Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

The Drug War Kills Innocents

How do I command the scales from the eyes of the drug warriors?

Former Catoite Radley Balko continues his coverage of the war on drugs at Reason. He posted yesterday on the Hit and Run blog about the killing of Tarika Wilson by raiding police officers. When one of them shot a dog, another thought it was hostile gunfire and fired blindly into the room where Wilson and her baby cowered. Now she’s dead.

[This case] shows how layer upon layer of flawed arguments can allow something as unjustifiable as the shooting death of an unarmed woman and the near-killing of her infant son to be dismissed as mere collateral damage. The initial argument is that we need to prohibit drugs to protect people from the harm they cause. That’s followed by the argument that we need to use aggressive, paramilitary raids to apprehend drug dealers, because they might dispose of evidence or shoot cops were drug warrants to be served by less confrontational means. That’s followed by the argument that we have to forgive cops who kill innocent people in these raids because the raids themselves are incredibly volatile and dangerous. Never mind that the police created the danger and volatility in the first place.

Put those arguments together and you get the absurd premise that the government’s killing of Tarika Wilson—and all of the drug raid deaths that came before her—is an acceptable consequence of the government’s responsibility to protect her (and all of us) from the effects of illicit drugs.

Day after day, week after week, Radley reports with remarkably controlled outrage on ‘isolated’ incidents like this.

Freedom in China

As the world media get ready to focus on China for two weeks, there’s lots of discussion of human rights. Will Beijing censor the media and the athletes? Should President Bush attend? Should he meet with Chinese dissidents? Should he raise human rights issues with Chinese leaders?

In all this discussion, we may forget how much progress China has made in the past generation. From 1949 to the death of Mao Tse-tung or the rise of Deng Xiao-ping, there was no discussion of “human rights in China.” China was a totalitarian state, Red China, or Communist China to the less polemical. Its citizens had no rights. And the Western media had very little access to the country, so they couldn’t report any stories about human rights abuses. Were 65 million people killed by Mao’s regime, or something more or less? Questions of “human rights” pale in such a system.

On the eve of the Olympics, it’s refreshing to read a very thorough article in the New York Times titled “Despite Flaws, Rights in China Have Expanded.” Howard W. French reports:

Political change, however gradual and inconsistent, has made China a significantly more open place for average people than it was a generation ago.

Much remains unfree here. The rights of public expression and assembly are sharply limited; minorities, especially in Tibet and Xinjiang Province, are repressed; and the party exercises a nearly complete monopoly on political decision making.

But Chinese people also increasingly live where they want to live. They travel abroad in ever larger numbers. Property rights have found broader support in the courts. Within well-defined limits, people also enjoy the fruits of the technological revolution, from cellphones to the Internet, and can communicate or find information with an ease that has few parallels in authoritarian countries of the past.

It’s still difficult to challenge the party-state directly. Organizing even a study group, much less a tiny political party, can land you in jail.

On the other hand, the definition of what constitutes a political challenge has changed. Individuals are far less likely to run afoul of a system that no longer demands conformity in political views or personal lifestyles.

I’ve made the point in recent writings that wealth gives people a kind of freedom–more options for how to live their lives. French sees that dynamic at work in China:

The speeches of China’s leaders, with their gray imagery and paternalistic phrasings, have changed relatively little, emphasizing unity, harmony and economic growth under party rule. The reality on the ground, though, has been transformed, partly because a more dynamic economy necessitates a more dynamic society, partly because money gives people options they did not have when they were poor.

Way back in 1979, David Ramsay Steele of the Libertarian Alliance in Great Britain wrote about the changes beginning in China. He quoted authors in the official Beijing Review who were explaining that China would adopt the good aspects of the West–technology, innovation, entrepreneurship–without adopting its liberal values. “We should do better than the Japanese,” the authors wrote. “They have learnt from the United States not only computer science but also strip-tease. For us it is a matter of acquiring the best of the developed capitalist countries while rejecting their philosophy.” But, Steele replied, countries like China have a choice. “You play the game of catallaxy, or you do not play it. If you do not play it, you remain wretched. But if you play it, you must play it. You want computer science? Then you have to put up with striptease.”

I don’t know if China has striptease yet. But it has definitely discovered that Western habits accompany Western technology. After protests of a mysterious death in a rural county, the authorities tried to suppress news of the controversy. “But people wielding video cameras uploaded material to YouTube, and some Chinese journalists disputed official accounts that the riots had been put down peacefully.”

Traditionally, authoritarian regimes have been happy to distribute televisions widely, so that the state can disseminate its propaganda to every household. But with the loosening of controls in China and the increasing wealth, many citizens are buying satellite TVs, and that creates an entirely different dynamic:

For others, the impact of information about other countries has been just as great. He Weifang, a professor of law at Peking University, said that before the economic reform era began in 1979, the country was much like North Korea, where people were indoctrinated to believe that Chinese were the better off than people anywhere else.

“Today, even the farmers in remote areas have satellite TVs,” Mr. He said. “So whenever they see an election, such as the one held in Pakistan recently, they may wonder why, even though we have approximately the same economic conditions, they can elect their top leaders, and we can’t even vote for the leader of a small county. I think a consciousness of political rights has increased more than anything.”

And finally, French notes, even the legal system is groping toward the rule of law, including the enforcement of property and contract:

Even China’s party-run legal system is a fulcrum for experimentation, though in an ambiguous way that highlights the uncertainties in the country’s transition.

