Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

‘Taking the Rest of His Life Away’

Upon sentencing a 24 year old to 27 years in federal prison on a drug charge, the Federal Judge Alan Bloch lamented, “I was basically taking the rest of his life away.”

Go here to read about that case, which is coming before the Supreme Court for review.  For related Cato scholarship on sentencing, go here and here (pdf).  For Cato work on the drug war, go here.

Arizona Turns Immigrant Workers into Criminals

Lawmakers in Arizona must believe the state’s law enforcement officers have too much time on their hands.

A bill passed by the legislature yesterday will make it a misdemeanor to be in Arizona without proper immigration paperwork. It also directs Arizona police to question anyone about their immigration status if they have reason to suspect the person is in the country illegally. Failure to produce the proper documents could result in arrest, a $2,500 fine, and up to six months in jail.

Making and enforcing immigration law is a federal responsibility. State and local police should focus their resources on preventing crime and apprehending real criminals who pose a danger to public safety.

Police in Arizona seem to agree. According to an Associated Press report,

[The bill] is opposed by police chiefs, who worry that the law would be too costly, that it would distract them from dealing with more serious problems, and that it would sow such distrust among immigrants that they would not cooperate with officers investigating other crimes.

The right response to illegal immigration should be to change our laws to expand opportunities for legal immigration. As our numerous studies have shown, a comprehensive immigration reform bill in Congress that included a robust temporary worker program would reduce illegal immigration, make the U.S. border more secure, and boost our economy.

George Will on Judicial Activism

George Will offers conservatives a useful reminder about “judicial activism” and what the Supreme Court ought to be doing:

Conservatives spoiling for a fight should watch their language. The recent decision most dismaying to them was Kelo (2005), wherein the court upheld the constitutionality of a city government using its eminent domain power to seize property for the spurious “public use” of transferring it to wealthier interests who will pay higher taxes to the seizing government. Conservatives wish the court had been less deferential to elected local governments. (Stevens later expressed regret for his part in the Kelo ruling.)

The recent decision most pleasing to conservatives was this year’s Citizens United, wherein the court overturned part of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. The four liberal justices deplored the conservatives’ refusal to defer to Congress’s expertise in regulating political speech.

So conservatives should rethink their rhetoric about “judicial activism.” The proper question is: Will the nominee be actively enough engaged in protecting liberty from depredations perpetrated by popular sovereignty?

Poor Judgment All Around

When school administrators discovered nude photos of teenage girls in the cell phones of some boys at school, they decided to set an example and crack down on “sexting.”  The school officials took the matter to the local prosecutor.  The prosecutor, in turn, informed the parents of the girls that the youngsters would either have to attend a multi-session education and counseling class or face felony child pornography charges.

The letter to the parents explaining the “program” stated, “Participation in the program is voluntary. …  However, charges will be filed against those that do not participate.”  Hmmm.  This curious arrangement was challenged in a lawsuit and the court found the prosecutors’ actions illegal.  Go here (pdf) for the ruling.  Will the prosecutor be sanctioned for the illegal action?  Don’t count on it.

Accountability for ‘Exigent Letter’ Abuse At Last?

It is more than three years since the Office of the Inspector General first brought public attention to the FBI’s systematic misuse of the National Security Letter statutes to issue fictitious “exigent letters” and obtain telecommunications records without due process. Nobody at the Bureau has been fined, or even disciplined, for  this systematic lawbreaking and the efforts to conceal it. But the bipartisan outrage expressed at a subcommittee hearing of the House Judiciary Committee this morning hints that Congress may be running out of patience—and looking for some highly-placed heads to roll. Just to refresh, Committee Chairman John Conyers summarized the main abuses in an opening statement:

The IG found that more than 700 times, such information was obtained about more than 2,000 phone numbers by so-called“exigent letters” from FBI personnel. In some cases, the IG concluded, FBI agents sent the letters even though they believed that factual information in the letters was false. For more than 3,500 phone numbers, the call information was extracted without even a letter, but instead by e‐mail, requests on a post‐it note, or “sneak peaks” of telephone company computer screens or other records…. In one case, the FBI actually obtained phone records of Washington Post and New York Times reporters and kept them in a database, leading to an IG conclusion of “serious abuse” of FBI authority and an FBI public apology.

It’s probably actually worse than that: Since these letters often requested a “community of interest” analysis for targeted numbers, the privacy of many people beyond the nominal targets may have been implicated—though it’s hard to be sure, since the IG report redacts almost all details about this CoI mapping.

And as Rep. Jerry Nadler pointed out, the IG report suggests a “clear pattern here of deliberate evasion,” rather than the innocent oversight the Bureau keeps pleading.  Both Nadler and the Republican ex-chair of the committee, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, expressed frustration at their sense that, when the FBI had failed to win legislative approval for all the powers on its wish list, it had simply ignored lawful process, seizing by fiat what Congress had refused to grant. Sensenbrenner, one of the authors of the Patriot Act, even declared that he felt “betrayed.” But we’ve heard similar rhetoric before. It was the following suggestion from Conyers (from my notes, but pretty near verbatim) that really raised an eyebrow:

There must be further investigation as to who and why and how somebody in the Federal Bureau of Investigation could invent a practice and have allowed it to have gone on for three consecutive years.  I propose and hope that this committee and its leadership will join me, because I think there may be grounds for removal of the general counsel of the FBI.

