Unwilling Conscripts in the Drug War

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Colorado is brewing a controversy. A state court in Denver has orderedJoyce Meskis, owner of the Tattered Cover Bookstore, to hand over herbusiness records to police. Meskis is not suspected of any wrongdoing. Thepolice found an envelope from her store in the trash behind amethamphetamine lab and believe that if they can find the customer, they canfind a drug trafficker. Meskis and the American Booksellers Association areworried about the implications of acquiescing to this demand. Bookstoreowners 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 beenco-opting one business after another in an effort to "crack down on crime."Cincinnati police stunned the managers of a United Parcel Service facilitywhen they showed up unexpectedly and ordered employees to look around forsuspicious packages that might contain drugs. From the police officer'sperspective, what are a few hours disruption to a business compared to thewar on drugs? The police are also seeking access to the private databases ofthe major shippers such as UPS and Federal Express.

New Jersey state police have a "Hotel-Motel unit." This unit goes to hotelsalong the major highways and seeks to enlist front-desk clerks and bellhopsas police snitches. Seminars are given on how to spot drug smugglers. Policealso want access to the hotel registration records and credit card receipts."It's like a tactic out of some dictatorship," complained one owner of aDays Inn to a reporter.

Most Americans are unaware that federal police agencies have alreadyestablished an elaborate surveillance network. Banks, for example, arecompelled 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 toengage in." Such reports are designed to help the police find drug dealerswho are laundering their profits.

In 1994, Congress passed the "Communications Assistance for Law EnforcementAct," requiring every telephone company in America to make its networks moreaccessible to police wiretaps. This year, the FBI has been trying to expandthat precedent by pressuring Internet Service Providers to make the nextgeneration of Internet technologies friendly to e-snooping programs such as"Carnivore." The feds have also acquired the power to demand businessrecords from airlines, bus companies, rental car outlets, motels and storagefacilities. With such precedents on the books, why should any remainingbusinesses -- such as bookstores -- be entitled to some "special exemption" fromthe law?

A few years ago, Attorney General Janet Reno marveled at the powers wieldedby her agency, saying, "I don't think J. Edgar Hoover would contemplate whatwe can do today." In the past, law enforcement had to rely upon the goodwilland 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 againstdrugs, which, like all wars, is really a war against people. When ourgovernment considers millions of people to be criminals, the police don'tsee a society of citizens; they see a society of suspects. In the shortspace of a single generation, countless American institutions have beenunwillingly drafted into a network of informers and data gatherers. WillPresident Bush do anything to reverse this ominous threat to freedomand privacy?