Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

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.

Yes, Ted Cruz Is Eligible to Be President

As Ted Cruz announces his White House candidacy, let me forestall a new round of birtherism prompted by the discovery that the Texas senator was actually born in a different oil patch: Calgary, Alberta, Canada. I looked at the whole “natural-born citizen” requirement a couple of years ago and concluded that Cruz’s eligibility for the presidency is an easy legal call. Here’s the heart of the matter:

So the one remaining question is whether Ted Cruz was a citizen at birth. That’s an easy one. The Nationality Act of 1940 outlines which children become “nationals and citizens of the United States at birth.” In addition to those who are born in the United States or born outside the country to parents who were both citizens … citizenship goes to babies born to one American parent who has spent a certain number of years here.

That single-parent requirement has been amended several times, but under the law in effect between 1952 and 1986 — Cruz was born in 1970 — someone must have a citizen parent who resided in the United States for at least 10 years, including five after the age of 14, in order to be considered a natural-born citizen. Cruz’s mother, Eleanor Darragh, was born in Delaware, lived most of her life in the United States, and gave birth to little Rafael Edward Cruz in her 30s.

In an amusing footnote, when this mild controversy first arose, Cruz quickly renounced any claim to Canadian citizenship. This prompted my good friend and sometime co-author Josh Blackman to present me with a filled-out renunciation application after I naturalized as a U.S. citizen last June. I have not signed or submitted this document, however, because there’s really no need – and who knows when a second passport might come in handy? (The State Department allows dual citizenship even though the naturalization oath requires a new citizen to “renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen.”) Rest assured that if I’m ever required to give up my Canadian citizenship to get a security clearance or for some other official reason, I will do so, much as I owe to the country where I grew up after my family left the Soviet Union.

King v. Burwell Doesn’t Present a ‘Coercion’ Question

I have a post over at National Review Online’s Bench Memos blog that explains why, contrary to Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s concerns, the King v. Burwell challengers’ interpretation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (a.k.a., PPACA, ACA, and ObamaCare) doesn’t coerce states. At least, not under the Court’s current tests for determining whether Congress is coercing states.

If you happen to be a busy Supreme Court justice, here’s a spoiler:

1. The ACA’s exchange provisions don’t penalize states. They let states make tradeoffs between taxes, jobs, and insurance coverage.

2. Roughly half of states appear to consider those costs tolerable. Prior to 2014, eight states voluntarily imposed this supposedly coercive penalty on themselves.

3. This “deal” is comparable to what the Court allowed in NFIB v. Sebelius. In NFIB, the Court allowed states collectively to turn down Medicaid subsidies for as many as 16 million poor people. The exchange provisions permit states to do the same for 16 million higher-income residents.

I have no objection to the Court lowering the bar for demonstrating that cooperative federalism programs coerce states. But the Court will have to lower the bar quite a bit to find the ACA’s exchange provisions coercive.

If you aren’t a busy Supreme Court justice, or even if you are, read the whole thing.

Say No to the ‘Utah Compromise’

Gov. Gary Herbert (R) has signed into law an expansion of Utah’s anti-discrimination law following what’s being billed as a historic compromise between gay rights advocates and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Unfortunately, as I argue at the Daily Beast, both halves of the compromise are bad news for individual liberty and freedom of association in the workplace. Excerpt:

As I noted at the Cato Institute’s website a while back, these laws “sacrifice the freedom of private actors—as libertarians recognize, every expansion of laws against private discrimination shrinks the freedom of association of the governed.”

That’s the familiar half of the story. What’s new about the Utah Compromise is that it adds completely new restrictions on employers’ rights to keep the workplace focused on work as opposed to religious or moral debate. In particular, it allows employees to sue on a claim that they were fired or otherwise treated poorly for talking about religion or morality in the workplace, at least if they were doing so in a way that was “reasonable” and didn’t interfere with the employer’s “essential” business interests.

When an employee then begins treating customers or co-workers to unasked-for disquisitions about religious or moral matters, it will apparently be the state of Utah—rather than, as now, the folks in human resources—who will have the final say as to whether the topic is “similar” to others on which discussion had previously been allowed, and whether the proselytizing or reproachful comments taken as a whole were “reasonable” or by contrast “harassing or disruptive.”

And I conclude:

It’s not clear whether anyone was at the table speaking up for employers’ rights and interests during the Utah negotiations. It’s a lot easier to reach what’s hailed as a historic compromise if you can do so at the expense of absent third parties, isn’t it?

Whole thing here.

