Archives: 12/2013

Police Misconduct: The Worst Case in November

Over at Cato’s Police Misconduct Reporting Project, we have named the worst case for the month of November. It was the repeated, forced cavity search of two young men—in separate incidents—in New Mexico. 

The first victim, David Eckert, was pulled over by police for failing to make a complete stop at a stop sign. After a police K-9 who was uncertified for drug searches indicated the presence of marijuana, the officers told a judge that the victim appeared to be “clenching his buttocks” and requested a body cavity search warrant, which the judge granted. The officers took Eckert to a local hospital and requested that doctors perform the search, but the hospital doctors refused. The cops then took Eckert to a second hospital, in a neighboring county that was not covered by the warrant, where they found doctors willing to perform the search.

First, the doctors took an x-ray of Eckert’s abdomen, which showed no hidden drugs. Next, they forcibly probed Eckert’s anus with their fingers, which again uncovered no drugs. Undeterred, the doctors inserted an enema and forced Eckert to defecate in front of the officers: again, no drugs. The enema search was repeated twice, and still no drugs were found. Another x-ray was taken: no drugs. To cap off Eckert’s nightmare ordeal, the officers had the doctors sedate him and perform a colonoscopy, probing his anus, colon, rectum, and large intestines. No drugs found.  All of this was done against Eckert’s protest, in a county not covered by the search warrant, with part of the search done after the warrant had expired.

The second victim, Timothy Young, was brutalized in a similar manner after he was pulled over for failing to signal before making a turn, and after another marijuana indication by the same non-certified police dog. He was taken to the same hospital as Eckert and subjected to similar searching methods against his protests.

Cato’s Police Misconduct website often reports instances of police rape and sexual misconduct. In those cases, the offending officers typically do not contend that they have the legal right to abuse their victims’ bodies and are typically punished for their crime, even if often more lightly than others would be punished. Cases like this are entirely different. These cases show that officers can drum up warrants—for a dog’s bark and a perceived “clench”—to repeatedly and forcefully penetrate the depths of the human body for hours on end, and still think they have the power and lawful authority to repeat the process. Even worse, the futile, repeated nature of the searches seriously calls into doubt whether the officers were actually searching for drugs or just torturing the victims under the banner of law enforcement.

The ‘Stupid Party’ Strikes Again: Congressional Republicans Poised to Give Up Sequester Victory

There’s a saying in sports that teams that come back to win in the final minutes often “snatch victory from the jaws of defeat .”

I don’t like that phrase because it reminds me of the painful way my beloved Georgia Bulldogs were defeated a couple of weeks ago by Auburn. But I also don’t like the saying because it describes what President Obama and other advocates of big government must be thinking now that Republicans apparently are about to do away with the sequester.

Specifically, the GOP appears willing to give away the sequester’s real and meaningful spending restraint and replace that fiscal discipline with a package of gimmicks and new revenues.

I warned last month that something like this might happen, but even a pessimist like me didn’t envision such a big defeat for fiscal responsibility.

You may be thinking to yourself that even the “stupid party” couldn’t be foolish enough to save Obama from his biggest defeat, but check out these excerpts from a Wall Street Journal report.

Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), chief negotiators for their parties, are closing in on a deal… At issue are efforts to craft a compromise that would ease across-the-board spending cuts due to take effect in January, known as the sequester, and replace them with a mix of increased fees and cuts in mandatory spending programs.

Good Reporting on Federal Subsidies to State and Local Government

Reporters who cover state and local government should heed the example of the Topeka-Capital Journal’s Andy Marso. It’s my opinion that reporters often insufficiently examine how state and local politicians spend federal tax dollars. Heck, I’m even surprised when a reporter mentions that the money originated from Uncle Sam to begin with. 

Marso recently looked at the use of federal Community Development Block Grant money by Osage City in Kansas (see this Cato essay for more on the CDBG program). In particular, $750k from federal taxpayers that was wasted on a now defunct modular home builder: 

Osage City Mayor Quintin Robert says John Samples and his modular housing company Kan Build Inc. was about as safe an investment as a company could be in 2006. 

Samples owned Kan Build when the city council and Kansas Department of Commerce approved funneling $750,000 in federal money to the company through the Community Development Block Grant program. The business had nearly closed one year earlier, but Samples stepped in, leading a group of investors in buying the manufacturing facility. 

Samples was a successful businessman who had bought and rehabilitated the company once before. Despite the turmoil, Robert, who was on the city council at the time, said betting on Samples seemed like a good play. 

“I think the decision was based on, ‘Hey, this guy bought this plant when it closed, got multiple grants, was one of the only people to pay them back and had an award, an entrepreneur of year award,’ ” Robert said in a recent phone interview. “He got a lot of accolades, because it is a big deal in a small community. A couple hundred jobs are a big deal.” 

Then the housing market crashed, and by February 2011 the plant closed and the 108 jobs it had when it got the grant money disappeared.

Mayor Robert’s simple-minded comments on the deal demonstrate the folly of allowing politicians to play economic planner with other people’s money. It’s even worse when a politician uses money that he or she didn’t have to first collect from his or her voters/taxpayers, which is a fundamental problem with federal subsidies to state and local government. Under that arrangement, local citizens have little incentive to pay attention to how their elected officials are spending money.   

As Marso notes, the Osage City City Council’s spent all of three minutes on the decision to give Kan Build the money. If that wasn’t bad enough, it turns out that Mayor Robert “worked for Kan Build in various capacities in the early 1980s, early 1990s and from 1999 until it closed.” The Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Housing and Urban Development might want to look into that. 

Anyhow, great work by Marso. There are a lot of similar stories out there waiting to be told.  

Another Misguided Plan to Burden America with a Value-Added Tax

It’s no secret that I dislike the value-added tax.

