Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

PALM LATITUDES

BODY POLITIC : Courting Justice

July 10, 1994|Sharon Whitley

No one likes hassles with the government. They're inconvenient, time consuming and unnerving. But they're practically a raison d'etre for Scott McMillan, founder of BLAM!--the Bivens Legal Action Movement. BLAM!, whose motto is "Better Government Through Litigation," is named for Webster Bivens, the plaintiff in a landmark 1971 Supreme Court decision that federal employees can be held personally responsible for violating an individual's constitutional rights.

BLAM! was born in 1991 after McMillan ran into a series of snags with U.S. Customs agents at the San Ysidro border crossing. McMillan, a computer products importer, was used to the grillings he got from agents, but one day, agents searched him and told him to empty his wallet. They confiscated it, saying it was made from an endangered crocodile species. McMillan says he pursued all legal remedies to recover the wallet, which was made from a legal reptile. He got nowhere, so he filed a lawsuit against the agents, which is still going through the courts (though he did recover his wallet), and started BLAM!

"Most citizens haven't read the Constitution--or read it only when they were in high school," says McMillan, 30, who learned legal research from his father, an attorney. "So when folks are mistreated by government agents, they don't often know their rights."

With BLAM!, he aims to change that. Each month about 40 people meet in San Diego to get information on filing their lawsuits; most of them don't have an attorney. About 150 people across the country are on the BLAM! mailing list and members have 20 lawsuits percolating through the courts, including one accusing a government official of assault and another demanding a return of property in a forfeiture case.

One of the few cases to have reached the trial stage involved Nancy Halus, 58, a pharmacist from Valley Center, who sued the San Diego County Assessment Appeals Board over its appraisal of her home. The case was dismissed on a technicality, but she appealed and the U.S. District Court granted her the right to refile. She decided not to pursue the suit because it had already been too time-consuming. But, she says, "I wouldn't have known how to proceed without Scott's help."

"I won't accept less than excellence from our government," McMillan says, "but it probably won't happen in my lifetime."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|