When Willie Jones, the African-American owner of a Nashville landscaping business, purchased an airline ticket on February 27, 1991, little did he know that this seemingly routine purchase would lead to a two-year legal nightmare that nearly cost him his business.
Jones's "mistake" was paying cash for his ticket to Houston. He was going there to purchase plants and shrubbery for his business. Jones immediately aroused suspicions that he was a drug dealer because African-Americans carrying large amounts of cash apparently fit the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's (DEA) profile for such criminals.
Nashville police officers detained Jones and searched his luggage with drug-sniffing dogs, but found no drugs. Still suspicious, they seized the $9,600 Jones was carrying in his wallet despite Jones's protests that the money was for buying landscaping plants. Jones was never charged with a crime. Under federal civil forfeiture asset law, however, law enforcement authorities can seize the cash, home or any other asset of an individual they suspect of criminal wrongdoing - even if that individual is never charged or convicted of a crime.
Jones filed a race discrimination lawsuit against the DEA. In April 1993, a federal judge finally ordered the DEA to return this innocent man's money.
Willie Jones's story is one of 100 stories profiled in the National Directory of Environmental and Regulatory Victims, which is soon to be released by The National Center For Public Policy Research. These stories describe the tragic consequences that result when constitutionally-protected rights are undermined through regulations meant to promote positive objectives like fighting crime.
While Americans of all races and ethnic backgrounds suffer unfairly from poorly-crafted and excessive regulations, African-Americans have seen their share of abuses.
Witness the case of Nathaniel Craigmiles. Craigmiles, a Baptist preacher in Chattonooga, Tennessee, began selling funeral caskets in March 1999. He believed he could attract significant business since he was selling caskets for $800 when funeral homes were selling them for $3,200. But his business was bad business for the funeral home industry. Only four months after he started his company, the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance's Funeral Board and Burial Services Division - the regulatory arm of the state funeral home industry - shut down Craigmiles's casket store claiming that he had to be a licensed funeral director to sell caskets.
Funeral home directors must get a license that qualifies them to embalm and bury bodies. But Craigmiles doesn't see why he needs to go through the lengthy and expensive process of getting a license to embalm and bury bodies when all he wants to do is sell caskets.
Craigmiles even received threatening phone calls and notes from people he suspects were his competitors. "They said unless we shut down, something was going to happen."
Craigmiles is considering joining a lawsuit challenging the state licensing regulations as an unconstitutional restraint of competition. He vows to fight on. "This is our livelihood. This is a hardship for me."
In another case, Willie Brown's WLUV 90.9 radio station was popular with the citizens of Homestead, Florida but not the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The station's 13-year-old mixture of gospel music and community announcements provided the predominantly elderly listeners with a welcome alternative to the limited variety of stations broadcasting in that part of south Florida. But in July 1998, the FCC shut down WLUV because the owner did not have a license - even though he had repeatedly tried to secure one.
A 63-year-old activist popularly known as "Brother Brown," Brown has been a fixture in Homestead for many years. On two different occasions, Dade County declared Willie Brown Days to honor his many achievements. His work was honored on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, and he has even had his photograph taken with First Lady Hillary Clinton.
But established radio broadcasters oppose the licensing of low-power radio stations like Brown's. Paying heed to the wishes of the broadcasting establishment, the FCC continues to adhere to the long-established policy of strictly regulating the entry of new stations. The FCC denied Brown's application for a license three times, even though his station did not infringe on the signals of other area radio stations.
Brown's loyal listeners were quite angry about the closure. The Homestead and neighboring Florida City governments approved resolutions asking the FCC to keep "Brother Brown" on the air. But the FCC was apparently unmoved and WLUV is still silent.
There is no question that regulations are needed to protect
public safety, encourage responsible business practices and achieve
other legitimate public policy objectives. But when many of those
regulations undermine the livelihoods of innocent and responsible
people such as Willie Brown, it's clear that some laws need reforming.
(John K. Carlisle is the director of The National Center for
Public Policy Research's Environmental Policy Task Force. He can
be reached at JCarlisle@nationalcenter.org.)
Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.
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