Archive for March, 2013

“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”—George Orwell,1984

Advanced technology now provides government agents and police officers with the ability to track our every move. The surveillance state is our new society. It is here, and it is spying on you, your family and your friends every day. Worse yet, those in control are using life’s little conveniences, namely cell phones, to do much of the spying. And worst of all, the corporations who produce these little conveniences are happy to hand your personal information over to the police so long as their profit margins increase. To put it simply, the corporate-surveillance state is in full effect, and there is nowhere to hide.

Using the data transferred from, received by, and stored in your cell phone, police are now able to track your every move. Your texts, web browsing, and geographic location are all up for grabs. Using “stingray” devices, often housed in mobile surveillance vans, federal agents track the cell phones of unsuspecting people. By triangulating the source of a cell phone signal, agents are able to track down the whereabouts of the person holding it. Just recently, the Washington Post reported that federal investigators in Northern California routinely used StingRays “to scoop up data from cellphones and other wireless devices in an effort to track criminal suspects — but failed to detail the practice to judges authorizing the probes.”

The issues, judges and activists say, are twofold: whether federal agents are informing courts when seeking permission to monitor suspects, and whether they are providing enough evidence to justify the use of a tool that sweeps up data not only from a suspect’s wireless device but also from those of bystanders in the vicinity…

The Justice Department has generally maintained that a warrant based on probable cause is not needed to use a “cell-site simulator” because the government is not employing them to intercept conversations, former officials said. But some judges around the country have disagreed and have insisted investigators first obtain a warrant…

Chris Soghoian, the ACLU’s principal technologist, said cell-site simulators are being used by local, state and federal authorities. “No matter how the StingRay is used — to identify, locate or intercept — they always send signals through the walls of homes,” which should trigger a warrant requirement, Soghoian said. “The signals always penetrate a space protected by the Fourth Amendment.”

These surveillance sweeps target all cell phone signals, not just those of criminal suspects. Examples of extralegal police surveillance in the years since 9/11 are numerous, from the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program to the NYPD’s spy network that targeted Muslims in the New York area.

Unfortunately, the now widespread tactic of spying on people via their cell phones resides in a legal grey area, which has allowed police agencies to take drastic steps to record the daily activity of all Americans. Whereas cell phone tracking once fell only in the purview of federal agents, local police departments, big and small, are beginning to engage in cell phone tracking with little to no oversight. Small police agencies are shelling out upwards of $244,000 to get the technology necessary to track cell phones. And as you might expect, most police departments have attempted to keep knowledge of their cell phone tracking programs secret, fearing (as they should) a public backlash.

Federal courts are divided on the issue, some saying that a warrant is necessary before executing a cell phone search. However, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recently ruled that tracking the location of a cell phone without a warrant is legal and, thus, not a violation of the Fourth Amendment. This lack of concern for the Fourth Amendment—which requires reasonable suspicion that you’re up to something illegal before the police conduct surveillance on you—is widely shared among the federal and state courts. In fact, courts issue tens of thousands of cell tracking orders a year, allowing police agencies to accurately pinpoint people’s locations within meters. Unless they’re charged with a crime, most people remain unaware that their cell data has been tracked.

Although government agencies are increasingly acquiring the technology to track cell phones themselves, most rely on cell phone companies to provide them with the user data. In July 2012, it was revealed that cell phone carriers had responded to an astonishing 1.3 million requests from police agencies for personal information taken from people’s cell phones. One of the larger carriers, AT&T, responds to roughly 700 requests a day, 230 of which are so-called “emergencies,” exempting them from standard court orders. This number has tripled since 2007. A relatively small carrier, C Spire Wireless, said that it received 12,500 requests in 2011. Sprint received the most requests, averaging 1,500 per day. The number of requests is almost certainly higher than 1.3 million, and the number of people affected much higher, because a single request often involves targeting multiple people.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the telecommunications companies which produce cell phone technology are more than happy to comply with government requests for personal information. They even make a handsome profit from selling the details of your private life to the government. Indeed, cell phone carriers are making a killing charging police agencies “surveillance fees”—from a few hundred to a few thousands dollars per request—to share information on a person’s location and activities. AT&T collected $8.3 million in 2011 for their surveillance activities, up from $2.8 million in 2007.

Telecommunications providers have also come up with price lists for easy reference for police agencies. For example, “Sprint charged $120 per target number for ‘Pictures and Video,’ $60 for ‘E-Mail,’ $60 for ‘Voicemail,’ and $30 for ‘SMS Content.’” Sprint actually has 110 employees who work solely on responding to information requests from the government. And government agents need not worry about maximizing resources by seeking only high priority targets. One agent can track 200 or 300 people at a time.

On the rare occasion that a telecom corporation resists a police effort to spy on a particular cell phone customer, there are methods by which companies are coerced to comply with the data requests. Telecoms are frequently harassed by the FBI with National Security Letters (NSL), which are demands for user information without warrant or judicial oversight. These include a gag order, which prevents the recipient from discussing the demand with others, including the media. Roughly 300,000 of these NSLs have been sent out since 2000, implying a massive spying effort on the part of the federal government. One telecom is currently in a battle with the federal government over an NSL demanding user data. The telecom refused to abide by the NSL, and in response the federal government has sued the telecom, insisting that their refusal jeopardizes national security. The end logic of this is that our private data is actually not private. The federal government claims that knowing our personal information is critical to preserving national security, and thus neither telecoms nor users may resist the sharing of that information.