That would be Valerie Caproni, one of the hearing’s two witnesses, and an executive-level official whose dismissal would be the first hint of an administration response commensurate with the gravity of the violations that occurred. Caproni’s testimony, consistent with previous performances, was an awkward effort to simultaneously minimize the seriousness of FBI’s abuses—she is fond of saying “flawed” when le mot juste is “illegal”—and also to assure legislators that the Bureau was treating it with the utmost seriousness already. Sensenbrenner appeared unpersuaded, at one point barking in obvious irritation: “I don’t think you’re getting the message; will you get the message today?” The Republican also seemed to indirectly echo Conyers’ warning, declaring himself “not unsympathetic” to the incredulous chairman’s indictment of her office. Of course, the FBI has it’s own Office of Professional Responsibility which is supposed to be in charge of holding agents and officials accountable for malfeasance, but apparently the wheels there are still grinding along.

It’s also worth noting that Inspector General Glenn Fine, who also testified, specifically urged Congress to look into a secret memo issued in January by the Office of Legal Counsel, apparently deploying some novel legal theory to conclude that many of the call records obtained by the FBI were not covered by federal privacy statutes after all. This stood out just because my impression is that OIG usually limits itself to straight reporting and leaves it to Congress to judge what merits investigation, suggesting heightened concern about the potential scope of the ruling, despite FBI’s pledge not to avail itself of this novel legal logic without apprising its oversight committees. Alas, the details here are classified, but Caproni did at one point in her testimony conclude that “disclosure of approximately half of the records at issue was not forbidden by ECPA and/or was
connected to a clear emergency situation.”  There were 4,400 improperly obtained “records at issue” in the FBI’s internal review, of which about 150 were ultimately retained on the grounds that they would have qualified for the emergency exception in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.  Since that tally didn’t include qualifying records for which legitimate process had nevertheless been issued at some point, the number of “real” emergencies is probably slightly higher, but that still suggests that the “half” Caproni alludes to are mostly in the “disclosure…not forbidden by ECPA” category.  Since ECPA is fairly comprehensive when it comes to telecom subscriber records—or at least, so we all thought until recently—we have to assume she means that these are the types of records the OLC opinion has removed from FISA’s protection. If those inferences are correct, and the new OLC exception covers nearly half of the call detail records FBI obtains, that would not constitute a “loophole” in federal electronic privacy law so much as its evisceration.

Of course, it’s possible that the specific nature of the exception would allay civil libertarian fears. What’s really intolerable in a democratic society is that we don’t know. Operational facts about specific investigations, and even specific investigatory techniques, are rightly classified. But an interpretation of a public statute so significant as to potentially halve its apparent protections cannot be kept secret without making a farce of the rule of law.

Waking Up at Last

Tony Blankley, former press secretary to Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, exults in the Washington Times that Americans are waking up “to our heritage of freedom” and to the abuse of the Constitution:

All the following acts have suddenly awakened Americans to their Constitution: (1) The nationalization of car companies and banks; (2) the subordination of the car companies’ legal bondholders to union bosses; (3) the creation of trillion-dollar slush funds (the stimulus package) used for, among other purposes, the corrupt purchase of congressional votes; (4) the mandating of individual health insurance purchase against the will of Americans; (5) the attempt to have Obamacare “deemed” to have been enacted, rather than actually publicly voted on by Congress.

Amazingly, spontaneously, Americans are educating themselves about the details of our Constitution.

He’s absolutely right. All those actions do raise serious questions about whether there are still any constitutional limitations on government, which is to say, whether the Constitution is still in effect, questions that Roger Pilon also raised this week in the Christian Science Monitor. But it would be even better if Americans had noticed the threats to constitutional government a bit earlier, if not during the New Deal or the Great Society, then perhaps during the past decade when, as Gene Healy and Tim Lynch wrote in 2006:

Unfortunately, far from defending the Constitution, President Bush has repeatedly sought to strip out the limits the document places on federal power. In its official legal briefs and public actions, the Bush administration has advanced a view of federal power that is astonishingly broad, a view that includes

  • a federal government empowered to regulate core political speech—and restrict it greatly when it counts the most: in the days before a federal election;
  • a president who cannot be restrained, through validly enacted statutes, from pursuing any tactic he believes to be effective in the war on terror;
  • a president who has the inherent constitutional authority to designate American citizens suspected of terrorist activity as “enemy combatants,” strip them of any constitutional protection, and lock them up without charges for the duration of the war on terror— in other words, perhaps forever; and
  • a federal government with the power to supervise virtually every aspect of American life, from kindergarten, to marriage, to the grave.

President Bush’s constitutional vision is, in short, sharply at odds with the text, history, and structure of our Constitution, which authorizes a government of limited powers.

But better late than never, and we join Tony Blankley in hoping that the Constitution’s limits on the powers of the federal government will once again be an issue in American politics and governance.

Felony Charges for Recording a Plainclothes Officer

Yesterday I wrote about the University of Maryland student beaten by police and falsely charged with assault during a post-game celebration. I concluded with a warning that a law barring citizens from taking photos or videos of law enforcement officers (such as those in force in Great Britain) would have prevented the false charges and beating from coming to light.

I did not know that Maryland was already heading that direction. Video:

Anthony Graber was riding his motorcycle on I-95 in Maryland, speeding and popping wheelies and recording the experience with a helmet cam. An unmarked car cuts him off as he slows for traffic, and a man in a hoodie and jeans jumps out with a gun in his hand. Five seconds after the armed man has exited his vehicle and approached Graber, he identifies himself as a Maryland State Trooper. Graber accepts a speeding ticket and posts video of the experience on YouTube. (HT Armed Liberal)

If that were the end of it – a law enforcement officer recklessly creates a situation that could prompt a firefight by provoking a law-abiding citizen with a concealed carry permit (because the officer’s outward appearance suggested a criminal attack was underway) – I wouldn’t be writing this. But the Maryland State’s Attorneys are now charging Graber with unlawfully recording the incident. Police have seized his computer and he faces felony charges.

Maryland is working hard to justify its status as least-free state in the union. Find your state’s ranking here.