Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Duncan Blows Off Constitution, Facts

It never ceases to amaze me how effortlessly federal “educators” blow off the Constitution. Amazing me today is none other than U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who in an address to the National Association of State Boards of Education offered the following cavalier dismissal of the Supreme Law of the Land:

I’d like to talk to you today about the federal role in education policy. It’s often noted that the Constitution doesn’t mention education, and that the provision of education has always been a state and local responsibility.

Yet, it is also true that American leaders have always considered education to be an important priority. They’ve always believed that a strong and innovative education system is the foundation of our democracy and an investment in our economic future.

This national commitment to education predates even the ratification of the Constitution. In the Northwest Ordinance governing the sale of land in the Northwest Territories, the fledgling government required townships to reserve money for the construction of schools.

In the middle of the Civil War, President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act to create land grant colleges and universities. Today, those institutions are some of the best teaching and research institutions in the world…

Here you see a textbook example of how you can brush off the Constitution in just a few easy steps! First, you acknowledge (actually, this part is optional) that authority over education is nowhere among the federal government’s specifically enumerated powers. Next, you shamelessly imply that all the founders really wanted power over education to be in the Constitution. After that, you always mention the Northwest Ordinance, even though it had nothing to do with the Constitution. Finally, you laud blatantly unconstitutional things other people have done and – voila! – the Constitution disappears!

Of course, making a factually or logically sustainable argument that you are not violating the Constitution when you obviously are is not the real goal here. This is just the standard political kabuki dance, a necessary bit of deference-payment to those few rubes who might still think that the Constitution serves some legitimate purpose.

That said, don’t you expect more from our secretary of education? After all, he has undertaken the incredibly noble job of teaching all of our children. Don’t you expect complete honesty from him, and maybe even some respect for the Constitution that he has taken an oath to uphold?

Of course you don’t. Neither do I – not one bit.

PATRIOT Powers: Roving Wiretaps

Last week, I wrote a piece for Reason in which I took a close look at the USA PATRIOT Act’s “lone wolf” provision—set to expire at the end of the year, though almost certain to be renewed—and argued that it should be allowed to lapse. Originally, I’d planned to survey the whole array of authorities that are either sunsetting or candidates for reform, but ultimately decided it made more sense to give a thorough treatment to one than trying to squeeze an inevitably shallow gloss on four or five complex areas of law into the same space. But the Internets are infinite, so I’ve decided I’d turn the Reason piece into Part I of a continuing series on PATRIOT powers.  In this edition: Section 206, roving wiretap authority.

The idea behind a roving wiretap should be familiar if you’ve ever watched The Wire, where dealers used disposable “burner” cell phones to evade police eavesdropping. A roving wiretap is used when a target is thought to be employing such measures to frustrate investigators, and allows the eavesdropper to quickly begin listening on whatever new phone line or Internet account his quarry may be using, without having to go back to a judge for a new warrant every time. Such authority has long existed for criminal investigations—that’s “Title III” wiretaps if you want to sound clever at cocktail parties—and pretty much everyone, including the staunchest civil liberties advocates, seems to agree that it also ought to be available for terror investigations under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. So what’s the problem here?

 

To understand the reasons for potential concern, we need to take a little detour into the differences between electronic surveillance warrants under Title III and FISA. The Fourth Amendment imposes two big requirements on criminal warrants: “probable cause” and “particularity”. That is, you need evidence that the surveillance you’re proposing has some connection to criminal activity, and you have to “particularly [describe] the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.” For an ordinary non-roving wiretap, that means you show a judge the “nexus” between evidence of a crime and a particular “place” (a phone line, an e-mail address, or a physical location you want to bug). You will often have a named target, but you don’t need one: If you have good evidence gang members are meeting in some location or routinely using a specific payphone to plan their crimes, you can get a warrant to bug it without necessarily knowing the names of the individuals who are going to show up. On the other hand, though, you do always need that criminal nexus: No bugging Tony Soprano’s AA meeting unless you have some reason to think he’s discussing his mob activity there. Since places and communications facilities may be used for both criminal and innocent persons, the officer monitoring the facility is only supposed to record what’s pertinent to the investigation.