Of course, corporations are just as interested in tracking people’s daily activities as the government. Cell phone companies and the software companies that create applications for their devices track your personal information so that they can market their services to you. Unfortunately, this leads to mass aggregation of user data which is then used by government agents to spy on and track all cell phone users. For example, Carrier IQ, a software company, and cell phone manufacturers HTC and Samsung are currently in the midst of a class-action lawsuit brought by Android phone users whose phone activities are recorded by a “rootkit,” a piece of software surreptitiously installed on cell phones that records the keystrokes of phone users. The FBI denied a December 2011 FOIA request to determine how the government was utilizing Carrier IQ’s software, as it could have an adverse impact on ongoing investigations. The agency’s refusal suggests that not only is Carrier IQ spying on cell phone users for their corporate purposes, but that federal agents are utilizing the software to conduct their own spying campaigns.

Unfortunately, with intelligence gathering and surveillance doing booming business, and corporations rolling out technologies capable of filtering through vast reams of data, tapping into underseas communication cables, and blocking websites for entire countries, life as we know it will only get worse. As journalist Pratap Chatterjee has noted, “[T]hese tools have the potential to make computer cables as dangerous as police batons.” Telecoms hold on to user data, including text messages and Internet browsing history, for months to years at a time. This, of course, has some ominous implications. For example, British researchers have created an algorithm that accurately predicts someone’s future whereabouts at a certain time based upon where she and her friends have been in the past.

So where does this leave us? As George Orwell warned, you have to live with the assumption that everything you do, say and see is being tracked by those who run the corporate surveillance state.

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In its ruling in Millbrook v. United States, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court has concluded that the U.S. government may be held liable for abuses intentionally carried out by law enforcement officers in the course of their employment. The Court’s ruling dovetails with arguments put forward by The Rutherford Institute in its amicus brief, which urged the Court to enforce the plain meaning of federal statutes allowing citizens to sue the government for injuries intentionally inflicted by law enforcement officers.

In striking down lower court rulings, the justices held that the courts had erred in dismissing a prisoner’s lawsuit alleging that three prison guards had brutally and sexually assaulted him. The lower courts justified their ruling under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), which allows individuals to sue the government for misconduct by law enforcement officials only if the injury inflicted occurs while the officers are in the course of making an arrest or seizure, or executing a search. In their amicus brief, Rutherford Institute attorneys asked the Supreme Court to protect citizens from government brutality by eliminating the restriction on government liability.

Hopefully, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Millbrook will send a strong message to the government’s various law enforcement agencies that they need to do a better job of policing their employees—whether they’re police officers or prison guards—and holding them accountable to respecting citizens’ rights, especially while on the job. At a time when the courts are increasingly giving deference to the police and prioritizing security over civil liberties, this ruling is at least an encouraging glimmer in the gloom.

In 1948 Congress enacted the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) to provide a limited waiver of “sovereign” immunity for the negligent acts of government agents, despite the fact that the United States is generally not liable for injuries to persons caused by the negligent or intentional acts of government employees and agents. The original version of the FTCA preserved government immunity for “intentional torts” such as assault, battery and false imprisonment.  However, in 1974, Congress amended the FTCA to allow the government to be sued for intentional torts by “law enforcement officers.”

In 2011, Kim Millbrook, a prisoner at a federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, filed an FTCA lawsuit against the United States alleging that three prison guards had brutally assaulted him in the basement of the prison, forcibly restraining Millbrook and forcing him to perform oral sex. Millbrook’s lawsuit was dismissed by a federal district court which ruled that the 1974 amendment to the FTCA allowing for intentional tort claims against law enforcement officers only applies to acts that occur during searches, while seizing evidence, or while making arrests. The district court’s decision was affirmed on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which, relying on prior rulings from the circuit, held that because the 1974 amendment defines “law enforcement officers” as officers “empowered by law to execute searches, to seize evidence, or to make arrests,” the scope of the waiver of immunity for intentional torts applies only where the harmful act occurs in the course of one of those three duties. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected this interpretation, noting that the plain language of the law does not restrict the waiver of immunity to acts that occur during searches, seizures, and arrests. — John W. Whitehead

“This is the problem when police officers and police departments have a financial interest in doing their job. We got rid of bounty hunters because they were not a good thing. This is modern day bounty hunting.”—Public Defender John Rekowski

Long before Americans charted their revolutionary course in pursuit of happiness, it was “life, liberty, and property” which constituted the golden triad of essential rights that the government was charged with respecting and protecting. To the colonists, smarting from mistreatment at the hands of the British crown, protecting their property from governmental abuse was just as critical as preserving their lives and liberties. As the colonists understood, if the government can arbitrarily take away your property, you have no true rights. You’re nothing more than a serf or a slave.

