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“Are Police Stealing People’s Property?”: Policing For Profit, An Unconstitutional Cash Cow For Law Enforcement

“Don’t even bother getting a lawyer. The money always stays here.”

That’s what the Tenaha Police Department told 27-year-old Arkansan James Morrow after they confiscated $3,900 from his car for “driving too close to the white line.” The police reported the “odor of burned marijuana,” though no drugs were found in the car. Morrow was carted off to jail, while the car was impounded.

Eventually Morrow was released with no money, vehicle, or phone. “I had to go to Wal-Mart and borrow someone’s phone to call my mama,” he told The New Yorker. “She had to take out a rental car to come pick me up.”

Law-enforcement agencies at all levels of government provide a valuable and often thankless public service in their communities. There are, however, systemic problems that must be addressed. Perhaps one of the most egregious examples is the abuse of civil asset forfeiture laws.

The Fifth Amendment makes it abundantly clear that “[n]o person shall… be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” But for far too long, some law-enforcement agencies have used the law for their own benefit, seizing property suspected of use in a crime often without ever charging or convicting the owner of any wrongdoing.

The burden of proof, unfortunately, falls on the owner, ostensibly rendering his or her property guilty until proven innocent in the eyes of the law, with little concern for the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process. And since most people don’t have the financial means to fight a lengthy legal battle, the confiscated property often remains in the possession of the law-enforcement agencies that seized it.

What was originally intended to be an effort to combat organized crime has sadly morphed into an unconstitutional cash cow for local law enforcement and the federal government.

The New York Times recently reported that there are seminars that law-enforcement officers can attend that provide “useful tips on seizing property from suspected criminals.” A video shown in one seminar quotes the city attorney of Las Cruces, New Mexico, who called items that could be seized “little goodies.”

“A guy drives up in a 2008 Mercedes, brand new,” Harry S. Connelly Jr. says in the video, according to the Times. “Just so beautiful, I mean, the cops were undercover and they were just like ‘Ahhhh.’ And he gets out and he’s just reeking of alcohol. And it’s like, ‘Oh, my goodness, we can hardly wait.’

While law-enforcement agencies may have their wish lists of “little goodies” they covet, essentially “policing for profit,” civil asset forfeiture has serious ramifications for those whose property is taken from them.

As the co-founder of MoveOn.org and president and CEO of FreedomWorks, we don’t agree on many things, but this issue is one that should move progressives, conservatives, libertarians, and frankly any citizen who is offended by abuse of power to take action. Thanks to Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), there is an opportunity before us to put our ideological differences aside to stop this blatant abuse of police power that erodes our civil liberties and our trust in police.

Earlier this year, Paul started a national conversation about civil asset forfeiture when he introduced the Fifth Amendment Restoration Act, or FAIR Act. This proposal would require federal law enforcement agencies to present “clear and convincing evidence” connecting seized property to a crime.

Though many states have reformed their civil asset forfeiture laws, some state and local law enforcement agencies still use federal statutes to seize property. The FAIR Act puts a stop to this loophole by requiring these agencies to abide by laws of the states in which they’re based.

The FAIR Act also removes the incentive that law-enforcement agencies have to police for profit by redirecting seized assets from the Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture Fund, the value of which has swelled from some $500 million in fiscal year 2001 to nearly $4.3 billion in fiscal year 2012 (PDF).

While some may attempt to spin efforts to reform civil asset forfeiture laws as a “soft on crime” position, law-enforcement agencies don’t exist for the purpose of enriching themselves by taking property of the very people they are charged with serving.

When our elected representatives assume their respective offices, they take an oath to “protect and defend the Constitution.” This isn’t some feel-good suggestion; it’s an obligation, one that has been ignored by too many on Capitol Hill for far too long.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle must show the American people that their civil liberties matter, and they can send a crystal clear, bipartisan message by ending this pernicious practice of law-enforcement agencies through the restoration the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process.

 

By: Joan Blades, Co-Founder of MoveOn.org and Matt Kibbe, President of FreedomWorks for America; The Daily Beast, January 2, 2014

 

January 3, 2015 Posted by | Civil Rights, Law Enforcement, Police Abuse | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Forcible Isolation”: Are Mandatory Ebola Quarantines Legal?

The coercive mandatory quarantine of Kaci Hickox, the nurse placed in what amounts to Ebola jail after returning to the United States from West Africa, raises troubling questions about the power that state and federal governments have to forcibly isolate individuals.

Hickox, who told CNN that her “basic human rights have been violated,” was only released Monday, two days after testing negative for Ebola. While quarantined, she was seemingly powerless to challenge her banishment to a tent in Newark.

The nurse’s treatment, as well as the quarantine policies of New York and New Jersey, have been roundly criticized as heavy-handed. A top National Institutes of Health official called the quarantines “draconian.” And former Ebola patient Rick Sacra, a doctor infected in Liberia, likened the mandatory quarantine for returning health-care workers in New York and New Jersey to a “police state approach.”

So is it legal for the government to quarantine individuals or groups of people?

