Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

A Victory for Property Rights

Ilya Shapiro warns us that the U.S. Supreme Court probably will not uphold property rights in a case involving Florida beachfront property.  But property rights did receive an unexpected boost in New York yesterday, where an appeals court overturned a taking for the benefit of Columbia University.

Reports the New York Times:

A New York appeals court ruled Thursday that the state could not use eminent domain on behalf of Columbia University to obtain parts of a 17-acre site in Upper Manhattan, setting back plans for a satellite campus at a time of discord over government power to acquire property.

In a 3-to-2 decision, a panel of the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in Manhattan annulled the state’s 2008 decision to take property for the expansion project, saying that its condemnation procedure was unconstitutional.

The majority opinion was scathing in its appraisal of how the “scheme was hatched,” using terms like “sophistry” and “idiocy” in describing how the state went about declaring the neighborhood blighted, the main prerequisite for eminent domain.

The $6.3 billion expansion plan is not dead; an appeal has been promised, and Columbia still controls most of the land. But at a time when the government’s use of eminent domain on behalf of private interests has become increasingly controversial, the ruling was a boon for opponents.

“I feel unbelievable,” said Nicholas Sprayregen, the owner of several self-storage warehouses in the Manhattanville expansion area and one of two property owners who have refused to sell to the university. “I was always cautiously optimistic. But I was aware we were going against 50 years of unfair cases against property owners.”

New York state is not a particularly friendly venue to property rights, but the judges rightly saw through the claims made by state official to justify seizing property from a private person for the benefit of a private organization.  The ruling could be reversed, but nevertheless is an important affirmation that property rights warrant constitutional and legal protection even in New York.

Iranian Thugs Take Crackdown Worldwide

Political repression is old news.   Thuggish regimes have been holding their citizens prisoner for centuries.  But Iran’s government now is borrowing an innovative Soviet and Nazi tactic:  targeting family members of dissenters, even those living in the U.S.

Reports the Wall Street Journal:

His first impulse was to dismiss the ominous email as a prank, says a young Iranian-American named Koosha. It warned the 29-year-old engineering student that his relatives in Tehran would be harmed if he didn’t stop criticizing Iran on Facebook.

Two days later, his mom called. Security agents had arrested his father in his home in Tehran and threatened him by saying his son could no longer safely return to Iran.

“When they arrested my father, I realized the email was no joke,” said Koosha, who asked that his full name not be used.

Tehran’s leadership faces its biggest crisis since it first came to power in 1979, as Iranians at home and abroad attack its legitimacy in the wake of June’s allegedly rigged presidential vote. An opposition effort, the “Green Movement,” is gaining a global following of regular Iranians who say they never previously considered themselves activists.

The regime has been cracking down hard at home. And now, a Wall Street Journal investigation shows, it is extending that crackdown to Iranians abroad as well.

In recent months, Iran has been conducting a campaign of harassing and intimidating members of its diaspora world-wide – not just prominent dissidents – who criticize the regime, according to former Iranian lawmakers and former members of Iran’s elite security force, the Revolutionary Guard, with knowledge of the program.

Unfortunately, there is little the West can do.  Despite the seemingly common belief in hawkish circles that Washington merely need speak the word and other nations will obey,  there is no magic wand that President Obama can wave to democratize Iran.  And refusing to engage Iran over its nuclear program would do nothing to aid human rights activists while losing the admittedly faint hope of resolving the issue diplomatically.

However, there is reason for hope.  The crackdown bespeaks desperation.  The militarized regime continues to lose credibility, including religious backing.  Reports the New York Times:

Iran’s most senior cleric denounced the role of the volunteer militia force known as the Basij in the crackdown against protesters, saying the force’s actions were against religion and “in the path of Satan.”

The cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, condemned the force in a statement posted on an opposition Web site, mowjcamp.com, decreeing that “the assailants have acted against religion and must pay blood money” to those who were wounded or to their families.

Ultimately, the Iranian people can count only on themselves to achieve freedom.  But people of good will around the world should offer their support in the continuing battle against tyranny.

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.