We were warned we might become this way.
In the 1928 case of Olmsted v. The United States, at issue before the Supreme Court was whether the use of wiretapped private telephone conversations, obtained by federal agents without judicial approval and subsequently used as evidence, constituted a violation of the defendant’s rights under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that rights were not violated and the evidence obtained without a warrant could be used.
In his dissent, Justice Louis Brandeis wrote:
Decency, security and liberty alike demand that government officials shall be subjected to the same rules of conduct that are commands to the citizen. In a government of laws, existence of the government will be imperiled if it fails to observe the law scrupulously. Our Government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the Government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law…
Like Father, Like Son
In an era where Big Government acts in open contempt of the rule of law, killing its own citizens without due process, torturing its people, recklessly spying on them and taking away their right to free speech, it is little surprise that Small Government seeks to do the same. Petty is what petty does. Much of this all manifests itself in the militarization of our police coupled with their criminalization of everything.
Militarization of the Police
There are too many examples of violence for even a short list: a defendant killed by police at his own trial; a lengthy and detailed report that found the Albuquerque, New Mexico Police Department engages in the practice of excessive force, including deadly force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment; a false-postive drug test leading to a SWAT assault on an innocent family; a baby burned into a coma by a flash-bang grenade thrown by another SWAT team in another unnecessasry home raid; a woman sexually assaulted by a cop in a courthouse who then arrested her for reporting it; LA sheriffs beating a chained inmate; cops choking a non-resisting drunk into unconsciousness; police blindsiding a woman with a nightstick at basketball celebration; police killing a 93 year old woman in her own home; cops tasering and beating a deaf man trying to communicate with them in sign lanaguage and on and on.
Criminalization of Everything
Concurrent with the increasing acts of unwarranted violence by police against the citizens they are sworn to protect and serve are attempts to criminalize as much behavior as possible, whether it represents any threat to society at large (long sentences for minor marijuana possession) or is simply an excuse to bust heads (not dispersing immediately equating to resisting arrest.)
But here’s how it has morphed into even more, an assault on First Amendment rights. And even though the cops lost in some of the following cases, the pattern is too clear to ignore, too dark to high-five over a win.
Cops in multiple states– cases have been tried in Maryland, Florida, Tennessee, Missouri and Oregon– have arrested drivers for flashing their headlights. It is not uncommon for drivers to flash their lights at incoming traffic to warn of a police speed trap ahead. The result of the flashing is that incoming drivers slow down, precisely the real point of the law. Cops, however, claim the flashing lights are an interference with law enforcement.
In the most recent case, in Oregon, a judge did find that motorists flashing their headlights amounts to speech protected by the First Amendment, similar to when people honk their horns to welcome home the troops. “The citation was clearly given to punish the Defendant for that expression,” the judge wrote. “The government certainly can and should enforce the traffic laws for the safety of all drivers on the road. However, the government cannot enforce the traffic laws, or any other laws, to punish drivers for their expressive conduct.”
Videotaping the Police
Reaching back to the 1992 Rodney King beating in Los Angeles, police have been caught on camera in a seemingly-endless-string of beatings. The typical pattern is that before the video is shown, the beaten person is accused of resisting arrest and the cops claim the violence they visited on him was unfortunate, but necessary and appropriate. Then the video comes to light and the brutality is revealed.
So it is little surprise that the cops have tried to criminalize videotaping the cops. Evil only works well in the dark after all. A recent case in New Hampshire, however, may help forestall the dark a bit.
A woman was following a friend’s car to his house when an officer pulled him over. From about 30 feet away, after getting out of her car, the woman announced she was going to audio-record the police stop of her friend. The cops arrested her and charged her with wiretapping, along with disobeying a police officer, obstructing a government official, and unlawful interception of oral communications. Though the woman was never prosecuted, she sued, alleging that her arrest constituted retaliatory prosecution in breach of her constitutional rights.
An appeals court sent the case back to trial. The cops settled for $57,000 (using taxpayer money to pay off the suit; small change really. In 2012 Boston paid a citizen $170,000 in damages and legal fees to settle a civil rights lawsuit stemming from his felony arrest for videotaping police roughing up a suspect) before the case when to full trial, allowing for a minor victory albeit at the cost of not having a court declare war on the abuse of a citizen’s First Amendment rights.
Another woman was not so successful. She was charged with using a mobile phone “hidden” in her purse to audio-record her own arrest. The cops charged her with wiretapping under Massachusetts law, which says people may record police officers only in public places, and only if the officers are aware that a recording is taking place.
The ACLU asserts “since 9/11, a disturbing pattern of innocent individuals being harassed by the police for taking still and video photographs in public places has emerged across the country.” ACLU has a long list of specific cases.
The ACLU also notes “Another disturbing trend is police officers and prosecutors using wiretapping statutes in certain states (such as Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania) to arrest and prosecute those who attempt to record police activities using videocameras that include audio.”
Again in Massachusetts, a woman who videotaped a cop beating a motorist with a flashlight posted the video online. Afterwards, one of the cops caught at the scene filed criminal wiretapping charges against her, though she was never prosecuted.
There are many, many more examples of the criminalization of the First Amendment. Even when charges don’t stick, the act of being arrested, possibly mistreated, often serves the cops’ purpose.
Fish rot from the head they say, and as Justice Louis Brandeis tried to warn us some 80 years ago. When the federal government claims itself exempt from the Constitution, don’t be surprised when your local cops say the same.
Yo, New York! I am excited that Book Culture, New York’s coolest independent bookstore, will host me for an evening of conversation in connection with my book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent.
The event is Tuesday, June 10, from 7:00 pm, at 536 West 112th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam, 212-865-1588. Nearest subway is the 1 Train to Cathedral Parkway. The store is across the street from the “Seinfeld Diner” and close to Columbia.
Peter Van Buren writes about current events at blog. His book,Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, is available now from from Amazon.
Photo by Political Pulse under Creative Commons License