When the tap goes roving, things obviously have to work a bit differently. For roving taps, the warrant shows a nexus between the suspected crime and an identified target. Then, as surveillance gets underway, the eavesdroppers can go up on a line once they’ve got a reasonable belief that the target is “proximate” to a location or communications facility. It stretches that “particularity” requirement a bit, to be sure, but the courts have thus far apparently considered it within bounds. It may help that they’re not used with great frequency: Eleven were issued last year, all to state-level investigators, for narcotics and racketeering investigations.

Surveillance law, however, is not plug-and-play. Importing a power from the Title III context into FISA is a little like dropping an unfamiliar organism into a new environment—the consequences are unpredictable, and may well be dramatic. The biggest relevant difference is that with FISA warrants, there’s always a “target”, and the “probable cause” showing is not of criminal activity, but of a connection between that target and a “foreign power,” which includes terror groups like Al Qaeda. However, for a variety of reasons, both regular and roving FISA warrants are allowed to provide only a description of the target, rather than the target’s identity. Perhaps just as important, FISA has a broader definition of the “person” to be specified as a “target” than Title III. For the purposes of criminal wiretaps, a “person” means any “individual, partnership, association, joint stock company, trust, or corporation.” The FISA definition of “person” includes all of those, but may also be any “group, entity, …or foreign power.” Some, then, worry that roving authority could be used to secure “John Doe” warrants that don’t specify a particular location, phone line, or Internet account—yet don’t sufficiently identify a particular target either. Congress took some steps to attempt to address such concerns when they reauthorized Section 206 back in 2005, and other legislators have proposed further changes—which I’ll get to in a minute. But we actually need to understand a few more things about the peculiarities of FISA wiretaps to see why the risk of overbroad collection is especially high here.

In part because courts have suggested that the constraints of the Fourth Amendment bind more loosely in the foreign intelligence context, FISA surveillance is generally far more sweeping in its acquisition of information. In 2004, the FBI gathered some 87 years worth of foreign language audio recordings alone pursuant to FISA warrants. As David Kris (now assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s National Security Division) explains in his definitive text on the subject, a FISA warrant typically “permits aquisition of nearly all information from a monitored facility or a searched location.” (This may be somewhat more limited for roving taps; I’ll return to the point shortly.) As a rare public opinion from the FISA Court put it in 2002: “Virtually all information seized, whether by electronic surveillance or physical search, is minimized hours, days, or weeks after collection.” The way this is supposed to be squared with the Fourth Amendment rights of innocent Americans who may be swept up in such broad interception is via those “minimization” procedures, employed after the fact to filter out irrelevant information.

That puts a fairly serious burden on these minimization procedures, however, and it’s not clear that they well bear it. First, consider the standard applied. The FISA Court explains that “communications of or concerning United States persons that could not be foreign intelligence information or are not evidence of a crime… may not be logged or summarized” (emphasis added). This makes a certain amount of sense: FISA intercepts will often be in unfamiliar languages, foreign agents will often speak in coded language, and the significance of a particular statement may not be clear initially. But such a deferential standard does mean they’re retaining an awful lot of data. And indeed, it’s important to recognize that “minimization” does not mean “deletion,” as the Court’s reference to “logs” and “summaries” hints. Typically intercepts that are “minimized” simply aren’t logged for easy retrieval in a database. In the 80s, this may have been nearly as good for practical purposes as deletion; with the advent of powerful audio search algorithms capable of scanning many hours of recording quickly for particular words or voices, it may not make much difference. And we know that much more material than is officially “retained” remains available to agents. In the 2003 case U.S. v. Sattar, pursuant to FISA surveillance, “approximately 5,175 pertinent voice calls .. were not minimized.”  But when it came time for the discovery phase of a criminal trial against the FISA targets, the FBI “retrieved and disclosed to the defendants over 85,000 audio files … obtained through FISA surveillance.”

