Tag: law enforcement

Cops on Camera

The past six months have given us a number of police excesses caught on camera. Police officers savagely beat University of Maryland student John McKenna and filed false felony assault charges against him. Video of the event set the record straight. Prosecutors dropped the charges against McKenna, and four officers have been suspended and are facing state and federal investigations.

The McKenna case showed the value of video as an honest witness. Yet Maryland police officers continue to make the claim that the state wiretapping law forbids recording in public. I discuss this issue in a new Cato video, Cops on Camera, along with attorney Clark Neily of the Institute for Justice and Cato adjunct scholar Radley Balko.

We are hosting an event next Wednesday, September 22, on the right of citizens to record on-duty police, and the prosecutor in the high-profile Maryland wiretapping case against Anthony Graber will be on the panel. Registration available here.

Maryland Attorney General Sides with Anthony Graber

You may remember the case of Anthony Graber, the Maryland motorcyclist charged with violating the state’s wiretapping statute for recording his traffic stop and posting it on YouTube. I’ve said several times over the last few months that these charges are based on a misreading of the law; minus a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” recording an oral communication does not violate the wiretapping statute.

As it turns out, the Maryland Attorney General agrees.

The Maryland Attorney General has released an opinion advising a state legislator that, contrary to the claims of Harford County State’s Attorney Joseph Cassilly, a traffic stop is probably not an instance where a police officer can claim a reasonable expectation of privacy.

The AG’s opinion provides a thorough survey of Maryland’s and other states’ decisions on the issue, giving three possible interpretations of the wiretap statute as applied to a citizen recording a traffic stop.

First, a court might agree with the theory that police encounters are private conversations, but the AG found that this “seems an unlikely conclusion … particularly when they occur in a public place and involve the exercise of police powers.” That sounds familiar.

Second, a court might conclude that the Maryland statute forbids only the surreptitious recording of a police stop. The opinion deems this an unlikely outcome due to differences between the language of the Maryland law and the wiretapping statutes of Massachusetts and Illinois.

The opinion settles on its third possible outcome, agreeing with what I, Radley Balko, Carlos Miller, the Maryland ACLU, the Maryland courts, other Maryland State’s Attorneys, and the Maryland Attorney General’s previous opinions have said: the Maryland wiretap statute does not permit the prosecution of citizens for recording the actions of public officials in public places.

Graber’s court date is set for October. The AG’s opinion should halt his prosecution and further abuse of the Maryland wiretap statute.

DWI Convictions Due to Faulty Breathalyzer Calibration

From the Washington Post:

Nearly 400 people were convicted of driving while intoxicated in the District since fall 2008 based on inaccurate results from breath test machines, and half of them went to jail, city officials said Wednesday.

D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles said the machines were improperly adjusted by city police. The jailed defendants generally served at least five days, he said…

The District’s badly calibrated equipment would show a driver’s blood-alcohol content to be about 20 percent higher than it actually was, Nickles said. All 10 of the breath test machines used by District police were wrong, he said. The problem occurred when the officer in charge of maintaining the machines improperly set the baseline alcohol concentration levels, Nickles said.

This is the same jurisdiction where a woman who had a single glass of wine with dinner and a Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) of .03 was arrested for being under the influence in 2005. The national standard for a DWI arrest is .08, and anyone testing below .05 is presumed not to be intoxicated. The District of Columbia’s standard for arrest was anything above .01 if the officer deemed the driver intoxicated. Public outcry over the strict policy, particularly in a town built on tourism, prompted the D.C. Council to temporarily amend the law. The D.C. Police website still says that police can charge DUI (Driving Under the Influence, not Driving While Intoxicated) for a BAC of .07 or lower.

There is good reason to question the foundation of DWI laws and enforcement. Radley Balko makes the case that the federal push for reducing the national DWI BAC standard from .10 to .08 achieved little for public safety in Back Door to Prohibition: The New War on Social Drinking. Even Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) founder Candy Lightner regrets the no-tolerance direction her organization has taken: “[MADD has] become far more neo-prohibitionist than I had ever wanted or envisioned… I didn’t start MADD to deal with alcohol. I started MADD to deal with the issue of drunk driving.”

