Unwilling Conscripts in the Drug War

March 22, 2001 • Commentary

Colorado is brewing a controversy. A state court in Denver has ordered Joyce Meskis, owner of the Tattered Cover Bookstore, to hand over her business records to police. Meskis is not suspected of any wrongdoing. The police found an envelope from her store in the trash behind a methamphetamine lab and believe that if they can find the customer, they can find a drug trafficker. Meskis and the American Booksellers Association are worried about the implications of acquiescing to this demand. Bookstore owners have always taken pride in preserving the privacy of their customers.

Across the country in Charleston, S.C., police wanted hospital personnel to test pregnant women for traces of drug use and to report the results of those tests to law enforcement. The Supreme Court yesterday struck down such testing as unconstitutional. The American Medical Association filed a brief complaining that the South Carolina policy forces doctors to act as snitches and thus undercuts “the physician’s ethical obligation to act as the patients’ advocate and protector.”

Such law enforcement tactics are not new. Police agencies have been co‐​opting one business after another in an effort to “crack down on crime.” Cincinnati police stunned the managers of a United Parcel Service facility when they showed up unexpectedly and ordered employees to look around for suspicious packages that might contain drugs. From the police officer’s perspective, what are a few hours disruption to a business compared to the war on drugs? The police are also seeking access to the private databases of the major shippers such as UPS and Federal Express.

New Jersey state police have a “Hotel‐​Motel unit.” This unit goes to hotels along the major highways and seeks to enlist front‐​desk clerks and bellhops as police snitches. Seminars are given on how to spot drug smugglers. Police also want access to the hotel registration records and credit card receipts. “It’s like a tactic out of some dictatorship,” complained one owner of a Days Inn to a reporter.

Most Americans are unaware that federal police agencies have already established an elaborate surveillance network. Banks, for example, are compelled by law to spy on their customers. Bank officials must file “Suspicious Activity Reports” with the feds if certain transactions are not “the sort in which the particular customer would normally be expected to engage in.” Such reports are designed to help the police find drug dealers who are laundering their profits.

In 1994, Congress passed the “Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act,” requiring every telephone company in America to make its networks more accessible to police wiretaps. This year, the FBI has been trying to expand that precedent by pressuring Internet Service Providers to make the next generation of Internet technologies friendly to e‐​snooping programs such as “Carnivore.” The feds have also acquired the power to demand business records from airlines, bus companies, rental car outlets, motels and storage facilities. With such precedents on the books, why should any remaining businesses — such as bookstores — be entitled to some “special exemption” from the law?

A few years ago, Attorney General Janet Reno marveled at the powers wielded by her agency, saying, “I don’t think J. Edgar Hoover would contemplate what we can do today.” In the past, law enforcement had to rely upon the goodwill and voluntary cooperation of businesspeople for investigative assistance. That tradition is now giving way to a regime of coercive mandates.

The engine behind this ominous trend has been the misnamed war against drugs, which, like all wars, is really a war against people. When our government considers millions of people to be criminals, the police don’t see a society of citizens; they see a society of suspects. In the short space of a single generation, countless American institutions have been unwillingly drafted into a network of informers and data gatherers. Will President Bush do anything to reverse this ominous threat to freedom and privacy?

About the Author
Tim Lynch
Adjunct Scholar and Former Director, Project on Criminal Justice