The Highwayman has a romantic image as a bold, 18th-century scallywag who would ride up to a coachload of aristocrats on his horse, shouting, “Stand and deliver!” Having relieved the aristocrats of their purses, he would gallop off.
Today, the Highwayman is being revived in a big way in the US. But, far from being a scofflaw, he is, in fact, the law. He wears a badge and the law protects him in his roadside robberies.
The revival is the result, in part, of both the defunding of police departments (creating a demand for law enforcement departments to seek money from other sources) and the encouragement of the federal government for an overall expansion of the police state.
The legal justification for such highway robbery is the police practice of civil forfeiture, which has been on the books for decades. Civil forfeiture allows law enforcement to seize property (including cash, cars, and even homes) without having to prove the owners are guilty of a crime.
In many cases, drivers are not charged with any crime at all, not even a traffic citation. In fact, one Florida sheriff has noted that the best targets are those who are obeying the speed law. He knows whereof he speaks, having seized over $6.5 million on the highways of Florida. (Quite an advance on the size of the purses seized by the 18th-century highwayman.)
Typically, police stop a car and make the usual request to see license and registration. If the driver asks why he was stopped, a vague explanation may be offered by the officer, or he may simply ignore the question, then demand a search of the car or the driver’s person. The officer then seizes cash and other valuables as potential “evidence” of a crime (suspected drug dealing is a common accusation).
In some cases, police threaten drivers that, if they are not cooperative, their children may be taken by Child Protective Services.
The burden of proof is on the driver. In order to regain his possessions, he must prove his innocence in a court. However, in most cases, no charges are made, so there is no court case to try. Whether charges are made or not, law enforcement agencies are entitled to keep 100% of the forfeiture proceeds. Although they are required to keep records on forfeiture, in many cases, police departments avoid or even refuse to provide such information when requested.
Although police may prey on people anywhere, including in small towns, the most prevalent location is on highways, the further from civilisation the better. In this way, the driver knows that he’s in the middle of nowhere facing a man with both a badge and a gun. He might consider himself lucky to be left with just his car, so that he can drive away from the robbery and not be left on the pavement with no car and no money. For many, this is enough incentive to allow police to take what they want…and not file any complaint.
Of course, these stops and seizures violate the Fourth Amendment right to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure and at least one state judge in California has described the practice as “an institutional corruption.” Conceptually, a driver can refuse to have his car or his person inspected and can attempt to prosecute the officer, but again, the burden of proof is on the driver. As a result, prosecutions are rare and successful prosecutions rarer still.
So, the Highwayman has returned, but he now wears a badge. What does this mean for the future? As social and economic conditions deteriorate in the US, will the country’s highways come to resemble a Mad Max scenario, but one in which many of the raiders are people in authority?
As with so many trends in the US, EU, and similar jurisdictions, this is one of many symptoms of overall social/moral/economic/governmental deterioration, a bellwether of continued decay. Whenever a country is so far along in its decline that its “peacekeepers” make a regular habit of robbing the people they’re paid to protect, and get away with it, we may conclude that further decline is to come and it may be time to exit this particular highway.
Unfortunately, when such crime exists from coast to coast, as it does with today’s institutionalised highwaymen, the solution is to seek out a better way of life in another country entirely. Fortunately, there are many countries where conditions are considerably better.