Topic: Government and Politics

The 4th Amendment Is Another Victim of the Drug War

Over at the Washington Post, Radley Balko details a recent Fourth Circuit ruling overturning an award for a father whose son was shot and killed in a military-style SWAT raid after marijuana residue was found in an outside garbage bag. A jury awarded the father $250,000 after it was shown that the police failed to comply with their obligation to knock and announce their presence before barging in and that they lied about several aspects of the raid.

Without repeating the entirety of Balko’s excellent analysis, a particularly troubling aspect of the ruling is the nonchalant way in which the Fourth Circuit judges, even in dissent, treat the militarized raid over marijuana residue and dispense with any suggestion that such escalated violence is constitutionally questionable:

Let’s first start by noting one very important issue that is not in dispute—whether the massive amount of force the police brought to bear in this case was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. As far as the federal courts are concerned, it was. As Judge Pamela Harris points out in her dissent, “The point here, to be clear, is not to take issue with the Officers’ decision to execute a search warrant based on marijuana traces by way of a military-style nighttime raid.”

Harris is correct. The courts long ago decided that dangerous, punishing SWAT-style raids to search for pot—even when there is no evidence of distribution—are reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. A lawsuit arguing otherwise will be promptly tossed.

Balko then points out that such behavior is precisely what the Fourth Amendment was designed to prevent:

Steep Drop in Colorado Marijuana Arrests

A new report from the Drug Policy Alliance details a steep decline in the number of marijuana arrests in Colorado and remarks on the beneficial effects.

The key points:

  • Since 2010, marijuana possession charges are down by more than 90%, marijuana cultivation charges are down by 96%, and marijuana distribution charges are down by 99%.
  • The number of marijuana possession charges in Colorado courts has decreased by more than 25,000 since 2010—from 30,428 in 2010 to just 1,922 in 2014.
  • According to raw data from the National Incident-Based Reporting System, drug-related incidents are down 23% since 2010, based on a 53% drop in marijuana-related incidents.
  • In 2010 the top five Colorado counties for marijuana possession cases were El Paso, Jefferson, Adams, Larimer, and Boulder.  Marijuana possession cases in those counties all dropped by at least 83% from 2010 to 2014.
  • Marijuana distribution charges for young men of color did not increase, to the relief of racial justice advocates wary of a “net-widening” effect following legalization. The black rate for distribution incidents dropped from 87 per 100,000 in 2012 to 25 per 100,000 in 2014.
  • Racial disparities for still-illegal and mostly petty charges persist for black people when compared to white people, primarily because of the specific increase of charges for public use combined with the disproportionate rates of police contact in communities of color. The marijuana arrest rate for black people in 2014 was 2.4 times higher than the arrest rates for white people, just as it was in 2010.
  • The report also reveals a decline in synthetic marijuana arrests, presumably because people are less likely to use synthetic marijuana when marijuana itself is no longer criminalized.

According to Art Way, Colorado state director of the Drug Policy Alliance:

It’s heartening to see that tens of thousands of otherwise law-abiding Coloradans have been spared the travesty of getting handcuffed or being charged for small amounts of marijuana. By focusing on public health rather than criminalization, Colorado is better positioned to address the potential harms of marijuana use, while diminishing many of the worst aspects of the war on drugs.

Restoring the Old-Fashioned Budget Virtue of … FDR and Truman?!?

This is a column I never expected to write. That’s because I’m going to applaud Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

This won’t be unconstrained applause, to be sure. Roosevelt, after all, pursued awful policies that lengthened and deepened the economic misery of the 1930s. And, as you can see from this video, the “economic bill of rights” that he wanted after WWII was downright malicious.

Truman, meanwhile, was a less consequential figure, but it’s worth noting that he wanted a restoration of the New Deal after WWII, which almost certainly would have hindered and perhaps even sabotaged the recovery.

But just as very few policymakers are completely good, it’s also true that very few policymakers are totally bad. And a review of fiscal history reveals that FDR and Truman both deserve credit for restraining domestic spending during wartime.

In a new column I wrote for The Hill, I specifically responded to the cranky notion, pursued by Bernie Sanders, the openly socialist U.S. senator from Vermont, that there should be tax hikes on the rich to finance military operations overseas.