State and federal officials do have the power to quarantine or isolate individuals suspected of having an infectious disease, according to a dizzying patchwork of laws. But beyond the general authority, there are many questions about how quarantines should be implemented.

At the federal level, much remains undefined defined: What would be the basis for quarantining individuals? Where would they be quarantined? What recourse would they have to prove that they should be eligible for release? What access to communications would they be given during quarantine?

“I’ve long been concerned about the quarantine authority because it is so broad, not easily subject to challenge, and exceedingly absolute,” Scott Gottlieb, a physician and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Daily Beast.

Gottlieb, who served in the Food and Drug Administration under President George W. Bush, had a hand in a previous effort to set out clearer parameters for quarantine policy.

New quarantine regulations were proposed in 2005, amid fears of the pandemic flu and bioterrorism.

Those rules compelled airlines to keep records that would allow health officials to keep track of passengers. They also introduced the concept of a “provisional quarantine” that would have allowed the federal government to detain individuals for up to three days, with no method for appeal, if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believed that a person was infected with certain illnesses.

“It didn’t work because once you start to debate these things, people were so uncomfortable about the answers to these questions they decided not to answer them,” Gottlieb said.

The rules were withdrawn in 2010 by the Obama administration, after civil-liberties organizations protested and airlines complained about compliance costs.

Today governments have the right to put individuals in quarantine before they have the right to argue that they shouldn’t be placed there. Suspicion of exposure to Ebola, for example, is sufficient to justify mandatory isolation.

“That is lawful due to the sheer nature of public-health powers,” said James Hodge, a professor of public-health law at Arizona State University. “You don’t have to let them off the plane, circulate around… and then proceed to a courthouse… You can isolate now and provide due process after.”

The federal government is responsible for quarantining individuals traveling from outside the United States or between states, while state and local governments have control over individuals who are traveling only locally.

The nurse who had traveled to West Africa to fight Ebola became caught up in the quarantine policies issues by the state of New Jersey. She was held in a presumptive quarantine that rounded up an entire class of people—in this case health-care workers who battled the infectious disease in a hot zone—and forcibly segregated.

Overreaction is still a concern that worries public-health experts. For Gottlieb, the disaster scenario is an outbreak of an infectious disease in a major city that overwhelms local health authorities, who then quarantine dozens or even hundreds of people in crowded facilities.

“That’s not far-fetched,” Gottlieb said. “In that kind of scenario, they will over-quarantine people.”

There are still legal limits to how far quarantines could extend. Entire towns or neighborhoods could not be targeted for quarantine, Hodge said.

“Courts have been very reticent to let health authorities at any level to simply rope off a community,” he told The Daily Beast, adding that exposure does not mean simply proximity to infected individuals. “Just because you’re in the vicinity of someone who was infected doesn’t mean you’re exposed.”

Quarantining passengers who have been exposed to a dangerous infectious disease on a plane or a group of children who have been in the same classroom with an infected patient, for example, would be situations with stronger legal standing.

In order to maintain constitutional compliance, Hodge explained, the quarantine or forced isolation needs to be limited to those who were infected or known to be exposed to Ebola; the quarantined individuals need to have access to due process; and the government needs to justify the restrictions placed on these individuals.

Legal challenges to quarantine also could be based on these standards. The recently released Hickox is considering suing over her mandatory quarantine, her lawyer’s office told The Daily Beast on Monday. If she files a lawsuit, the New Jersey state government would have to defend its actions and perhaps, in the process, come up with improved quarantine protocols.

 

By: Tim Mak, The Daily Beast, October 28, 2014

November 1, 2014 Posted by | Ebola, Mandatory Quarantine, Public Health | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“American Born Terrorists Are Not Excused”: The Alternatives To Drone Strikes Are Worse

America’s drone policy makes everyone uncomfortable. The alternatives are worse. Attacking enemy combatants from the air is part of warfare. Combatants who wear civilian clothing or who operate from sanctuaries are not excused from risk. Compare drone strikes to the feckless 1998 cruise missile attack on bin Laden. Drone strikes work; that is why our opponents object to them. If the host governments are cognizant and accepting (even if this is not public), if the laws of armed conflict limiting egregious attacks on civilians are observed, drone strikes are an acceptable use of force.

The more difficult issue involves targeting belligerents who also hold American citizenship. If you think about it, every confederate killed by U.S. forces in the Civil War was an American citizen. Germans with dual citizenship, both civilians and soldiers, were killed in combat or in aerial bombings during World War II. There were probably a few citizens among Chinese forces in Korea. Killing Americans participating in hostilities in an armed conflict against the United States, while disturbing, is not automatically precluded.

Arrest and trial is the preferred approach for dealing with Americans who threaten to kill their fellow citizens. What do we do if arrest is not an option? We could wait for a moment when they can be caught, but that runs the risk that while we wait, there will be another 9/11 or a successful airline bomber. The struggles against global jihad do not fit neatly with existing rules for conflict, and a pragmatic approach that puts public safety first faces difficult choices in balancing risk and rights.