Judges do not have the power to rule independently in China. Yet the country now has 165,000 registered lawyers, a five-fold increase since 1990, and average people have hired them to press for enforcement of rights inscribed in the Chinese Constitution. The courts today sometimes defend property rights and business contracts even when powerful state interests are on the other side.

The changes in China over the past generation are the greatest story in the world–more than a billion people brought from totalitarianism to a largely capitalist economic system that is eroding the continuing authoritarianism of the political system.

When I read a much less insightful view of China’s development in the Washington Post Sports section–“The largest nation on earth has unexpectedly evolved to the point where it is capitalist in every practical sense, including an entrenched elite every bit as ruthless as America’s robber barons.”–I deeply regret that Howard W. French has just left the New York Times to take up a position teaching journalism. But you can still find his writings on his website, such as this recognition that, as libertarians often say, “capitalism is what happens when you let people alone”: “China’s example shows what kinds of remarkable results can follow when governments stop committing colossal blunders and grossly shackling or preying upon their own people… . This government has stopped making the massive, brutal blunders it committed in the 20th century, which killed or stunted the lives of huge numbers of its citizens. What it needs most now is to get out of the way of ideas and enterprise, and to learn, bit by bit, the virtues of trust.”

For another thoughtful view of China’s evolution, see this week’s Economist.

Another Police Raid; More Dead Dogs

Just north of D.C., in the small suburb of Berwyn Heights, a county SWAT team raided a house last week after a shipping service delivered a large quantity of illegal drugs to the front door.

Good police work in the war on drugs? Probably not.

The house is home to Berwyn Heights mayor Cheye Calvo and his wife Trinity Tomsic, and their two black Labs (pictured left). Though the package containing more than 30 lbs. of marijuana was addressed to Tomsic, the couple may have had nothing to do with the drugs. In recent months there have been incidents in which large quantities of drugs were shipped to homes in the D.C. area, where they were then supposed to be intercepted by drug dealers — all without the package addressees’ knowledge or involvement. Calvo and Tomsic may have been caught up in just such a scheme.

This would make Calvo and Tomsic the unfortunate victims of an understandable error by the police SWAT team, except…

The police action was yet another guns-ablazin’, no-knock raid, in which the officers (in what seems like SOP) shot the couple’s dogs, even as one of the pups tried to run away. The cops then handcuffed Calvo and his mother-in-law and interrogated them for hours, while the dogs’ bodies laid in pools of blood nearby. The cops later found the package of drugs — unopened, as if it were an unexpected package. No arrests were made.

“My government blew through my doors and killed my dogs,” Calvo told the Washington Post. “They thought we were drug dealers, and we were treated as such. I don’t think they really ever considered that we weren’t.”

Of course, it may end up that Calvo and his wife are part of a drug distribution ring, and the police have gotten their man. But even if that’s true, was a no-knock, shoot-the-dogs raid an appropriate police action for a lousy shipment of pot?

And what if the current, emerging picture is correct, and this is yet another botched police raid and cops-gone-wild? If that’s the case (and I emphazie the “if”), the Prince George’s County SWAT team and its superiors need to be held accountable.

Law enforcement officers have a difficult and dangerous job, and I do not make light of that. But their sworn duty is to protect and serve the public, not blast their way into innocent people’s houses and shoot their dogs. If they cannot fulfill that duty, then they cannot be law enforcement officers.

UPDATE (8/6): It turns out that the Prince George’s County police who no-knock raided Calvo and Tomsic’s home did not have a no-knock warrant. The police did have a standard search warrant (which they apparently failed to show to Calvo, as they are supposed to). If that warrant had been executed properly, it is unlikely that Calvo and Tomsic’s dogs would have been killed or their house damaged. Add one more to the long list of botched police raids.

This also raises an interesting question: If this illegal raid had been visited on someone other than a white mayor, would it be receiving the scrutiny it deserves?


Steve Chapman on Consent Searches

Steve Chapman takes a look at the problem of ‘voluntary’ roadside searches.  Excerpt:

If I approach as you pull into a parking space and ask if you’d mind my rummaging through your car, the chances are at least 90 percent that you’d decline. But if a police officer stops you with the same request, the chances are higher than 90 percent that you’d agree. Something about that badge makes citizens eager to be helpful.

Or maybe not. In civics class and 4th of July speeches, we are told that American democracy rests on the consent of the governed. But interactions with the police serve as a useful reminder that government rests less on voluntary cooperation than on fear and force. A nation is free to the extent it prevents the rulers from bullying and coercing the ruled. By that standard, American society still has a way to go.

Read the whole thing

Learn what your rights are.  Get the Busted dvd.  Related Cato work, here.

It’s Midnight in America

You could be excused for getting that vibe from this McCain campaign video, what with its vaguely X-Files-esque theme music and apocalyptic imagery (am I the only one who finds the little girl picking flowers reminiscent of “Daisy” the famous anti-Goldwater ad from the ‘64 campaign?). The Teddy Roosevelt tape is from TR’s unhinged speech to the 1912 Progressive Party convention, a speech that ends “we stand at Armageddon–and we battle for the Lord!”

Election 2008: the Messiah vs. the Prophet of Doom. Sigh. Whatever happened to normalcy? Where have you gone Warren Harding? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.