Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Bill of Rights Day

Since today is Bill of Rights Day, it seems like an appropriate time to pause and consider the condition of the safeguards set forth in our fundamental legal charter.

Let’s consider each amendment in turn.

The First Amendment says that Congress “shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” Government officials, however, insist that they can make it a crime to mention the name of a political candidate in an ad in the weeks preceding an election.

The Second Amendment says the people have the right “to keep and bear arms.” Government officials, however, insist that they can make it a crime to keep and bear arms.

The Third Amendment says soldiers may not be quartered in our homes without the consent of the owners. This safeguard is doing so well that we can pause here for a laugh.

The Fourth Amendment says the people have the right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures. Government officials, however, insist that they can storm into homes in the middle of the night after giving residents a few seconds to answer their “knock” on the door.

The Fifth Amendment says that private property shall not be taken “for a public use without just compensation.” Government officials, however, insist that they can take away our property and give it to others who covet it.

The Sixth Amendment says that in criminal prosecutions, the person accused shall enjoy a speedy trial, a public trial, and an impartial jury trial. Government officials, however, insist that they can punish people who want to have a trial. That is why 95% of the criminal cases never go to trial. The handful of cases that do go to trial are the ones you see on television — Michael Jackson and Scott Peterson, etc.

The Seventh Amendment says that jury trials are guaranteed even in petty civil cases where the controversy exceeds “twenty dollars.” Government officials, however, insist that they can impose draconian fines against people without jury trials. (See “Seventh Amendment Right to Jury Trial in Nonarticle III Proceedings: A Study in Dysfunctional Constitutional Theory,” 4 William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal 407 (1995)).

The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishments. Government officials, however, insist that jailing people who try in ingest a life-saving drug is not cruel.

The Ninth Amendment says that the enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights should not be construed to deny or disparage others “retained by the people.” Government officials, however, insist that they will decide for themselves what rights, if any, will be retained by the people.

The Tenth Amendment says that the powers not delegated to the federal government are to be reserved to the states, or to the people. Government officials, however, insist that they will decide for themselves what powers are reserved to the states, or to the people.

It’s a depressing snapshot, to be sure, but I submit that the Framers of the Constitution would not have been surprised by the relentless attempts by government to expand its sphere of control. The Framers themselves would often refer to written constitutions as mere “parchment barriers” or what we would describe as “paper tigers.” They nevertheless concluded that putting safeguards down on paper was better than having nothing at all. And lest we forget, that’s what millions of people around the world have — nothing at all.

Another important point to remember is that while we ought to be alarmed by the various ways in which the government is attempting to go under, over, and around our Bill of Rights, the battle will never be “won.” The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. To remind our fellow citizens of their responsibility in that regard, the Cato Institute has distributed more than three million copies of our “Pocket Constitution.” At this time of year, it’ll make a good stocking stuffer. Each year we send a bunch of complimentary copies to the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court so you won’t have to.

Finally, to keep perspective, we should also take note of the many positive developments we’ve experienced in America over the years. And for some positive overall trends, go here.

Chicago Police Scandal

The Chicago Tribune shines a light on the Chicago Police Department and how it handles police shootings: 

 Law enforcement officials at all levels, from the detectives who investigate cases to the superintendent, as well as the state’s attorney’s office, have failed to properly police the police.

Promises to improve the system also haven’t touched another fundamental flaw: the hasty meetings, known as roundtables, led by police commanders in the charged hours after a Chicago officer shoots a civilian. Witnesses are not sworn. The discussions are not recorded. When the sessions conclude, officials nearly always decide the officer was justified in pulling the trigger.

And if evidence eventually contradicts the officers’ versions of events, the Tribune found that cases aren’t reopened and the officers escape serious punishment.

Chicago police shoot a civilian on average once every 10 days. More than 100 people have been killed in the last decade; 250 others have been injured. But only a tiny fraction of shootings are ruled unjustified — less than 1 percent, police records and court testimony indicate.

I strongly suspect that similar findings would be found in many other cities. Kudos to the Tribune for this reporting.

Hat tip: Radley Balko.

Cult Kidney Donations

Today’s Wall Street Journal has an article on live kidney donation as a form of charity. Half the members of a Christian sect have gone through the surgical operation of donating a kidney to a stranger. The article questions whether pressure from “cult” members creates undue influence. Social and government pressure to donate both at death and while living is mounting. See Cato’s recent Policy Analysis “A Gift of Life Deserves Compensation.”

Changes in Federal Sentencing

The U.S. Sentencing Commission is going to give thousands of drug offenders an opportunity to reduce their sentences.   Yesterday’s move is in reaction to the disparate manner in which federal law handles persons dealing in powder cocaine vis-a-vis persons dealing in crack cocaine.  This is a modest step in the right direction.  The drug war represents a gross misallocation of limited resources (police, courts, jails) and it should be ended immediately.

