Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Cato’s Legal Arguments Worry U.S. Government

Last month, Cato (joined by Cato senior fellow Randy Barnett) filed a brief in United States v. Comstock, a case regarding the constitutionality of a law authorizing the federal government to civilly commit anyone in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons whom the attorney general certifies to be “sexually dangerous.” The effect of such an action is to continue the certified person’s confinement after the expiration of his prison term, without proof of a new criminal violation.

As I wrote in a previous blog post, “the use of federal power here is unconstitutional because it is not tied to any of Congress’s limited and enumerated powers.” Moreover, the government’s reliance on the Necessary and Proper Clause (Article I, Section 8), “is misplaced because that clause grants no independent power but merely ‘carries into execution’ the powers enumerated elsewhere in that section.” The commitment of prisoners after their terms end simply cannot fit into one of the enumerated powers.

While we of course hope that the Supreme Court pays attention to our brief, we know that Solicitor General Elana Kagan, at least, is concerned enough about our arguments to spend several pages of the government’s reply brief addressing them (see pages 5-9). 

For more on Comstock, see its case page on SCOTUSwiki, which now has all the briefs and will around the Jan. 12 argument date be populated with argument previews and reviews, as well as links to media coverage.

Lying and the Federal Government

Speaking of White House gate-crashers Tareq and Michaele Salahi (as we were trying to think of an excuse to do, to increase blog traffic), Slate says they might be guilty of a federal crime. What crime? Well, possibly trespassing on federal property. Or maybe the “broad prohibition on lying to the federal government.” Title 18, section 1001 of the U.S. Code

can be used to prosecute anyone who “knowingly and willfully … falsifies, conceals, or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact” or “makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation” to the government. That could include lying about your arrest record on a government job application, claiming a fake deduction on your taxes, or telling someone you’re on the White House invite list when you’re not.

I can’t help wondering, is there any equally broad prohibition on lying by the federal government? If the federal government, or a federal agency, or a federal official “knowingly and willfully … falsifies, conceals, or covers up” information or “makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation” – about the costs of a new entitlement, or how a candidate for reelection will act in his next term, or case for going to war – is that prohibited? Or are the rules tougher on the ruled than the rulers?

Three Keys to Surveillance Success: Location, Location, Location

The invaluable Chris Soghoian has posted some illuminating—and sobering—information on the scope of surveillance being carried out with the assistance of telecommunications providers.  The entire panel discussion from this year’s ISS World surveillance conference is well worth listening to in full, but surely the most striking item is a direct quotation from Sprint’s head of electronic surveillance:

[M]y major concern is the volume of requests. We have a lot of things that are automated but that’s just scratching the surface. One of the things, like with our GPS tool. We turned it on the web interface for law enforcement about one year ago last month, and we just passed 8 million requests. So there is no way on earth my team could have handled 8 million requests from law enforcement, just for GPS alone. So the tool has just really caught on fire with law enforcement. They also love that it is extremely inexpensive to operate and easy, so, just the sheer volume of requests they anticipate us automating other features, and I just don’t know how we’ll handle the millions and millions of requests that are going to come in.

To be clear, that doesn’t mean they are giving law enforcement geolocation data on 8 million people. He’s talking about the wonderful automated backend Sprint runs for law enforcement, LSite, which allows investigators to rapidly retrieve information directly, without the burden of having to get a human being to respond to every specific request for data.  Rather, says Sprint, each of those 8 million requests represents a time when an FBI computer or agent pulled up a target’s location data using their portal or API. (I don’t think you can Tweet subpoenas yet.)  For an investigation whose targets are under ongoing realtime surveillance over a period of weeks or months, that could very well add up to hundreds or thousands of requests for a few individuals. So those 8 million data requests, according to a Sprint representative in the comments, actually “only” represent “several thousand” discrete cases.

As Kevin Bankston argues, that’s not entirely comforting. The Justice Department, Soghoian points out, is badly delinquent in reporting on its use of pen/trap orders, which are generally used to track communications routing information like phone numbers and IP addresses, but are likely to be increasingly used for location tracking. And recent changes in the law may have made it easier for intelligence agencies to turn cell phones into tracking devices.  In the criminal context, the legal process for getting geolocation information depends on a variety of things—different districts have come up with different standards, and it matters whether investigators want historical records about a subject or ongoing access to location info in real time. Some courts have ruled that a full-blown warrant is required in some circumstances, in other cases a “hybrid” order consisting of a pen/trap order and a 2703(d) order. But a passage from an Inspector General’s report suggests that the 2005 PATRIOT reauthorization may have made it easier to obtain location data:

After passage of the Reauthorization Act on March 9, 2006, combination orders became unnecessary for subscriber information and [REDACTED PHRASE]. Section 128 of the Reauthorization Act amended the FISA statute to authorize subscriber information to be provided in response to a pen register/trap and trace order. Therefore, combination orders for subscriber information were no longer necessary. In addition, OIPR determined that substantive amendments to the statute undermined the legal basis for which OIPR had received authorization [REDACTED PHRASE] from the FISA Court. Therefore, OIPR decided not to request [REDACTED PHRASE] pursuant to Section 215 until it re-briefed the issue for the FISA Court. As a result, in 2006 combination orders were submitted to the FISA Court only from January 1, 2006, through March 8, 2006.

