Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Sessions’ Civil Forfeiture Memo: It’s Not Just the Money

Yesterday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reanimated the suspended Department of Justice program that allows local police to circumvent their own state laws to profit from seizing property from individuals who have not been charged, much less convicted, of a crime. Over at Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, I wrote that this may have the unintended consequence of increasing racial profiling on American roads:

Virtually everywhere police stops are counted and measured demographically, black and/or Hispanic drivers are over-represented in those pulled over and subsequently searched for contraband. The vast majority of searches of drivers across ethnicities come up empty, and statistics show that black and Hispanic drivers who are searched are less likely to be carrying contraband than whites who are similarly searched.

Stopping drivers to search for drugs and drug proceeds is much cheaper than developing leads and building cases against large drug organizations through buy-and-bust operations or long-term stings, making interdiction through traffic stops all the more appealing. For that reason, while the disparity in stops almost certainly exists independent of asset forfeiture laws, increasing the use of forfeiture will likely result in an increase of racial profiling.  

These traffic stops that officers initiate to search a car aren’t the typical traffic stops many Americans have experienced. These stops are intrusive, probing, invasive interrogations that are designed to get presumptively innocent people to give up their right to not be searched. These stops are degrading, and the people who experience them–disproportionately black and Hispanic drivers–resent being treated like criminals with something to hide. As I wrote in the Case Western Reserve Law Review, this can diminish police legitimacy in minority communities and thus can erode public safety.

The Second-Class Second Amendment?

The landmark Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller established that the right to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment is an individual right. McDonald v. City of Chicago, which applied the right against state laws, clarified that states can’t “single out” the Second Amendment and treat it with less respect than any other fundamental right.

Heller and McDonald are based on the premise that if states are allowed to decide the scope of our constitutional rights, citizens will receive inferior rights in certain states. Maryland and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit are encouraging this system of inferior rights by ignoring the key principle of these cases and allowing state legislatures to define how the Second Amendment should function.

Over a decade ago, James Hamilton accepted a laptop purchased on a stolen credit card and was subsequently convicted of three felonies in Virginia. He completed probation and paid restitution. In 2013, the governor of Virginia restored his Second Amendment rights. Since then, Hamilton has been an exemplary law-abiding citizen; he became an armed security officer with the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services and is now a protective security officer with the Department of Homeland Security. A family man and junior wrestling coach, Hamilton is far from a danger to society.

Maryland, however, treats Hamilton as a dangerous felon. When he applied for a handgun permit, he was denied due to his past conviction. A Maryland statute bars felons from owning firearms, with no exception for someone whose rights had been restored. Worst of all, when Hamilton brought his case to federal district court, it was dismissed for failure to state a claim. He did not even argue that the statute was unconstitutional; he argued that the statute, as applied to him, wrongly infringed on his constitutional rights. Yet the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court, so Hamilton is now petitioning to the Supreme Court for his final chance to reclaim his Second Amendment rights in Maryland.

Cato is supporting his request with an amicus brief. We argue that the Second Amendment has not been adequately protected in lower courts—especially the Fourth Circuit—and that judicial deference has granted states an unacceptable amount of power over civil liberties. With lower courts split on the issue, the Supreme Court has a duty to clarify exactly how states must apply Heller and McDonald. Although Heller established a presumption that state restrictions on felon firearm ownership are valid, this presumption is rebuttable and not immune from as-applied challenges. A decade-old, non-violent felony should not act as a scarlet letter, preventing a person from challenging a statute in court.

When it considers the petition in Hamilton v. Pallozzi this fall, the Supreme Court should take this case and reaffirm a strong commitment to safeguarding our Second Amendment rights against state infringement.

Locking Up Kingpins Causes Violence

This story from the WSJ claims that 

the extradition of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, Mexico’s long-dominant drug lord, has led to an explosion of violence in his home state of Sinaloa, the birthplace of the country’s narcotics industry.

Rival factions are fighting over Mr. Guzmán’s billion-dollar empire as he awaits trial in solitary confinement inside a high-security prison in New York. He was extradited to the U.S. in January on drug-trafficking and murder charges.

This explanation for increased violence in Mexico is exactly what one would predict from this Cato Research Brief, by economists Jason Lindo and Maria Padilla-Romo:

We find that the capture of a [Drug Trafficking Organization] (DTO) leader in a municipality increases its homicide rate by 80 percent, and this effect persists for at least 12 months. Consistent with the notion that the kingpin strategy destabilizes an organization, we also find that these captures significantly increase homicides in other municipalities with the same DTO presence. In particular, we find that homicide rates in neighboring municipalities with the same DTO presence rise 30 percent in the six months after a kingpin capture before returning to expected levels. Further, kingpin captures cause homicide rates to grow over time (to 18 percent above expected levels 12 or more months after a capture) for more-distant municipalities with the same DTO presence. We find little evidence of increased homicide in neighboring municipalities where the captured leader’s DTO did not have a presence.

Disputes between rival suppliers occur in all industries; but in legal ones, the disputes take the form of advertising wars and lawsuits, not violence. See also this old paper of mine on the same subject.

CBP Dodges Sen. Wyden’s Electronic Searches Question

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) is concerned about Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) searches of travelers’ electronic devices at the border and ports of entry. CBP’s responses to Wyden’s queries about such searches are illuminating but far from reassuring.