Cognizant of these concerns, Congress tried to add some safeguards in 2005 when they reauthorized the PATRIOT Act. FISA warrants are still permitted to work on descriptions of a target, but the word “specific” was added, presumably to reinforce that the description must be precise enough to uniquely pick out a person or group. They also stipulated that eavesdroppers must inform the FISA Court within ten days of any new facility they eavesdrop on, and explain the “facts justifying a belief that the target is using, or is about to use, that new facility or place.”

Better, to be sure; but without access to the classified opinions of the FISA Court, it’s quite difficult to know just what this means in practice. In criminal investigations, we have a reasonable idea of what the “proximity” standard for roving taps entails. Maybe a target checks into a hotel with a phone in the room, or a dealer is observed to walk up to a pay phone, or to buy a “burner.” It is much harder to guess how the “is using or is about to use” standard will be construed in light of FISA’s vastly broader presumption of sweeping up-front acquisition. Again, we know that the courts have been satisfied to place enormous weight on after-the-fact minimization of communications, and it seems inevitable that they will do so to an even greater extent when they only learn of a new tap ten days (or 60 days with good reason) after eavesdropping has commenced.

We also don’t know how much is built into that requirement that warrants name a “specific” target, and there’s a special problem here when surveillance roves across not only facilities but types of facility. Suppose, for instance, that a FISA warrant is issued for me, but investigators have somehow been unable to learn my identity. Among the data they have obtained for their description, however, are a photograph, a voiceprint from a recording of my phone conversation with a previous target, and the fact that I work at the Cato Institute. Now, this is surely sufficient to pick me out specifically for the purposes of a warrant initially meant for telephone or oral surveillance.  The voiceprint can be used to pluck all and only my conversations from the calls on Cato’s lines. But a description sufficient to specify a unique target in that context may not be sufficient in the context of, say, Internet surveillance, as certain elements of the description become irrelevant, and the remaining threaten to cover a much larger pool of people. Alternatively, if someone has a very unusual regional dialect, that may be sufficiently specific to pinpoint their voice in one location or community using a looser matching algorithm (perhaps because there is no actual recording, or it is brief or of low quality), but insufficient if they travel to another location where many more people have similar accents.

Russ Feingold (D-WI) has proposed amending the roving wiretap language so as to require that a roving tap identify the target. In fact, it’s not clear that this quite does the trick either. First, just conceptually, I don’t know that a sufficiently precise description can be distinguished from an “identity.” There’s an old and convoluted debate in the philosophy of language about whether proper names refer directly to their objects or rather are “disguised definite descriptions,” such that “Julian Sanchez” means “the person who is habitually called that by his friends, works at Cato, annoys others by singing along to Smiths songs incessantly…” and so on.  Whatever the right answer to that philosophical puzzle, clearly for the practical purposes at issue here, a name is just one more kind of description. And for roving taps, there’s the same kind of scope issue: Within Washington, DC, the name “Julian Sanchez” probably either picks me out uniquely or at least narrows the target pool down to a handful of people. In Spain or Latin America—or, more relevant for our purposes, in parts of the country with very large Hispanic communities—it’s a little like being “John Smith.”

This may all sound a bit fanciful. Surely sophisticated intelligence officers are not going to confuse Cato Research Fellow Julian Sanchez with, say, Duke University Multicultural Affairs Director Julian Sanchez? And of course, that is quite unlikely—I’ve picked an absurdly simplistic example for purposes of illustration. But there is quite a lot of evidence in the public record to suggest that intelligence investigations have taken advantage of new technologies to employ “targeting procedures” that do not fit our ordinary conception of how search warrants work. I mentioned voiceprint analysis above; keyword searches of both audio and text present another possibility.

