Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

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.

The Fatal Conceit of the “Right to be Forgotten”

Intelligence Squared hosted a lively debate last week over the so-called “Right to be Forgotten” embraced by European courts—which, as tech executive Andrew McLaughlin aptly noted, would be more honestly described as a “right to force others to forget.”  A primary consequence of this “right” thus far has been that citizens are entitled to demand that search engines like Google censor the results that are returned for a search on the person’s name, provided those results are “inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant.”  In other words, if you’re unhappy that an unflattering item—such as a news story—shows up as a prominent result for your name, you can declare it “irrelevant” even if entirely truthful and ask Google to stop showing it as a result for such searches, with ultimate recourse to the courts if the company refuses.  Within two months of the ruling establishing the “right,” the company received more than 70,000 such requests.

Hearteningly, the opponents of importing this “right” to the United States won the debate by a large margin, but it occurred to me that one absolutely essential reason for rejecting this kind of censorship process was only indirectly and obliquely invoked.  As even the defenders of the Right to be Forgotten conceded, it would be inappropriate to allow a person to suppress search results that were of some legitimate public value: Search engines are obligated to honor suppression requests only when linking some piece of truthful information to a person’s name would be embarrassing or harmful to that person without some compensating benefit to those who would recieve the information.  Frequent comparison was made to the familiar legal standards that have been applied to newspapers publishing (lawfully obtained) private information about non-public figures. In those cases, of course, the person seeking to suppress the information is typically opposed in court by the entity publishing the information—such as a newspaper—which is at least in a position to articulate why it believes there is some public interest in that information at the time of publication. 

Stingrays and Police Secrecy

The New York Times this week published a troubling article detailing the secrecy surrounding police use of Stingray cellular site simulators.  Essentially, these devices (which can be mounted on vehicles or carried by hand) mimic the signals of a cell phone tower in order to force cell phones in a given area to connect to the device.  Both data on the phone (including numbers, texts, emails, and any other data stored on the phone) and the phone’s physical location can then be accessed and recorded by police.

Additionally concerning is the extensive use of non-disclosure agreements by the Harris Corporation, which sells the devices, to prevent the public (and in some cases even judges, defense attorneys, and prosecutors) from finding out how these devices are being used or even whether a given department owns any.   The preference for secrecy is so powerful that prosecutors have dropped serious criminal charges simply to avoid having the police use of Stingrays subjected to examination by defense attorneys or judges.

According to the Times,

The confidentiality has elevated the stakes in a longstanding debate about the public disclosure of government practices versus law enforcement’s desire to keep its methods confidential. While companies routinely require nondisclosure agreements for technical products, legal experts say these agreements raise questions and are unusual given the privacy and even constitutional issues at stake.

The stated reason for the secrecy is the common refrain that terrorists will circumvent the technology if they know what law enforcement is up to.  However, a recent ACLU report was unable to uncover a single instance of these devices being used to bring domestic terrorists to justice in any jurisdiction surveyed. 

The ACLU report estimates that Stingrays are in wide and rapidly increasing use in law enforcement agencies across America.  However, there appears to be very little oversight structure for police departments, legislatures, or courts governing the use of these devices. In some instances, it seems that courts have even unwittingly been authorizing their use without the judge’s full understanding.  For instance, a sampling of applications for court orders from Florida law enforcement agencies informs the judge that the order is for cell phone records, but doesn’t mention anything about how they’re to be obtained.  Police claim such vague orders authorize Stingray deployment, but some judges have been less than enthused upon finding out.

UT-Austin’s Secret Racial Preferences Undermine Its Admissions Policy

In 2013’s Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the Supreme Court delivered a blow to the use of racial preferences in university admissions by reversing a lower-court opinion that had allowed the use of race in UT-Austin’s admissions policy.

That wasn’t the end of the story, however; after holding that the university bears the burden of proving that its use of racial preferences is necessary and narrowly tailored—a point on which university administrators are due no deference—the Court remanded the case back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. That court was to determine whether UT had offered evidence sufficient to prove that its use of race was “narrowly tailored to achieving the educational benefits” of diversity. Recall that UT-Austin’s admissions program fills most of its spots through a race-neutral Top Ten Percent Plan—which offers admission to high school graduates in the top 10 percent of their class—then fills the remaining seats with a “holistic” rating that takes into account various factors typical to admissions programs (including race for certain preferred minorities).

Well, on remand, the Fifth Circuit panel split 2-1 but once again sided with the university, holding that even if the Top Ten Percent Plan already provided a “critical mass” of minority students, the use of racial preferences was necessary to achieve some other special kind of diversity. The dissenting opinion by Judge Emilio Garza pointed out how the majority deferred, once again, to the university’s hand-waving claim that its use of racial preferences is tailored to an actual, appropriate interest, without having actually proven anything approaching what is constitutionally required.

After being denied a rehearing before the full Fifth Circuit, Abigail Fisher, the former applicant suing UT-Austin, has now petitioned the Supreme Court to hear her case once again. And Cato has again filed a brief supporting that petition. We argue that the Court should hear the case because (1) UT-Austin’s “qualitative” diversity rationale is still a complete and unjustified sham, (2) the university continues to openly flout its disregard of Supreme Court precedent governing the use of race in higher education admissions, and (3) leaving the Fifth Circuit’s shockingly deferential and judiciously lazy ruling on the books will give other schools a roadmap for circumventing the Equal Protection Clause’s limitations on the use of race.

Among other evidence we marshal is the recently discovered program of secret racial preferences run out of the university president’s office, which flouts Supreme Court precedent and belies the stated rationale of UT’s admissions policy. This is just the latest example of college administrators’ massive resistance to the Fourteenth Amendment’s charge not to discriminate based on race or ethnicity.

The Court will decide whether to take up Fisher v. UT-Austin (again) later this spring.

Cato legal associate Julio Colomba contributed to this blogpost.