In February, Sen. Wyden sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly, asking a range of questions about searches of electronic devices. DHS responded to this letter, but the agency’s response didn’t satisfy Sen. Wyden, who posed some followup questions to CBP acting commissioner, Kevin McAleenan.

McAleenan’s answers to Sen. Wyden’s questions are revealing, in part because of what they don’t discuss.

The answers begin by noting that the Supreme Court recognizes the CBP’s “broad scope” of authority to conduct border searches.

Trump Administration Proposes Massive Cuts to TSA VIPR Teams

I think this is the first official act of the Trump administration that I can honestly say I can get behind, and enthusiastically. According to the Washington Post, Trump’s budget plan would dramatically cut funding for TSA’s roving Fourth Amendment violation squads, better known as “Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response” (VIPR) teams. From the Post story:

Under the proposed budget, VIPR funding would drop to $15 million from $58 million and the number of VIPR teams would be cut to 8 from 31, with 277 full-time positions being eliminated, according to the report. The Democratic staff members of the Senate Homeland Security Committee say in the report they were told that even though federal officials say eight VIPR teams can “maintain an acceptable security posture,” the three-quarters funding cut will “limit” the presence of teams nationwide.

I would’ve preferred the complete abolition of these ineffectual, costly teams–which have never stopped a single terrorist attack but which have often caused havoc at the transportation hubs they’ve haunted. But these cuts are a welcome, significant step in the right direction, and the administration is to be commended for making this move.

No Surveillance Reform in Defense Policy Bill

As I predicted 72 hours ago, the FY18 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) will not be a vehicle for reforming National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance authorities under Sec. 702 of the FISA Amendments Act (FAA). The twist is that while the House Rules Committee did disallow an amendment to prevent “back door” warrantless searches of the stored communications of Americans (the full NDAA amendment list is available here), the author of all three surveillance reform amendments to the bill, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) withdrew the other two before a Rules Committee vote. Lieu’s office offered the author the following statement on the decision:

Mr. Lieu has always been a strong advocate for protecting our civil liberties and our privacy. He introduced these NDAA amendments (which have been offered previously by other Members) to prevent warrantless searches of Americans’ data under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Warrantless searches are just one of many problems with the law, which is set to expire at the end of this year. The House Judiciary Committee is currently negotiating a package that reauthorizes the necessary foreign surveillance authorities while adding sweeping reforms to protect Americans’ civil liberties. We were asked to withdraw our amendments this week to allow those reform discussions to continue in good faith, and we obliged because we are optimistic about achieving our goals. The amendment decision in no way changes the fact that a broad, bipartisan coalition of Member’s will fight any attempt to reauthorize Section 702 without serious reform.

So where does that leave FAA reform prospects? That will depend in no small measure on how determined reformers are to push the House GOP leadership on the question. As I write these lines, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Ranking Member John Conyers (D-MI) are working on competing FAA bills; while I expect the Conyers bill to offer more sweeping reform proposals, Goodlatte will no doubt not allow the Conyers bill to get a vote in committee. All of this means that unless at least 5-6 GOP House Judiciary members make it clear to Goodlatte that any FAA Sec. 702 reform bill brought up in committee must be amendable, what passes out of that committee and goes to the House floor for a vote may be just as anemic a reform measure as the 2015 USA Freedom Act

DHS: Don’t Want Your Face Scanned? Don’t Travel!

Last month, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a privacy impact assessment for its Traveler Verification Service (TVS), a program designed to develop and expand DHS’s biometric entry-exit system for international flights. The document sends a clear message to passengers: if you don’t want your biometric information to be collected, don’t travel.

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 required an automated screening system for foreign nationals leaving and entering the United States. Since 1996 a range of legislation has called for the implementation of a biometric entry-exit system, although such a system has yet to be fully implemented. In March, President Trump signed Executive Order 13780, which called upon DHS to “expedite the completion and implementation of a biometric entry-exit tracking system for in-scope travelers to the United States.”

According to the DHS privacy assessment, TVS is growing:

[Customs and Border Protection] is publishing this updated [privacy impact assessment] because the recently initiated TVS is expanding to allow commercial air carriers and select airport authorities (“partners”) to provide their own facial recognition cameras and capture the images of travelers consistent with their own business processes and requirements (for example, to use facial images instead of paper boarding passes).

More from the assessment:

These partners will capture the traveler images consistent with their business purposes, and then transmit the photos they capture to CBP through a connection with CBP’s cloud-based TVS. CBP does not capture the photos directly from the traveler under this TVS expansion.

There are already pilot face scanning schemes in place at airports in six American cities; Boston, Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, New York City, and Washington, D.C. These pilot programs allow passengers and pilots to opt out. The DHS assessment explains that while you may be able to opt out of TVS scanning, government collection of your biometrics is unavoidable if you want to travel (highlighting is mine):

The assessment goes on to explain that passengers will be able to opt out of biometric identification under TVS. However, unless this opt-out option is clearly advertised to travelers it’s likely that most travelers will use a ubiquitous facial scanning system at airports.

Anyone who travels from American airports is familiar with the body scanners the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) uses for security. You can opt out of these scanners, but it’s very rare to see travelers telling TSA officials that they’re not going through the machines. When I opt out of these scanners I’m almost always the only one doing so. That is, unless I’m traveling with some Cato colleagues.

Sadly, millions of Americans consider passing through a body scanner to be an ordinary part of air travel. It would be a shame if facial scans became as widely accepted.

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