The idea has a certain perverse appeal to libertarians. We don’t like nation-building and we don’t like punitive tax policy, so perhaps mixing them together would encourage Republicans to think twice (or thrice) before trying to remake the world.

But “perverse appeal” isn’t the same as “good policy.”

Congress’s Archaic Information Practices

There have been more than 2,700 bills introduced so far in the current Congress. That’s more than 30 bills per day, every day this year, weekends included. Ordinary Americans have a hard time keeping up, of course. Congress does, too.

The controversy around the anti-sex-trafficking bill in the Senate last week illustrates this well. Debate around the formerly non-controversial bill fell into disarray when Democrats discovered language in the bill that would apply the Hyde Amendment to fines collected and disbursed by the government. (The Hyde Amendment bars government spending on abortion. Democrats argue that it has only applied in the past to appropriated funds, not disbursement of fines.)

How is it that it took until late March for Democrats to discover controversial language in a bill that was introduced in January?

Well, Congress is awash in archaic practices. For one, bills are written in “cut and bite” style—change this line, change that word, change another—rather than in a form that lays out what the law would look like if the bill were passed. That makes bills unreadable—a situation Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) has sought to remedy.

Make the U.S.-Iran Nuclear Deal: Failure Is Not an Option

Iran has been one of Washington’s chief antagonists for nearly four decades. But a deal to keep Tehran from building nuclear weapons is in sight.

Tehran, though an ugly regime, does not threaten America. The United States is the globe’s greatest military power with the most sophisticated nuclear arsenal and finest conventional force.

Tehran’s leaders are malign actors, but nevertheless have reason to feel insecure. In 1953 Washington helped overthrow the democratically elected prime minister. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama regularly declared military action to be “on the table.”

Israel is concerned over a possible Iranian nuclear weapon, but when asked in 2011 whether Iran would drop a nuke on Israel, former Defense Minister Ehud Barak responded “Not on us and not on any other neighbor.” Israeli Defense Force’s Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz observed: “I think the Iranian leadership is comprised of very rational people.” Who recognize Israel’s overwhelming retaliatory capacity.

Washington’s ally the Shah started the Iranian program. Tehran’s motive, noted former Mossad head and national security adviser Efraim Halevy, “is not the confrontation with Israel, but the desire to restore to Iran the greatness of which it was long deprived.”

Chicago Police Department Needs Reform

It’s been a rough month for the Chicago Police Department (CPD). 

First came the revelations from Spencer Ackerman and The Guardian about a CPD warehouse at Homan Square that was, according to detainees, defense attorneys, and civil rights advocates, operating as a “black site” where detainees were held for hours and aggressively interrogated without ever being officially entered into the system or given access to their attorneys. While the police and others dispute this characterization, one complaint seems to be that the abuses at Homan Square could be found at any police facility in Chicago.  Not exactly a resounding defense of CPD practices.  Last week the commander of the Homan Square facility, Nicholas Roti, resigned.

This week, the ACLU of Illinois released a troubling report about the use of Stop-and-Frisk in Chicago.  Stop-and-Frisk is the controversial practice, made infamous by the NYPD which has been ordered to halt it, of stopping large numbers of (especially African American and Hispanic) men on the street without probable cause and frisking them for contraband.  The ACLU report concludes that the CPD’s use of this practice is even broader and more Constitutionally-suspect than the NYPD program.

Kudos to the New Mexico Legislature for Abolishing Civil Asset Forfeiture

Good news from out west.  A New Mexico bill, HB 560, to restrict civil asset forfeiture has cleared the legislature - receiving unanimous support in the State House and State Senate - and awaits the signature of Governor Susana Martinez to become law.

Among other things, the New Mexico bill requires a criminal conviction for forfeiture actions, bolsters the “innocent owner” defense by requiring that the owner know that his/her property was being used illegally, requires that all forfeiture proceeds be deposited into the general fund rather than into the seizing agencies, and limits the ability of state and local law enforcement agencies to circumvent state law by utilizing the federal equitable sharing program.

As noted numerous times by Cato and other civil liberties advocates like the Institute for Justice and the ACLU, civil asset forfeiture is a conceptually unjust practice that has no place in a society that cherishes due process and private property.  

That many state legislatures across the country are now undertaking efforts to rein in this government abuse is something worth cheering about.