DEA ‘Cold Consent’ Encounters Constitute Federal Stop-and-Frisk

Over at Forbes, the Institute for Justice’s Nick Sibilla details a new report from the Department of Justice concerning the Drug Enforcement Administration’s practice of cold-stopping travelers at airports, bus stations, and train stations and asking to search their property looking for forfeitable assets.

Federal drug agents may be racially profiling and unjustly seizing cash from travelers in the nation’s airports, bus stations and train stations. A new report released by the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Justice examined the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)’s controversial use of “cold consent.

In a cold consent encounter, a person is stopped if an agent thinks that person’s behavior fits a drug courier profile. Or an agent can stop a person cold “based on no particular behavior,” according to the Inspector General report. The agent then asks the people they have stopped for consent to question them and sometimes to search their possessions as well. By gaining consent, law enforcement officers can bypass the need for a warrant.

While many people who believe they have nothing to hide may–inadvisably–consent to a police search, they may not be familiar with federal civil asset forfeiture laws, which give federal agents wide latitude to seize property, especially cash, without charging anyone with any crime. Sibilla notes that the DEA agents even go so far as to carry affidavits for search targets to sign disclaiming any rights to the property being seized. 

Disturbingly, the Inspector General found that DEA interdiction task force groups have been seizing cash from travelers and then urging them to sign forms disclaiming their own cash and “waiving their rights.” In one cold consent encounter, DEA agents stopped another African-American woman in part because she was “pacing nervously” before boarding her flight. After gaining her consent, the agents searched her luggage and found $8,000.

Police Body Cameras Are Not a Panacea

Las Vegas police officer Richard Scavone is facing a misdemeanor battery charge after body camera footage revealed that he had, according to Undersheriff Kevin McMahill, used excessive and unreasonable force while arresting a woman for loitering for prostitution in January.

Scavone’s lawyer said that his client, who is suspended with pay, was one of the 400 volunteers taking part in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s body camera study. Footage of the incident has not been released, as it is being used in the ongoing investigations conducted by the Clark County District Attorney and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

This is not the first time that police body cameras have captured alleged excessive force. In January, prosecutors in Albuquerque, New Mexico said that they would be pursuing murder charges against two police officers who in March 2014 shot and killed James Boyd, a homeless paranoid schizophrenic camping in the Sandia Mountains. The killing was filmed by a helmet camera worn by one of the officers at the scene. Speaking about the case, Bernalillo County District Attorney Kari Brandenburg said, “We have evidence in this case to establish probable cause we didn’t have in other cases.”

Both the Las Vegas and Albuquerque incidents highlight that body cameras are valuable in providing extra transparency and accountability but are not a panacea for allegations of police misconduct.

President Obama’s Dismissal of Drug Reform

Yesterday President Obama seemed to make light of the push for drug reform (again), arguing that young Americans should put it at the bottom of their priority list in favor of issues like climate change and war:

I understand this is important to you but, you know, you should be thinking about climate change, the economy, jobs, war and peace. Maybe, way at the bottom, you should be thinking about marijuana.

As a member of that millennial generation, I’d like to ask: why?

Setting aside the strange suggestion that environmental and peace activism are somehow mutually exclusive with opposing the drug war, I would suggest that Americans have much more influence over drug policy than we have over the global climate or the U.S. government’s penchant for warmaking. 

Despite the President’s insinuations, the fight to end the drug war isn’t just a crusade by young stoners to get high without worry of arrest.  Prohibition doesn’t work.  It didn’t work in the 1920s when alcohol prohibition turned entire American cities over to organized crime, and it doesn’t work in 2015.

The War on Drugs is a key reason why America’s incarceration rate is off the charts, why more than 60,000 Mexicans have been killed in drug violence over the last decade, why violent gangs control entire swaths of urban America the U.S. prison system, why there are more than a million drug arrests clogging up our courts every year, why our cherished protection from unreasonable searches and seizures has been eroded and twisted to nearly nothing, and why paramilitary police raids have gone up 1,500% in the last generation, leaving dead bodies and maimed children in their wake.

To his credit, President Obama has made some positive policy decisions to lessen the burden of the drug war.  His decision to “de-prioritize” marijuana busts in jurisdictions that have voted to legalize marijuana is commendable.  But that is merely one small tile on a vast mosaic of ruinous government prohibition efforts.

There are thousands of non-violent drug offenders in federal custody which President Obama could free with the stroke of a pen today.  There are hundreds of state and local law enforcement agencies receiving military weaponry from the Obama Administration, while the administration’s own task force acknowledges there is very little accountability, training, or respect for civil liberties built into the weaponry distribution system.  There are thousands of immigrants seeking refuge in America from the violence spawned by our drug war.

I don’t see what’s so funny or unimportant about any of this.