We also know that individuals can often be uniquely identified by their pattern of social or communicative connections. For instance, researchers have found that they can take a completely anonymized “graph” of the social connections on a site like Facebook—basically giving everyone a name instead of a number, but preserving the pattern of who is friends with whom—and then use that graph to relink the numbers to names using the data of a differentbut overlapping social network like Flickr or Twitter. We know the same can be (and is) done with calling records—since in a sense your phone bill is a picture of another kind of social network. Using such methods of pattern analysis, investigators might determine when a new “burner” phone is being used by the same person they’d previously been targeting at another number, even if most or all of his contacts have alsoswitched phone numbers. Since, recall, the “person” who is the “target” of FISA surveillance may be a “group” or other “entity,” and since I don’t think Al Qaeda issues membership cards, the “description” of the target might consist of a pattern of connections thought to reliably distinguish those who are part of the group from those who merely have some casual link to another member.

This brings us to the final concern about roving surveillance under FISA. Criminal wiretaps are always eventually disclosed to their targets after the fact, and typically undertaken with a criminal trial in mind—a trial where defense lawyers will pore over the actions of investigators in search of any impropriety. FISA wiretaps are covert; the targets typically will never learn that they occurred. FISA judges and legislators may be informed, at least in a summary way, about what surveillance was undertaken and what targeting methods were used, but especially if those methods are of the technologically sophisticated type I alluded to above, they are likely to have little choice but to defer to investigators on questions of their accuracy and specificity. Even assuming total honesty by the investigators, judges may not think to question whether a method of pattern analysis that is precise and accurate when applied (say) within a single city or metro area will be as precise at the national level, or whether, given changing social behavior, a method that was precise last year will also be precise next year. Does it matter if an Internet service initially used by a few thousands—including, perhaps, surveillance targets—comes to be embraced by millions? Precisely because the surveillance is so secretive, it is incredibly hard to know which concerns are urgent and which are not really a problem, let alone how to think about addressing the ones that merit some legislative response.

I nevertheless intend to give it a shot in a broader paper on modern surveillance I’m working on, but for the moment I’ll just say: “It’s tricky.”  What is absolutely essential to take away from this, though, is that these loose and lazy analogies to roving wiretaps in criminal investigations are utterly unhelpful in thinking about the specific problems of roving FISA surveillance. That investigators have long been using “these” powers under Title III is no answer at all to the questions that arise here. Legislators who invoke that fact as though it should soothe every civil libertarian brow are simply evading their responsibilities.

Due Process Case to be Decided on Procedural Grounds

Yesterday I went to the Supreme Court to watch the argument in Alvarez v. Smith, a case about civil forfeiture in which Cato filed an amicus brief

Civil forfeiture, the practice in which the police seize cars, money and other kinds of property that they say has some connection to crime, can raise various of legal and policy issues – from property rights to due process.  The question in Alvarez is the basic one of whether people seeking to get their property back are entitled to a prompt hearing before a judge. 

Illinois’ forfeiture law allows the State to wait as long as six months before having to prove the legitimacy of the seizure, which proceeding may then be delayed indefinitely for “good cause.” The six plaintiffs in Alvarez — three of whom were never charged with a crime — had their cars or money seized without a warrant for months or years without any judicial hearing, and sued the state and city authorities for violating their rights to due process. The Seventh Circuit found the Illinois law to be unconstitutional because of the delay between the seizure and the forfeiture proceeding and ruled that the plaintiffs must be afforded an informal hearing to determine whether there is probable cause to detain the property. The Supreme Court agreed to review the case at the request of the Cook County State Attorney.

Cato’s brief, joined by the Goldwater Institute and Reason Foundation, supports the individuals whose property was seized. Written by David B. Smith, who previously supervised all forfeiture litigation for the Department of Justice and is now the nation’s leading authority on civil and criminal forfeiture, the brief makes three arguments: 1) Because the Illinois law, unlike the federal Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000, is stacked in favor of law enforcement agencies and lacks protections for innocent property owners, the Court should apply the due process analysis from Mathews v. Eldridge, rather than the more lenient test the State proposes; 2) What has become known as a Krimstock hearing has proven to be an effective and not overly burdensome means of preventing government delay and a meaningful opportunity to contest seizure; and 3) the State’s comparison of the time limits in CAFRA with those in its own law is misleading.

