In the matter of the United States of America v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeleton

Monday, August 27th, 2012

Eapen Thampy, Americans for Forfeiture Reform

Over at the Americans for Forfeiture Reform website, policy analyst Scott Meiner reports on the federal civil asset forfeiture complaint in the matter of United States of America v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeleton. This is an unusual case as the government’s case nakedly asserts, with no supporting evidence, that Eric Prokopi, owner of this particular dinosaur skeleton illegally imported the skeleton from Mongolia (Prokopi has manifests indicating he imported the skeleton from Great Britain). Additionally, the US government’s legal argument is premised on the impossibility of anyone in Mongolia owning fossils as private property, a claim that stems from the Communist-era First Mongolian Constitution, which prohibits the ownership of private property. Prokopi’s motion to dismiss notes:

“However, the Soviet-era constitution and regulations have been superseded by other laws that  recognize private property and the wording of the later laws fall short of what is required to establish state ownership under applicable case law. While the Complaint relies upon a 1924 Soviet era constitution to establish state  ownership over fossils, it fails to mention that this constitution and its communist era successors were superseded in 1992 by another constitution that recognizes private property rights and which sees the State as a protector—not sole owner—of cultural objects.

In particular, the Government cites Article Three, Section One of the First Mongolian constitution, enacted in 1924 for the proposition that “all assets and resources…shall be under the possession of the people, thus making private property of them prohibited.” (Complaint ¶ 10.) On the other hand, Article Sixteen, Section Three of Mongolia’s post-communist 1992 constitution explicitly protects “[r]ight to fair acquisition, possession and inheritance of movable and immovable property.” 1992 Constitution Art. 16 (3), Tompa Decl.Ex. B. And while “mineral wealth” shall be the “property of the state” nothing is said of paleontological objects found on or in the soil.”

In case this isn’t all clear, the US Government thinks it can seize and forfeit your property, if it believes that said property has been illegally imported, without evidence, and can rely on defunct Communist laws of other nations to substantiate claims of illegal importation. As Meiner notes:

“One is left to wonder whether the prosecution believes in property rights-at all. The argument seems to be that the property is forfeitable to the government, at the want of the government, if the government says so.”


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21 Responses to “In the matter of the United States of America v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeleton”

  1. #1 |  M | 

    I’m all for reform, but also feel like if it could be proven that these were from Mongolia, they should go back to Mongolia. It’s just that, the government isn’t trying to prove that, apparently. So I guess I’m not on anybody’s side on this one.

  2. #2 |  Eapen Thampy | 

    Why should they go back to Mongolia? It appears that possessing fossils is legal under Mongolian law if indeed these fossils were imported from Mongolia. Do you not believe in private property?

  3. #3 |  Harley | 

    The joy of asset forfeiture, from the Government’s view, is that the skeleton has to prove its innocence. Can it document every step of every bone? Who dug each one up? Who they sold it to and when? It’s as if the fossil has been convicted and is trying to overturn on appeal, with all the inherent difficulties involved.

  4. #4 |  Bill Poser | 

    And please note that this is not a unique item of importance to Mongolian history and culture, for which an argument could be made that Mongolia is the natural repository. If it was illegally excavated and exported, an argument can be made for returning it to Mongolia, but that argument is based on property rights and sovereignty, not cultural affiliation.

  5. #5 |  JLS | 

    This is why I don’t own anything.

  6. #6 |  CyniCAl | 

    What fun is being a sovereign if you don’t get to own everything?

  7. #7 |  Ken Hagler | 

    I hope that Mr. Meiner doesn’t _really_ wonder whether the US government believes in property rights at all, because if he does, that’s a pretty good sign that he’s not very qualified for his position.

  8. #8 |  JLS | 

    If I want to own anything I’ll move to a country where people are free to own things. As it is I’m sure the government knows what’s best for me.

    Yes I was joking.

  9. #9 |  Phil in Parker | 

    Are lawyers in a US court argument the nuances of Mongolian law?

  10. #10 |  Eapen Thampy | 

    Yes, the US prosecutors are basing their argument on a 1924 Mongolian Constitution that bans the ownership of private property.

  11. #11 |  liberranter | 

    I wonder if any prosecutors in cases such as this have ever realized just to how idiotic they sound.

  12. #12 |  Speakertweaker | 

    How is what our .gov is doing in this case any different – and I mean any different, whatsoever – from what the Mongolians were doing through the majority of the 20th century? It’s not like the Mongolians were stockpiling All The Things in a warehouse somewhere, marked Property Of The People. They’d leave it where it was until such a time that it was decided the gover… er, sorry, The People needed it more than you did.

    Our .gov decides, willy-nilly, that you can keep whatever you have until such a time that they want to take it away from you. They don’t need evidence anymore. They’re protected by law.

    That’s what makes it so sickening. Our governments in this country, just like the Mongolian government, are protected by law to take your shit without due process.

    Don’t believe me? Just give me a call when you’re done paying all your property taxes and don’t have to anymore. Try and convince me you own your property. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

  13. #13 |  CyniCAl | 

    I heard North Dakota has a bill before the legislature to abolish property tax. So there’s that. No word on if it passed or not. But the fedgov can still do whatever it wants. who’s gonna stop them?

  14. #14 |  RobSmalls | 

    #13 The bill to repeal property taxes was defeated by ND voters during a referendum in early June.

  15. #15 |  Alfred Butler | 

    @CyniCAl – The GODDAMN BATMAN! That’s who!!

  16. #16 |  Jim | 

    #14 – Morons. And that’s why I don’t vote.

  17. #17 |  JLS | 

    I’m curious. What possible justification could anyone have for voting against repealing property taxes???

  18. #18 |  MikeV | 

    Maybe they thought the legislature would just come up with some worse new tax out of spite.

  19. #19 |  JLS | 

    #17, yea I guess but damn, I mean, they actually went out and voted to keep property taxes. Either they feared something worse or they’re just that crazy.

  20. #20 |  MikeV | 

    Looks like it wasn’t even close:
    “…Voters ultimately rejected the ballot measure to eliminate the state’s property taxes, with a reported 76.5 percent rejecting the proposal and 23.5 percent favoring…
    The measure stated that property taxes must be replaced with revenue from state sales taxes, individual and corporate income taxes, oil and gas production, tobacco taxes, lottery revenue and other sources…”

  21. #21 |  M | 

    #2 – I just feel like unique treasures belong in their country of origin especially when taken from a country during a time when there is no strong government that is actually willing to protect things that would have had a potentially large public benefit for their people. I feel the same way about stuff from Egyptian tombs and Greek ruins. I don’t care who owns it, I just think the nice thing for the owner to do would be to make it available to the Mongolians so they can enjoy it for educational and tourist dollar purposes. Private vs public ownership is irrelevant to what I think is the best use for it and based on the article the US Govt’ will only win at this point if the trial is unfair anyways.