For Cato work on the drug war, go here.  For Cato work on federal sentencing, go here.  For more information on yesterday’s development, go to Families Against Mandatory Minimums

More Cost-Ineffective Security: Criminalizing Tourism

I’ve written in the past about the costliness of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative compared to its small security benefit.

Here’s more cost-ineffective security: Fingerprinting visitors to the U.S.

The Department of Homeland Security announced this week that it would begin collecting 10 fingerprints from foreign visitors to the United States, an extension of the US-VISIT program. This looks like another self-injurious overreaction to the threat of terrorism.

I don’t think collecting ten fingerprints in the US-VISIT program violates civil liberties. People have a diminished right against search and seizure at our international borders. But it is a serious privacy concern for visitors to the U.S.

Their biometrics are entered into a U.S. government database and they have no idea what may be done with that information in the future. DHS keeps that data for 75 years. Yes, lawful visitors to this country, who come to snap pictures of the Statue of Liberty and teach their kids about the United States, go into a U.S. government database for the rest of their lives. It’s just insulting to the millions of good people who want to visit us.

With that, let’s do a rough cost-benefit analysis of collecting 10 fingerprints from foreign visitors to the U.S. It appears to be another security program whose costs outweigh its benefits.

On the costs side of the ledger:

- First, it treats international visitors to the U.S. like criminals. This erodes the goodwill that the United States enjoys in the world, meaning we are less able to convince foreign governments to work with us on all kinds of very important issues. That cost is not easily quantified, but it is substantial. If we can’t get cooperation from Russia on Iran’s nuclear program, for example, that could cost us hundreds of billions or more in the next decade or two.

- More easily quantified is the reduction in lawful trade and travel: The findings of a House bill meant to encourage foreign tourism recite a 56,000,000, or 17 percent, drop in international visitors to the U.S. versus what was expected from 2001 to 2006. Let’s say 10% of this is caused by fingerprinting in the US-VISIT program – people don’t want to come here if we insult them on arrival. The Commerce Department estimates that these visitors would have spent $98,000,000,000 (valued in 2007 dollars) in the U.S. Ten percent of that is $9.8 billion in lost revenue – a significant loss to the economy caused by our harsh treatment of visitors.

- Then there are the costs of running the program – I don’t know what they are, but they’re probably in the tens of millions to $100 million+ per year in Americans’ tax dollars.

Is it worth it? Let’s look at the benefits:

The DHS release says that since 2004, collecting fingerprints in the US-VISIT program has been used “to prevent the use of fraudulent documents, protect visitors from identity theft, and stop thousands of criminals and immigration violators from entering the country.” It gives no hard numbers, but it would have said “tens of thousands” if it was in that range, so let’s say it’s 10,000 violators they’ve caught. ($9.8 billion/10,000=$980,000) Each violator would have had to do almost a million dollars in damage for this security measure to be cost-effective. The average document fraudster, ID fraudster, and immigration violator does nothing near that much harm.

But perhaps the program prevented a single terrorist, or a small group of them, from entering the country, people who would have done $10 billion in damage. This could only be true if we knew in advance exactly which terrorists were coming into the country. But terrorists are fungible. A terrorist organization can select people to send to the U.S. that have no prior participation in terrorism, people who can pass through US-VISIT. With two exceptions, this is what Al Qaeda did for the 9/11 attacks – sent people without any history of terrorism.

US-VISIT can’t prevent a terrorist organization from infiltrating the country – at best, it might delay their activities a couple of weeks while they select the right people to send. Delaying a terrorist attack that causes $10 billion in damage by a month is worth about $42 million. Obviously, spending $9.8 billion to avoid $42 million in damage is not cost-effective security.

My conclusion is that US-VISIT does more harm to the country than it prevents. I welcome suggested refinements to these numbers. Again, this is very back-of-envelope.

Now, should we pass the legislation to make people feel better about us? I’m not sure that’s the solution. The Senate version of legislation to improve our esteem in the world costs $1.80 per person in the United States - $5.64 per U.S. family.

Why spend this money to make people feel better about us when we could make people feel better about us by spending less! US-VISIT doesn’t significantly add to our protections. Given its costs, we should drop it.

Goose:Gander / Illegal Immigrants:Gun Owners

I’ve spent the last few months studying and writing about electronic employment eligibility verification. This is the idea of requiring every employer in the country to check the immigration status of employees against Department of Homeland Security and Social Security Administration databases. A nationwide EEV program, building on the current Basic Pilot/”E-Verify” program, was treated as a matter of near consensus at the beginning of this past summer’s immigration debate, and the Department of Homeland Security continues to promote it.

There are a lot of weaknesses in EEV. Foremost, such a system would be subject to a lot of document fraud, just like today’s Form I-9. Requiring employers to collect these forms and check the documentation of new employees doesn’t do much to control illegal immigration.