The most difficult choice involves setting bounds for the use of lethal force against Americans. The administration has three rules: A senior U.S. official must determine there is an “imminent” threat of violent attack; capture is not possible; and attacks must be consistent with the laws of war (meaning an effort to avoid collateral damage and innocent causalities). The rules could be clearer in saying targets must be combatants engaged in armed struggle, and the administration uses an elastic definition of “imminent,” but these rules are sufficient for what should be a rare and infrequent event—if drone attacks on U.S. citizens are not rare and infrequent, something is dangerously wrong. It would be better if we did not have to do this and there will be a time when these rules can be abolished, but that time is not now.

By: James Lewis, U. S. News and World Report, February 6, 2013

February 7, 2013 Posted by | Citizenship, National Security | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Judicial Elections: You Get The Judges You Pay For

Legal elites must come to terms with a reality driven by the grass-roots electorate: judicial elections are here to stay. Given this reality, we should focus on balancing important First Amendment rights to financially support campaigns with due process concerns about fair trials.

An ugly, expensive campaign for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court is but the latest example of what is now common in judicial elections: millions of dollars in misleading television ads, subsidized by lobbies that have cases before the bench.

In 39 states, at least some judges are elected. Voters rarely know much, if anything, about the candidates, making illusory the democratic benefits of such elections. Ideally, judges should decide cases based on the law, not to please the voters. But, as Justice Otto Kaus of the California Supreme Court once remarked about the effect of politics on judges’ decisions: “You cannot forget the fact that you have a crocodile in your bathtub. You keep wondering whether you’re letting yourself be influenced, and you do not know.”

The need to run multimillion-dollar campaigns to win election to the court in much of the country renders the crocodile ever more menacing.

For more than a quarter of a century, voters have rejected efforts to move from an elective to an appointive bench. Last year, despite a campaign led by Sandra Day O’Connor, Nevada voters became the latest to reject such a change.

Scholars, judges and advocates who find intellectual comfort in seeking to eliminate judicial elections are indulging a luxury that America’s courts can no longer afford. Instead they should focus on incremental changes to what Justice O’Connor bluntly calls the “wrong” of “cash in the courtroom.”

More than 7 in 10 Americans believe campaign cash influences judicial decisions. Nearly half of state court judges agree. Never before has there been so much cash in the courts. Measured only by direct contributions to candidates for state high courts, campaign fund-raising more than doubled in a decade.

But this is only part of the financial story. Nationally, in 2008, for the first time, noncandidate groups outspent the candidates on the ballot.

Perhaps most tellingly, a study of 29 campaigns in the 10 costliest judicial election states over the last decade revealed the extraordinary comparative power of “super spenders” in court races. The top five spenders in each of the elections laid out an average of $473,000.

In 2009, the United States Supreme Court dealt with this issue, holding that due process is violated when a judge participates in a case involving a party that spent a great deal of money on the judge’s election effort. The case before the court involved a West Virginia Supreme Court decision overturning a jury verdict that awarded a $50 million judgment against Massey Coal Company.

One of the justices in the majority of that 3 to 2 decision, Brent D. Benjamin, had been elected after Massey Coal’s chief executive spent $3 million on his campaign. The United States Supreme Court held, 5 to 4, that due process was violated because of the lack of an impartial decision-maker. The court made clear, however, that campaign spending requires the disqualification of a judge only rarely.

A year later, the high court held, in the Citizens United case, that corporations and unions have the First Amendment right to spend unlimited amounts of money in election campaigns. In light of these two decisions, corporate and union officials must engage in a perverse guessing game: they want to spend enough to get their candidate for the bench elected, but not so much as to require the judge’s disqualification if the campaign is successful.

Rigorous recusal rules are an important step, but merely disqualifying a judge on occasion is insufficient. The most obvious solution is to limit spending in judicial races. States with elected judges should restrict how much can be contributed to a candidate for judicial office or even spent to get someone elected.

That solution has long been assumed to be off the table, though, because the Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that while the government can limit the amount that a person gives directly to a candidate, it cannot restrict how much a person spends on his or her own to get the candidate elected. Nevertheless, large expenditures to get a candidate elected to the bench undermine both the appearance and reality of impartial justice.

The Supreme Court’s 2009 decision properly focused on the $3 million in campaign expenditures, not the $1,000 that was directly contributed. In the legislative and executive offices, it is accepted that special-interest lobbying and campaign spending can influence votes; but that is anathema to our most basic notions of fair judging.

Thus, the Supreme Court should hold that the compelling interest in ensuring impartial judges is sufficient to permit restrictions on campaign spending that would be unconstitutional for nonjudicial elections.

States should restrict contributions and expenditures in judicial races to preserve impartiality. Such restrictions are the only way to balance the right to spend to get candidates elected, and the due process right to fair trials.

By: Erwin Chemerinsky and James J. Sample, The New York Times, April 17, 2011

April 18, 2011 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Constitution, Corporations, Democracy, Elections, Lawmakers, Politics, States, Unions, Voters | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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