Immigration Law — Up Close

Kirk Adams, speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives, has an article in today’s Washington Post on the controversial Arizona immigration law.  Here’s an excerpt:

Under the law, officers can only attempt to determine a person’s immigration status during “lawful contact,” which is defined as a lawful stop, detention or arrest. Any “reasonable suspicion” can be derived only through the investigation of another violation or crime. Those who are concerned that law enforcement can simply walk up to a person and say, “Can I see your papers?” should keep this in mind.

The police are going to ask questions and request to see papers in a variety of circumstances – whether they have reasonable suspicion or not.  From a legal, constitutional, and practical perspective, the key issue is this: What are the consequences, if any, for the person who stands his ground and declines to answer questions or declines to produce identification papers?  If a person declines, will the police back off and say, “Well, that is your right, sir, you may go” or will the police escalate the situation by ordering the person to answer questions, ordering the production of identification, detaining the person, or threaten the person with arrest on bogus charges?

The police are trained to blur the line between “voluntary” interactions with people (perfectly lawful) and “involuntary” interactions with people (where police power is limited by the Constitution).  So, for example, if a police agent says, “Okay pal, let’s see what’s in the backpack!”  it is unclear whether the officer just made a request (lawful) or issued an order (for my purposes here, unlawful).  The onus here is on the layperson to speak up if he does not wish to voluntarily consent to a search: “Officer, I don’t consent to any searches.”  Upon hearing that, the officer will either (a) retreat; (b) clarify that he was ordering, not asking; (c) press the person some more to consent.  A dishonest officer can just lie and deny what you said – and if that matter goes to court the outcome will depend on who the judge believes.  That’s a severe practical disadvantage for laypeople.

With that background in mind, check out this video footage taken by a guy who seems to know constitutional law and immigration law inside out.

The vehicle is not stopped on a warrant, probable cause, or reasonable suspicion.  As far as I can tell, all the cars are being stopped.  The police ask about his immigration status and the driver declines to answer.  The man in the car knows the law well and quickly makes it crystal clear that he’s not interested in a “voluntary” encounter with the police – he wants to be on his way.  The police repeatedly evade his attempt to clarify the situation.  That is, if the police are detaining him, the driver does not want to flee or resist the officers (that’s a crime) – but if the police are not detaining him, the driver does not wish to hang out with them and talk – he wants to be on his way.  Watch the police lie and/or illegally threaten that he will be detained – until he answers their questions.  Watch the police threaten to arrest the man for causing a “safety” hazard, or for “impeding” or obstructing their “work.”  Given those police actions, most people will come to the conclusion that they have no choice in the matter – answer the questions and produce the ID papers.  These are the situations that the courts rarely see.  The citizen who was understandably intimidated by the threats may get mad, but it is not worth it to sue.  If an illegal is discovered, he would be deported in a matter of hours.  This video is thus a real public service announcement – whatever your view is on the immigration matter, do understand clearly how the police will be are interacting with people.

Note also that the police in the video clip work for the federal government, not Arizona.   So those concerned about the Constitution should remain on guard when they hear the claim that “Arizona is only doing what the federal government is already doing.”  Further,  it is doubtful that the Obama administration intends to roll back or reform the powers of the federal police.  Instead, it is trying to retain federal police powers while trying to find a way to challenge Arizona’s methods on racial/ethnic grounds.  The Arizona law is quite misguided, but so too is the president’s legal challenge.

For a terrific video that instructs people on how to deal with the police, go here.

For related Cato work on immigration law, go here, here, and here.

Police Accountability in Maryland

Several people videotaped the arrest of a belligerent woman at the Preakness Stakes and posted it online. The woman assaulted another patron of the race and two officers during her well-deserved arrest.

The criminalization of citizens’ recordings of the arrest, which culminates in the woman lying face down and bleeding, is a different matter.

Toward the end of the video, posted on YouTube (warning: violence and language), a police officer approaches the person filming the arrest and says, “Do me a favor and turn that off. It’s illegal to videotape anybody’s voice or anything else, against the law in the state of Maryland.”

Unfortunately, the officer was right.

The Maryland wiretapping law makes it illegal to record a conversation without the consent of all parties involved. The Preakness incident sparked a debate about the wisdom of a law that makes it illegal to provide public accountability of police actions.

This is the latest in a rash of incidents where Maryland police were recorded while using force or making arrests. While the Maryland law makes an exception for police to record their encounters with citizens, Maryland law enforcement officers will arrest and indict anyone who records their encounter with the police.