The new statutory language permits FISA pen/traps to get more information than is allowed under a traditional criminal pen/trap, with a lower standard of review, including “any temporarily assigned network address or associated routing or transmission information.” Bear in mind that it would have made sense to rely on a 215 order only if the information sought was more extensive than what could be obtained using a National Security Letter, which requires no judicial approval. That makes it quite likely that it’s become legally easier to transform a cell phone into a tracking device even as providers are making it point-and-click simple to log into their servers and submit automated location queries.  So it’s become much more  urgent that the Justice Department start living up to its obligation to start telling us how often they’re using these souped-up pen/traps, and how many people are affected.  In congressional debates, pen/trap orders are invariably mischaracterized as minimally intrusive, providing little more than the list of times and phone numbers they produced 30 years ago.  If they’re turning into a plug-and-play solution for lojacking the population, Americans ought to know about it.

If you’re interested enough in this stuff to have made it through that discussion, incidentally, come check out our debate at Cato this afternoon, either in the flesh or via webcast. There will be a simultaneous “tweetchat” hosted by the folks at Get FISA Right.

Likely Supreme Court Tie Would Be a Loss to Property Owners

Today, the Supreme Court heard argument in Stop the Beach Renourishment v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which is a Fifth Amendment Takings Clause challenge involving beachfront property (that I previously discussed here).

Essentially, Florida’s ”beach renourishment” program created more beach but deprived property owners of the rights they previously had – exclusive access to the water, unobstructed view, full ownership of land up to the “mean high water mark,” etc. That is, the court turned beachfront property into “beachview” property.  After the property owners successfully challenged this action, the Florida Supreme Court – “SCOFLA” for those who remember the Bush v. Gore imbroglio – reversed the lower court (and overturned 100 years of common property law), ruling that the state did not owe any compensation, or even a proper eminent domain hearing.

As Cato adjunct scholar and Pacific Legal Foundation senior staff attorney Timothy Sandefur noted in his excellent op-ed on the case in the National Law Journal, “[T]he U.S. Constitution also guarantees every American’s right to due process of law and to protection of private property. If state judges can arbitrarily rewrite a state’s property laws, those guarantees would be meaningless.”

I sat in on the arguments today and predict that the property owners will suffer a narrow 4-4 defeat.  That is, Justice Stevens recused himself – he owns beachfront property in a different part of Florida that is subject to the same renourishment program – and the other eight justices are likely to split evenly.  And a tie is a defeat in this case because it means the Court will summarily affirm the decision below without issuing an opinion or setting any precedent.

By my reckoning, Justice Scalia’s questioning lent support to the property owners’ position, as did Chief Justice Roberts’ (though he could rule in favor of the “judicial takings” doctrine in principle but perhaps rule for the government on a procedural technicality here).  Justice Alito was fairly quiet but is probably in the same category as the Chief Justice.  Justice Thomas was typically silent but can be counted on to support property rights.  With Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor expressing pro-government positions, that leaves Justice Kennedy, unsurprisingly, as the swing vote.  Kennedy referred to the case as turning on a close question of state property law, which indicates his likely deference to SCOFLA.

For more analysis of the argument, see SCOTUSblog.  Cato filed an amicus brief supporting the land owners here, and earlier this week I recorded a Cato Podcast to that effect. Cato also recently filed a brief urging the Court to hear another case of eminent domain abuse in Florida, 480.00 Acres of Land v. United States.

Virginia Messes With Yoga Instructors’ Chi

Not to be too much of a megaphone for the Institute for Justice, but the “merry band of litigators” has struck again, this time going after the rigid rules stopping Virginians from finding inner peace.  It seems that in the fair commonwealth, you need a permit to teach yoga, which process entails paying $2500 and getting your “curriculum” approved by state bureaucrats, as well as other barriers to entry. For more details, see IJ’s case page and read this editorial in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Also, check out IJ’s video:

Tacoma Police Killings

National Review Online invited me to offer comments on the four police officers who were murdered in Tacoma, Washington.  Here’s an excerpt:

The vicious killing of the police officers in Tacoma, Washington, may well have political repercussions for Mike Huckabee, as others have noted here. The primary suspect is Maurice Clemmons, who in 1989 received a 95-year prison sentence that was later commuted, in 2000, by then–Governor Huckabee. Whenever Clemmons has been free, he seems to have perpetrated still more violent crimes, according to the news stories.

I would, however, caution against a blanket condemnation of pardons, as well as any hasty move to simply abolish parole. The American criminal-justice system is thoroughly swamped. Right now there are more than 7 million people under criminal-justice “supervision.” About 2.5 million are behind bars, and about 4.5 million are on probation or parole. This system is greatly overburdened by non-violent drug offenders. Conditions vary by jurisdiction, but in general there is no prison space left. So it is unrealistic for us to say, “If a prisoner violates parole, send him back to jail immediately!”

Liberals thought it was unfair for Bush 41 to attack Michael Dukakis for his decision to release violent offenders like Willie Horton.  It was not unfair at all because it raised good questions about Dukakis’s judgment.

The best way to curb violent crime is to lock up violent criminals.  Sounds like a no-brainer but our system is swamped with drug offenders.  Problems fester while the pols try to deflect criticism away from themselves.