceeds. So they wait until after the deal is supposed to have gone down, then they carry out their SWAT raid and take the money instead.”
This is a double-decker sandwich of official dishonesty: The police insist that SWAT teams
must be sent to serve “no-knock” drug warrants in order to prevent the destruction of evidence — and then they wait until the evidence is gone so that they can grab the cash. The contraband ends up in the street, and the money (less the amount skimmed by the Feds) ends up in the hands of police and prosecutors.

The ongoing effort to confiscate Camp Zoe follows this formula perfectly. The paramilitary force arrived long after any alleged criminal behavior took place. Because of the involvement of multiple federal agencies, a criminal conviction isn’t necessary in order for the forfeiture to be consummated. And proceeds from the sale of the property — as well as the money stolen from Jimmy Tebeau’s bank accounts — would go directly into the coffers of state and local law enforcement, after the Feds take their cut.

According to the forfeiture complaint, both local and federal law enforcement officials spent four years building a narcotics investigation at Camp Zoe. The document claims that Tebeau both permitted and “profited” from the sale of drugs on his property. At least some of those sales allegedly involved undercover police operatives, in their familiar role of breaking the laws they’re supposedly enforcing.

Under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as the equivalent provisions in the Missouri state constitution, the criminal allegations against Tebeau must be proven in court before his property can be taken. The civil forfeiture complaint against Camp Zoe is intended to permit the police to profit from alleged criminal behavior without proving that Tebeau ever committed a crime.

Can’t we all just get along?

“If they succeed in seizing Camp Zoe, we can expect the same tactics to be used against music venues nation-wide,” Dan Viets told Pro Libertate. “This is a major test case that is being watched very carefully by people who hold music festivals and other large events, and who might find their property and profits subject to seizure without even beingaccused of a crime, let alone convicted of one.”

Those seeking to steal Camp Zoe — and their stenographers in the local press — are betting heavily that the mainstream public won’t rally to the defense of a counter-culture outpost owned by an bass-playing entrepreneur in dreadlocks.

William Jon Cox, a former prosecutor and police sergeant, points out that the current War on Drugs grew out of cynical political calculations of this kind. For reasons rooted in sheer political opportunism, the Nixon administration devised the drug war as a cultural conflict pitting the “Silent Majority” against the “Damn Dirty Hippies.”

Nixon enjoyed an immediate (albeit short-lived) political benefit. The impact on the culture of law enforcement was much more dramatic and enduring: The federalization and militarization of “local” police is almost entirely an outgrowth of the War on Drugs, which now poses a potentially lethal threat to the very concept of due process and property rights. This is why everybody who claims to cherish individual liberty protected by law — whether they are Dead-Heads or Ditto-Heads — should support Jimmy Tebeau’s effort to save Camp Zoe from the federal forfeiture gang.

(A fund has been established for those interested in helping Tebeau pay his legal bills.)

(Publisher’s note: This version of the essay is updated to include a revised estimate of the number of officers who took part in the raid on Camp Zoe, and clarified with respect to other pertinent details.)

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