Case in point: Anthony Graber was riding his motorcycle and recording the experience with a helmet-mounted camera. He was riding recklessly and beyond the speed limit, which warranted a citation, but not his detention by a Maryland State Police officer at gunpoint and the trooper not first identifying himself as an officer of the law. The first few seconds of the encounter look like a carjacking, not enforcement of traffic laws. Graber posted his interaction with law enforcement officers on YouTube and was arrested for it. He now faces felony charges under the wiretapping statute, and prosecutors sought $15,000 bond for a crime that carries a maximum $10,000 fine. The judge reportedly questioned the charges at the bond hearing. Graber goes to trial on June 1st.

This is a questionable policy in the same state where excessive use of force against a University of Maryland student resulted in discipline and possible criminal charges for three Prince George’s County officers. The same jurisdiction knew that Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo may have had nothing to do with a drug trafficking ring, but raided his home at gunpoint anyway, terrorized his family, and shot his dogs. The result of the raid was that there was no wrongdoing by Calvo and his family.

The Maryland wiretapping law is itching for an update. It’s time for the Maryland code to stop acting as a barrier to transparency in law enforcement operations.

Collecting Dots and Connecting Dots

As Jeff Stein notes over at the Washington Post, the declassified summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the Christmas underpants bomber ought to sound awfully familiar to anyone who thumbed through the 9/11 Commission’s massive analysis of intelligence failures. Of the 14 points of failure identified by the Senate, one pertains to a failure of surveillance acquisition: the understandably vague claim that NSA “did not pursue potential collection opportunities,” which it’s impossible to really evaluate without more information. (Marc Ambinder tries to fill in some of the gaps at The Atlantic.)  The other 13 echo that old refrain: Lots of data points, nobody managing to connect them. Problems included myopic analysis—folks looking at Yemen focused on regionally-directed threats—sluggish information dissemination, misconfigured computers, and simple failure to act on information already in hand.

Yet you’ll notice that in the wake of such failures, the political response tends to be heavily weighted toward finding ways to collect more dots.  We hear calls for more surveillance cameras in our cities, more wiretapping with fewer restrictions, fancier scanners in the airport, fewer due process protections for captured suspects. Sometimes you’ll also see efforts to address the actual causes of intelligence failure, but they certainly don’t get the bulk of the attention.  And little wonder! Structural problems internal to intelligence or law enforcement agencies, or failures of coordination between them, are a dry, wonky, and often secret business. The solutions are complicated, distinctly unsexy, and (crucially) don’t usually lend themselves to direct legislative amelioration—especially when Congress has already rolled out the big new coordinating entities that were supposed to solve these problems last time around.

But demands for more power and more collection and more visible gee-whiz technology?  Well, those are simple. Those are things you can trumpet in a 700-word op-ed and brag about in press releases to your constituents. Those are things pundits and anchors can debate in without intimate knowledge of Miroesque DOJ org charts.  In short, we end up talking about the things that are easy to talk about.  We should not be under any illusions that this makes them good solutions to intel’s real problems. Hard as it is for pundits to sit silent or legislators to seem idle, sometimes the most vital reforms just don’t make for snazzy headlines.

The Wall Street Journal’s Surveillance Fantasies

There are too few periodical venues for good short fiction these days, so I’d normally be enthusiastic about the Wall Street Journal’s decision to print works of fantasy. Unfortunately, they’ve opted to do so on their editorial page—starting with a long farrago of hypotheticals concerning the putative role of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in hindering the detection and apprehension of failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad. In fairness to the editors, they acknowledge near the end of the piece that much of it is unvarnished speculation, but their flights of creative fancy extend to many claims presented as fact.

Let’s begin with the acknowledged fiction. The Journal editors wonder whether Shahzad might have been under surveillance before his botched Times Square attack, and posit that the NSA might have intercepted communications from “Waziristan Taliban talking about ‘our American brother Faisal,’ which could have been cross-referenced against Karachi flight manifests,” or “maybe Shahzad traded seemingly innocuous emails with Pakistani terrorists, and minimization precluded analysts from detecting a pattern.”  Anything is possible. But it’s a leap to make this inference merely because investigators appear to have had fairly specific knowledge about his contacts with terrorists after he had already been identified.  They would not have needed to “retroactively to reconstruct his activities from other already-gathered foreign wiretaps:” Once they had zeroed in on Shahzad, his calling patterns could have been reconstructed from phone company calling records whether or not he or his confederates were being targeted at the time the communications occurred, and indeed, those records could have been obtained by means of a National Security Letter without any oversight from the FISA Court.