But this isn’t because of its design. The VAT, after all, would be (presumably) a single-rate, consumption-based system, just like the flat tax and national sales tax. And that’s a much less destructive way of raising revenue compared to America’s corrupt and punitive internal revenue code.

But not all roads lead to Rome. Proponents of the flat tax and sales tax want to replace the income tax. That would be a very positive step.

Advocates of the VAT, by contrast, want to keep the income tax and give politicians another big source of revenue. That’s a catastrophically bad idea.

To understand what I mean, let’s look at a Bloomberg column by Al Hunt. He starts with a look at the political appetite for reform.

There is broad consensus that the U.S. tax system is inefficient, inequitable and hopelessly complex. …a 1986-style tax reform – broadening the base and lowering the rates – isn’t politically achievable today. …the conservative dream of starving government by slashing taxes and the liberal idea of paying for new initiatives by closing loopholes for the rich are nonstarters.

I agree with everything in those excerpts.

So does this mean Al Hunt and I are on the same wavelength?

Not exactly. I think we have to wait until 2017 to have any hope of tax reform (even then, only if we’re very lucky), whereas Hunt thinks the current logjam can be broken by adopting a VAT and modifying the income tax. More specifically, he’s talking about a proposal from a Columbia University Law Professor that would impose a 12.9 percent VAT while simultaneously creating a much bigger family allowance (sometimes referred to as the zero-bracket amount) so that millions of additional Americans no longer have to pay income tax.

The Core of Big Brother

Over at SeeThruEdu I’ve got a post responding – sort of – to a recent article on the Common Core by National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru. It’s only “sort of” because for the most part Ponnuru is right on the money: Some of the allegations against the Core are highly dubious, but so are many of the arguments proffered for it. My only quibble is that Ponnuru says that the Core doesn’t represent “Big Brother in the classroom.” Narrowly that’s right – the Core itself is just the standards – but when you look at the data collection and overall federal policy of which the Core is an integral part, fears about Big Brother – or maybe Big Micromanager – coming to a school near you are reasonable.

Check it out!

Happy Repeal Day!

Today is a great day for freedom. On this day in 1933, the 21st Amendment was ratified, thus repealing Prohibition. My former colleague Brandon Arnold wrote about it a few years ago:

Prohibition isn’t a subject that should be studied by historians alone, as this failed experiment continues to have a significant impact on our nation.

Groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a key force in the passage of Prohibition, survive to this day and continue to insist that Prohibition was a success and advocate for dry laws.

Prohibition-era state laws, many of which are still on the books today, created government-protected monopolies for alcohol distributors. These laws have survived for three-quarters of a century because of powerful, rent-seeking interest groups, despite the fact that they significantly raise costs and limit consumer options. And because of these distribution laws, it is illegal for millions of Americans to have wine shipped directly to their door.

The website RepealDay.org urges celebrations of the “return to the rich traditions of craft fermentation and distillation, the legitimacy of the American bartender as a contributor to the culinary arts, and the responsible enjoyment of alcohol as a sacred social custom.” It’s easy! You don’t have to hold a party. Just go to a bar or liquor store and have a drink.

RepealDay.org says that “No other holiday celebrates the laws that guarantee our rights.” I think that’s going too far. Constitution Day and Bill of Rights Day do exactly that. And in my view, so does Independence Day. But that’s quibbling. Today we celebrate the repeal of a bad law. A toast to that!

Cato celebrated the 75th anniversary of repeal with this policy forum featuring Michael Lerner, author of Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City; Glen Whitman, author of Strange Brew: Alcohol and Government Monopoly; Asheesh Agarwal, Former Assistant Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Office of Policy Planning; and Radley Balko, Senior Editor, Reason.

Another Battle Against Silly Tour-Guide Regulations

For the second time this fall, Cato has filed a brief supporting a lawsuit challenging the power of cities to stifle and regulate speech by licensing tour guides—effectively restricting who may lawfully speak to an audience about the city’s history. 

In September, we filed a brief supporting “Segs in the City,” a segway touring company challenging a D.C. law which made it illegal to give tours in Washington, D.C., without completing a licensing process that involves a thorough history exam. Now we’ve filed a brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, again joined by First Amendment expert Eugene Volokh, in support of a group of tour guides challenging New Orleans’ licensing scheme. (Both the D.C. and New Orleans guides are represented by our friends at the Institute for Justice.)

Like D.C., New Orleans only licenses guides who can pass a history test. In addition to that blatantly unconstitutional speech restriction, the Big Easy also requires licensees to submit to periodic drug tests. All that just so they can talk about the history and culture of New Orleans without spending five months in prison!

We argue that the licensing regime is a content-based restraint on speech and therefore must pass the strictest judicial scrutiny, so the government needs a compelling reason for it and has no other way of accomplishing the same goal. The law is a content-based speech regulation in that it is (a) triggered by the content of speech, and (b) justified on the basis of the content that it regulates. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that a law regulating the content of speech—as opposed to its location, timing, or manner—is subject to strict scrutiny. The justifications offered for the licensing law refer to the “sufficient knowledge” of the guides and the accuracy of their speech. That is as much a content-based justification as saying that people need to be protected from hearing “erroneous” political opinions or “controversial” historical theories.

Finally, we argue that tour guides are not members of a “profession,” such as lawyers, doctors, and accountants, which could merit less First Amendment protection in order to protect the public from harm. Unlike those professions, tour guides don’t have intimate relations with clients. Instead, like most businesses, they simply have customers. The government can’t possibly require authors, public lecturers, or documentary filmmakers to get licensed in order to protect the public from “misinformation,” and it has no more basis for licensing tour guides.

The Fifth Circuit will hear argument in Kagan v. City of New Orleans early in the new year.