Unfortunately, though some justices appeared at argument inclined to rule that at least some prompt process was due – many other states require that the police quickly come before a judge to make a showing equivalent to the one necessary to get a search warrant – several seemed to want to avoid the due process question for another day because Alvarez was procedurally flawed, so to speak.  That is, Justice Scalia pointed that none of the six plaintiffs have a live claim any more – three have had their cars returned, two defaulted on their claims, and the State reached agreement with one – so the case was “moot.”  And Justice Stevens noted that the appellate court left it to the trial court to determine the details of the hearing to which the plaintiffs were entitled.  (Of course, if the latter “problem” ends up being the key to the case, the Court will simply dismiss the appeal and let the Seventh Circuit’s ruling stand, which is good news – but only for people in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin.)

For more on the case, see George Mason law professor and Cato adjunct scholar Ilya Somin’s oped, and his related blog post at the Volokh Conspiracy.

Do We Need a Law against Texting While Driving?

Radley Balko exposes the politicians who play the game of enacting laws for symbolic purposes.  In this game, whether the proposed law has any actual impact on the supposed problem seems entirely beside the point.  Excerpt:

Maryland just passed a texting ban, but state officials are flummoxed over how to enforce it. The law bans texting while driving but allows for reading texts, for precisely the reasons just mentioned. But how can a police officer positioned at the side of a highway tell if the driver of the car that just flew by was actually pushing buttons on his cellphone and not merely reading the display screen? Unless a motorist is blatantly typing away at eye level, a car would need to be moving slowly enough for an officer to see inside, focus on the phone, and observe the driver manipulating the buttons. Which is to say the car would probably need to be stopped—at which point it ceases to be a safety hazard.

Read the whole thing. Until this feel-good-gesture-legislation game is broken up, the number of laws will continue to multiply.  And that means the sphere of government expands while the sphere of liberty recedes.

Zero Tolerance for Difference

Zachary ChristieWhen both the New York Times and Fox News poke fun at a school district it’s a good guess that district has done something pretty silly. That seems to be the case in Newark, Delaware, where the Christina School District just suspended a 6-year-old boy for 45 days because he brought a dreaded knife-fork-spoon combo tool to school. District officials, in their defense, say they had no choice – the state’s “zero tolerance” law demanded the punishment.

Now, the first thing I’ll say is that I was very fortunate there were no zero-tolerance laws  – at least that I knew of – when I was a kid. Like most boys, I took a pocket knife to school from time to time, and like most boys I never hurt a soul with it. (I’m pretty sure, though, that I was stabbed by a pencil at least once.) I also played a lot of games involving tackling, delivered and received countless “dead arm” punches in the shoulder, and brought in Star Wars figures armed with…brace yourself!…laser guns! I can only imagine how many suspension days I’d have received had current disciplinary regimes been in place back then.

Before completely trashing little ol’ Delaware and all the other places without tolerance, however, there is a flip side to this story: Some kids really are immediate threats to their teachers and fellow students. And as the recent stomach-wrenching violence in Chicago has vividly illustrated, there are some schools where no one is safe. In other words, there are cases and situations where zero tolerance is warranted.

So how do you balance these things? How do you have zero-tolerance for those who need it, while letting discretion and reason reign for everyone else?  And how do you do that when there is no clear line dividing what is too dangerous to tolerate and what is not?

The answer is educational freedom, as it is with all of the things that diverse people are forced to fight over because they all have to support a single system of government schools! Let parents who are not especially concerned about danger, or who value freedom even if it engenders a little more risk, choose schools with discipline policies that give them what they want.  Likewise, let parents who want their kids in a zero-tolerance institution do the same.

Ultimately, let parents and schools make their own decisions, and no child will be subjected to disciplinary codes with which his parents disagree; strictness will be much better correlated with the needs of individual children; and perhaps most importantly, discipline policies will make a lot more sense for everyone involved.