This is part of a more general strategy we often see deployed by advocates of expanded surveillance powers. After the fact, one can always tell a story about how a known terrorist might have been detected by means of more unfettered spying authority, just as one can always tell a story about how any particular calamity would have been averted if the right sort of regulation were in place. Sometimes the story is even plausible. But if we look at the history of recent intelligence failures, it’s almost invariably the case that the real problem was the inability to connect the right set of data points from the flood of data already obtained, not insufficient ability to collect. The problem is that it’s easy and satisfying to call for legislation lifting the restraints on surveillance—and lifting still more when intelligence agencies fail to exhibit perfect clairvoyance—but difficult if not impossible, certainly for those of us without high-level clearances, to say anything useful about the internal process reforms that might help make better use of existing data. The pundit in me empathizes, but these just-so stories are a poor rationale for further diluting civil liberties protections.

Let’s move on to the unacknowledged fictions, of which there are many.  Perhaps most stunning is the claim that “U.S. intelligence-gathering capability has been substantially curtailed in stages over the last decade.” They mean, one supposes, that Congress ultimately imposed a patina of judicial oversight on the lawless program of warrantless wiretapping and data program authorized by the Bush administration in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. But the claim that somehow intelligence gathering is more constrained now than it was in 2000 just doesn’t pass the straight face test. In addition to the radical expansion of the aforementioned National Security Letter authorities, Congress approved roving wiretaps for domestic intelligence, broad FISA orders for the production of “any tangible thing,” so-called “sneak and peek” searches, looser restraints on existing FISA wiretap powers, and finally, with the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, executive power to authorize broad “programs” of surveillance without specified targets. In a handful of cases, legislators have rolled back slightly their initial grants of power or imposed some restraints on powers the executive arrogated to itself, but it is ludicrous to deny that the net trend over the decade has been toward more, rather than less, intelligence-gathering capability.

Speaking of executive arrogation of power, here’s how the Journal describes Bush’s warrantless Stellar Wind program:

Via executive order after 9/11, the Bush Administration created the covert Terrorist Surveillance Program. TSP allowed the National Security Agency to monitor the traffic and content of terrorist electronic communications overseas, unencumbered by FISA warrants even if one of the parties was in the U.S.

This is misleading.  There was no such thing as the “Terrorist Surveillance Program.”  That was a marketing term concocted after the fact to allow administration officials to narrowly discuss the components of Stellar Wind initially disclosed by the New York Times.  It allowed Alberto Gonzales to claim that there had been no serious internal dissent about the legality of “the program” by arbitrarily redefining it to exclude the parts that had caused the most controversy, such as the vast data mining effort that went far beyond suspected terrorists. It was this aspect of Stellar Wind, and not the monitoring of overseas communication, that occasioned the now-infamous confrontation at Attorney General John Ashcroft’s hospital bed described in the editorial’s subsequent paragraph. We continue:

In addition to excessive delays, the anonymous FISA judges demanded warrants even for foreign-to-foreign calls that were routed through U.S. switching networks. FISA was written in an analog era and meant to apply to domestic wiretaps in the context of the Cold War, not to limit what wiretaps were ever allowed.

Forgive me if I’m a broken record on this, but the persistence of the claim in that first sentence above is truly maddening.  It is false that “FISA judges demanded warrants even for foreign-to-foreign calls that were routed through U.S. switching networks.”  Anyone remotely familiar with the FISA law would have known it was false when it was first bandied about, and a Justice Department official confirmed that it was false two years ago. FISA has never required a warrant for foreign-to-foreign wire communications, wherever intercepted, though there was a narrower problem with some e-mail traffic.  To repeat the canard at this late date betrays either dishonesty or disqualifying ignorance of elementary facts. Further, while it’s true that a great deal of surveillance has always, by design, remained beyond the scope of FISA, it is clearly false that it was “meant to apply to domestic wiretaps” if by this we mean only “wiretaps where all parties to the communication are within the United States.” The plain text and legislative history of the law make it clear beyond any possible doubt that Congress meant to impose restraints on the acquisition of all U.S.-to-foreign wire communications, as well as radio communications targeting U.S. persons. (The legislative history further suggests that they had hoped to tighten up the restraints on radio communications, though technical considerations made it difficult to craft functional rules.) We continue:

The 2008 FISA law mandates “minimization” procedures to avoid targeting the communications of U.S. citizens or those that take place entirely within the U.S. As the NSA dragnet searches emails, mobile phone calls and the like, often it will pick up domestic information. Intelligence officials can analyze, retain and act on true smoking guns. But domestic intercepts must be effectively destroyed within 72 hours unless they indicate “a threat of death or serious bodily harm to any person” or constitute “evidence of a crime which has been, is being, or is about to be committed and that is to be retained or disseminated for law enforcement purposes.”

This means that potentially useful information must be discarded if it is too vague to obtain a traditional judicial warrant. Minimization is the FISA equivalent of a fishing license that requires throwing back catches that don’t meet the legal limit. Yet the nature of intelligence analysis is connecting small, suggestive and often scattered clues.

The kernel of truth here is that the FISA Amendments Act did impose some new constraints on the surveillance of Americans abroad. But the implication that “minimization” is some novel invention is just false. Minimization rules have always been part of FISA, and they exist precisely because the initial scope of FISA acquisition is so incredibly broad. And those minimization rules give investigators enormous latitude.  As the FISA Court itself explained in a rare published ruling:

Minimization is required only if the information “could not be” foreign intelligence. Thus, it is obvious that the standard for retention of FISA-acquired information is weighted heavily in favor of the government.

Similarly, the redaction of identifying information about U.S. persons is not required when that information is needed to properly interpret the intelligence, so the idea that analysts would have scrubbed mention of “our American brother Faisal” from an intercept of Taliban communications cannot be taken too seriously.  It’s not entirely clear what the editors are referring to when they say “domestic intercepts must be effectively destroyed within 72 hours:” Do they mean “inadvertent” intercepts of entirely domestic communications, or one-end domestic communications legitimately acquired under the FAA, or what? Either way, that’s not really consistent with what we know about FISA minimization in practice: At least as of 2005, it appears that “minimized” communications were at least sometimes retained in ultimately retrievable form, though not logged.  In any event, if I’m reading them correctly, the Journal is suggesting that NSA should be broadly sweeping up and retaining even the apparently innocent domestic communications of Americans, on the off chance that they might later prove useful? I can imagine being that consumed by terror, but I think I would be ashamed to admit it in public.  Moving on:

Meanwhile, the FISA court reported in April that the number of warrant applications fell to 1,376 in 2009, the lowest level since 2003. A change in quantity doesn’t necessarily mean a change in intelligence quality—though it might.

As it happens, I covered this in a post just the other day.  As a Justice Department official explained to the bloggers at Main Justice, the numerical decline is due to significant changes in the legal authorities that govern FISA surveillance — specifically, the enactment of the FISA Amendments Act in 2008 — and shifting operational demands, but the fluctuation in the number of applications does not in any way reflect a change in coverage.”  Finally:

These constraints are being imposed at the same time that domestic terror plots linked to, or inspired by, foreigners are increasing. Our spooks did manage to pre-empt Najibullah Zazi and his co-conspirators in a plot to bomb New York subways, but they missed Shahzad and Nidal Hasan, as well as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempt to bring down Flight 253 on Christmas Day.

Abdulmutallab was a non-U.S. person who didn’t set foot in the country until after setting his underpants aflame; there is no reason whatever to believe that FISA restrictions would have posed an obstacle to monitoring him. As for Nidal Hasan, investigators did intercept his e-mails with radical cleric Anwar al Awlaki. While it seems clear in retrospect that the decision not to investigate further was an error in judgment, they were obviously not destroyed after the fact, since they were later quoted in various press accounts. Maybe those exchanges really did seem legitimately related to Hasan’s research at the time, or maybe investigators missed some red flags. Either way, the part of the process the Journal is wringing its hands about worked: The intercepts were retained and disseminated to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which concluded that Hasan was “not involved in terrorist activities or terrorist planning” and, along with Army officials, declined to open an investigation. Rending already gossamer-thin minimization requirements is not going to avoid errors of that sort.

The Journal closes out their fantasy by melodramatically asking “whether FISA is in practice giving jihadists a license to kill.” But the only “license” I see here is of the “creative” variety; should they revisit the topic in the future, the editors might consider taking less of it.