If this process were “strengthened” with a national EEV system, continuing document fraud would drive policymakers inexorably toward “strengthening” the identity cards used in the system. Indeed, the leading immigration bill this summer would have required every new hire in America to present a REAL ID-compliant national ID card. EEV requires a national ID.

This is fine by many people who are angered by illegal immigration. But the folks who want EEV and a national ID might want to be careful what they wish for.

A group called Mayors Against Illegal Guns recently sent a letter to all the major presidential candidates asking a detailed set of questions about their positions on gun control. Among them:

… Do you support a change in federal law to require that gun purchasers show Real ID-compliant identification by 2013?

I believe that REAL ID will not be implemented. In fact, the presence of REAL ID in the immigration bill is what killed it. But if EEV goes forward, it could bring REAL ID back from the dead.

With a national ID and a national infrastructure for regulating individual behavior in place, advocates will immediately seek to expand its uses - including to gun control. So it seems that those fervent opponents of illegal immigration who want a national EEV system have a choice: Will you give up your guns to get rid of illegal immigrants?

The End of the Year (but not the Term) at the Supreme Court

Today marks the last day of official business for 2007 at the Supreme Court.  The Court released opinions in three cases that were argued this term,  which join the two last week as the only rulings on the merits so far.  (The very first case argued this term, NY School Bd. v. Tom F., was affirmed without an opinion because the court split 4-4.)

Two of the cases decided this morning definitively clarified that the Sentencing Guidelines are really not binding on the sentencing court.  In Kimbrough v. U.S., the Court, by a 7-2 majority speaking through Justice Ginsburg, reversed the Richmond-based Fourth Circuit and found that a district court may impose a sentence for a crack cocaine offense that departs downward from the Guidelines’ 100-to-1 ratio for crack versus powder cocaine sentences.

In Gall v. U.S., a 7-2 majority speaking through Justice Stevens repeated that appellate courts should review sentencing decisions that depart from the sentencing guidelines using the highly deferential abuse-of-discretion standard, and that the departure in this particular case was not unreasonable (reversing the St. Louis-based Eighth Circuit).

In both the above cases, Justices Alito and Thomas were the lone dissenters.  Justice Alito was concerned that the district courts were not deferring sufficiently to the Sentencing Guidelines (which, while non-binding, must still “be taken into account”) and worried that sentencing disparities would gradually increase.  Justice Thomas continued his disagreement with Booker (the case that made the guidelines merely advisory)  in rejecting the new “reasonableness” standard.

Also of note is that Justices Scalia and Souter filed concurring opinions in the above cases.  Not unreasonably and as he was in his dissent from Booker, Justice Scalia continues to be concerned that judges are unconstitutionally finding facts relevant to sentences.  Justice Souter, who only wrote separately in Gall but stated that his views applied to Kimbrough as well,  suggested that

[T]he best resolution of the tension between substantial consistency throughout the system and the right of jury trial would be a new Act of Congress: reestablishing a statutory system of mandatory sentencing guidelines … but providing for jury findings of all facts necessary to set the upper range of sentencing discretion.

Strangely, I agree with Justice Souter.

Finally, in Watson v. U.S., a unanimous Court through the pen of Justice Souter held that one does not “use” a gun for purposes of sentencing enhancement when that person receives a gun in trade for drugs.  Justice Ginsburg filed a concurring opinion stating that, according to today’s decision, it is better to receive than to give when the subject is guns and urging the Court to adopt Justice Scalia’s dissent from an earlier case that found that trading a gun for drugs is “use.”

I agree with Justice Ginsburg – and guarantee you that neither my agreement with her nor hers with Justice Scalia is the start of a new trend.

One interesting observation is that in all three opinions decided today, Chief Justice Roberts was in the majority and in all three he used his right to assign authorship to the three most liberal members of the Court.  (Of last week’s two opinions, one also went to Ginsburg, and the Chief wrote the other himself.)  This may mean one of three things: 1) Chief Justice Roberts is trying to curry the favor of his liberal colleagues; 2) Ginsburg, Stevens, and Souter write opinions faster than their colleagues (unlikely because the opinions so far have been simple and uncontroversial); or 3) nothing at all. 

Overall, the Court has now granted cert in 60 cases (which, believe it or not, is 5 ahead of last term) and has heard argument in 26 of them – plus one case of original jurisdiction involving a suit between two states.

The Court’s next official business day, when it may issue orders granting and denying new cases will be Jan. 7.  That day will also see the Court’s argument calendar start the New Year off with the explosive case of Baze v. Rees, which considers the constitutionality of a certain kind of lethal injection (and the granting of cert on which has effectively stayed all executions by lethal injections nationally).  The next time we may see decisions on the merits is Jan. 8.