Citizens 'Mugged' by the State

Now that California's recall firestorm has cooled, it's time to identify a factor with potentially staggering political implications for the nation.

The lopsided election results cannot be attributed solely to Arnold Schwarzenegger (search)'s charisma and Gov. Gray Davis (search)' unpopularity, or even to the slowed economy. Something more incendiary helped to stoke voter anger.

The outcome reflected deep-felt public frustration and resentment against insensitive and abusive government officials and institutions. Beyond California, a growing number of Americans think that too many government officials are unaccountable and too many laws and regulations -- federal, state and local -- are unfairly administered.

For nine years, starting in 1993, I profiled scores of ordinary people in Reader's Digest who had been unfairly yet legally "mugged" by regulators.

Researching this series of articles took me to 23 states. I interviewed victims, their families, their business associates and friends, and the regulators whose common sense-defying decisions had created a slew of financial, legal and emotional hardships.

Many of these muggings are committed so regulatory agencies can set legal precedents, meet enforcement quotas, protect the monopoly power of favored enterprises and intimidate property owners who might otherwise contest arbitrary decision-making. Most of the governmental abuses occur so far beyond the notice of national news media attention that we never hear of them. Here is a sampling from among hundreds that I have collected.

Eminent Domain Muggings

Arizona brake repairman Randy Bailey, 40, faced the loss of his three-decades-old family business when Mesa city officials used eminent domain to condemn his shop so the land could be used for a hardware store expansion. This form of coercion and corporate welfare, pursued in the name of the public good, is commonplace.

City officials in Hurst, Texas, tried to increase tax revenues by condemning an entire neighborhood subdivision and giving the land to a mall developer for a parking lot. Florida's Riviera Beach City Council condemned 1,700 homes and apartments and 150 small businesses to provide land for big developers who wanted to construct a commercial yachting center.

Drug War Victims

State and local civil asset forfeiture laws, modeled after federal statutes, often mug innocent property owners to help underwrite the drug war bureaucracies.

Tax consultant Judith Roderick, 55, of Lacey, Wash., had prepared a land trust for a client who was later charged with growing marijuana. The Thurston County Narcotics Task Force seized Roderick's home, her bank accounts and her business records during their investigation into whether she knew the client had used drug money to buy the land. Left destitute by the seizures, Roderick had to represent herself in court. It took over a year for prosecutors to decide they had no case.

Classic car restorer Dan Peruchi, 35, of Fort Worth, Texas, was driving a vehicle he had just purchased through West Memphis, Ark., when police stopped him. They seized $18,890 in cash Peruchi was carrying for car purchases because a drug-sniffing dog reacted as if some of the bills had once been in contact with cocaine.

No charges were filed against Peruchi, and there was no evidence of drug involvement. But he never got his money back.

Land Use Muggings

Property owners have suffered financial losses after being caught in the crossfire between competing regulatory bureaucracies.

Washington state medical worker Brian Bea built a house on land that had been in his family for five generations. He received a building permit from Skamania County. But after the house was almost complete the Columbia Gorge Commission interceded and ordered the house torn down for "scenic" reasons.

That prompted a regulatory court battle between the two government agencies, bringing Bea and his wife to the brink of bankruptcy.

Other middle-class property owners have fallen prey to anti-growth hysteria in the guise of environmental protection. A water equipment service engineer, Regina Gonzalez, 34, bought two lots on which to build retirement homes for her parents and herself in Monroe County, Fla. Seven years later, the county informed her the lots could never be developed, rendering them worthless, because some of the land bordered on a few feet of marsh.

Nearly 9,200 other lot owners received similar news from the county as a result of a series of anti-growth ordinances and ever-widening wetlands regulations.

Whether the public is provoked by regulations that don't make economic sense, or enforcements that don't make legal sense, the real crime is often the transformation of law-abiding citizens into lawbreakers.

California has traditionally been a trend-setter in more than just cultural matters. Other states adopted variations of the state's Proposition 13, and we all know what happened when California exported Ronald Reagan (search) and his ideas. Political aspirants nationwide who can tap into the rising tide of public disaffection will reap a California-style harvest for years to come.

Randall Fitzgerald lives in northern California and is the author of the book, "Mugged By The State: Outrageous Government Assaults On Ordinary People And Their Property" (Regnery/Cato Institute), which will be released Nov. 10.