Twombly and Iqbal: Reality Check

In Bell Atlantic v. Twombly (2007) and Ashcroft v. Iqbal (2009), the Supreme Court gave trial courts more latitude to dismiss a lawsuit at a very early stage, before the parties have had a chance to engage in discovery (the often lengthy and expensive fact-finding stage of civil litigation), if judges think the suit is not founded on “plausible” allegations of wrongdoing. 

There’s a rich, angry debate about the effect the decisions will have on dismissal rates of meritorious suits in lower courts. But the consensus among academics seems to be that both decisions will trigger a sea-change in lower court practice—one deeply unfavorable to plaintiffs.

We won’t know the real effect of these decisions for many years to come. But a 2007 study by the Federal Judicial Center on the effect of a trio of similarly controversial 1986 Supreme Court decisions (known as the “Celotex trilogy”) raises questions about dire claims that Twombly or Iqbal will dramatically change lower court practice.

The debate over the Celotex trilogy in the 1980s is eerily similar to today’s debate over Twombly and Iqbal. Responding to concerns that juries award arbitrarily large judgments against corporate defendants, the Celotex trilogy gave lower courts more latitude to grant summary judgment—that is, to toss lawsuits at the end of discovery, before a case gets to a jury, when the judge thinks there is insufficient evidence to justify a jury trial. Many academics complained that the cases would result in a radical sea change in lower court practice—one that benefited corporate defendants at the expense of plaintiffs.

The FJC’s 2007 study is the most comprehensive study of the effect of the decisions to date. Based on data drawn from 15,000 docket sheets in randomly sampled terminated cases in six district courts, the FJC found (as expected) that, before and after the trilogy, summary judgment filing and disposition rates vary significantly from circuit to circuit and between types of cases. After controlling for differences in filing rates across circuits and for changes over time in the types of cases filed, the authors found that “the likelihood that a case contained one or more motions for summary judgment increased before the Supreme Court trilogy, from approximately 12% in 1975 to 17% in 1986, and has remained fairly steady, at approximately 19% since that time.” Moreover, between 1975 and 2000, “no statistically significant changes over time were found in the outcome of defendants’ or plaintiffs’ summary judgment motions, after controlling for differences across courts and types of cases.” Indeed, despite anecdotal claims that Celotex prompted a significant increase in summary judgment in civil rights cases, the authors found “no evidence that the likelihood of a summary judgment motion or termination by summary judgment has increased” in civil rights cases since 1986.

It’s easy to overstate the FJC’s findings. (The data tell us nothing about the quality of summary judgment decisions before or after Celotex, and shed no light on disposition rates at a micro-level, i.e. in product liability actions, as opposed to other tort actions, or Title VII actions, as opposed to other civil rights actions, for example.) The study nonetheless lends some plausibility to the view that Celotex was less a catalyst for change than a ratification of preexisting lower court practice that had evolved largely in spite of the Supreme Court and which the Court was, and is, largely powerless to control.

It’s easy to think of reasons why trial courts’ summary judgment practice might evolve independently of the Supreme Court. A surprisingly large number of trial court decisions, including grants of partial summary judgment, are not immediately appealable—and the pervasiveness of settlement means many of these decisions are never appealed. Intermediate appellate courts, moreover, affirm trial court decisions at an incredibly high rate. And the Supreme Court, which takes only about 80 appeals a year, has dramatically limited capacity to police the innumerable summary judgment dispositions made daily throughout the federal court system. The upshot is that trial courts, as a practical matter, have long had wide discretion to decide even pivotal motions, like summary judgment, with relatively light appellate oversight.

Are Twombly and Iqbal a replay of the Celotex trilogy? Only time will tell. But what we know, to date, about the Celotex trilogy suggests that, whatever you think about Twombly or Iqbal, strong claims about the influence of either decision may well overstate the Supreme Court’s power and influence over trial court practice.