The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was born of this need to safeguard against any attempt by the government to unlawfully deprive a citizen of the right to life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. Little could our ancestral forebears have imagined that it would take less than three centuries of so-called “independence” to once again render us brow-beaten subjects in bondage to an overlord bent on depriving us of our most inalienable and fundamental rights.

The latest governmental scheme to deprive Americans of their liberties—namely, the right to property—is being carried out under the guise of civil asset forfeiture, a government practice wherein government agents (usually the police) seize private property they “suspect” may be connected to criminal activity. Then—and here’s the kicker—whether or not any crime is actually proven to have taken place, the government keeps the citizen’s property, often divvying it up with the local police who did the initial seizure.

For example, the federal government recently attempted to confiscate Russell Caswell’s family-owned Tewksbury, Massachusetts, motel, insisting that because a small percentage of the motel’s guests had been arrested for drug crimes—15 out of 200,000 visitors in a 14-year span—the motel was a dangerous property. As Reason reports:

This cruel surprise was engineered by Vincent Kelley, a forfeiture specialist at the Drug Enforcement Administration who read about the Motel Caswell in a news report and found that the property, which the Caswells own free and clear, had an assessed value of $1.3 million. So Kelley approached the Tewksbury Police Department with an “equitable sharing” deal: The feds would seize the property and sell it, and the cops would get up to 80 percent of the proceeds.

Thankfully, with the help of a federal judge, Caswell managed to keep his motel out of the government’s clutches, but others are not so fortunate. One couple in Anaheim, Calif., is presently battling to retain ownership of their $1.5 million office building after the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration filed an asset-forfeiture lawsuit against them because one of their tenants allegedly sold $37 in medical marijuana to an undercover agent.

Some states are actually considering expanding the use of asset forfeiture laws to include petty misdemeanors. This would mean that property could be seized in cases of minor crimes such as harassment, possession of small amounts of marijuana, and trespassing in a public park after dark.

As the Institute for Justice points out:

Civil forfeiture laws represent one of the most serious assaults on private property rights in the nation today.  Under civil forfeiture, police and prosecutors can seize your car or other property, sell it and use the proceeds to fund agency budgets—all without so much as charging you with a crime.  Unlike criminal forfeiture, where property is taken after its owner has been found guilty in a court of law, with civil forfeiture, owners need not be charged with or convicted of a crime to lose homes, cars, cash or other property.

Americans are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but civil forfeiture turns that principle on its head.  With civil forfeiture, your property is guilty until you prove it innocent.

Relying on the topsy-turvy legal theory that one’s property can not only be guilty of a crime but is guilty until proven innocent, government agencies have eagerly cashed in on this revenue scheme, often under the pretext of the War on Drugs. By asserting that someone’s personal property, a building or a large of amount of cash for example, is tied to an illegal activity, the government—usually, the police—then confiscates the property for its own uses, and it’s up to the property owner to jump through a series of legal hoops to prove that the property was obtained legally.

Despite the fact that 80 percent of these asset forfeiture cases result in no charge against the property owner, challenging these “takings” in court can cost the owner more than the value of the confiscated property itself. As a result, most property owners either give up the fight or chalk the confiscation up to government corruption, leaving the police and other government officials to reap the benefits. For example, under a federal equitable sharing program, police turn cases over to federal agents who process seizures and then return 80% of the proceeds to the police.

Asset forfeitures can certainly be lucrative for cash-strapped agencies and states. In the fiscal year ending September 2012, the federal government seized $4.2 billion in assets, a dramatic increase from the $1.7 billion seized the year before. Between 2004 and 2008, police in Jim Wells County, Texas seized over $1.5 million. The Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C. collected $358,000 from civil forfeiture in fiscal year 2011, and $529,000 from federal equitable sharing. The State Attorney’s Office in Madison County, Illinois, made $500,000 from asset forfeiture over the course of eight years.

Often, these governmental property grabs take the form of highway robbery (literally), where police officers extract money, jewelry, and other property from unsuspecting motorists during routine traffic stops. As Mother Jones quips, “forfeiture corridors are the new speed traps.” Indeed, states such as Texas, Tennessee, and Indiana are among the worst offenders. Mother Jones continues:

You all know what a speed trap is, right? If you have a highway running through your small town, you can make a lot of money by ticketing out-of-state drivers who are going one or two miles per hour over the speed limit. How many victims are going to waste time trying to fight it, after all? But have you heard about “forfeiture corridors”? That’s a little different — and quite a bit more lucrative. All you have to do is pull over an out-of-state driver for supposedly making an unsafe lane change, have your police dog sniff around for a bit of marijuana residue, and then use civil asset forfeiture laws to impound any cash you might find. Apparently it’s especially popular on highways leading into and out of casino towns.

In typical fashion, these police traps tend to prey on minorities and the poor, as well as undocumented immigrants and individuals who happen to have large amounts of cash on hand, even for lawful reasons. One such person is Jerome Chennault, who fell prey to Madison County, Illinois’ forfeiture corridor in September 2010. En route to Nevada after a visit with his son, Chennault was pulled over by police for allegedly following another car too closely. When police asked to sweep Chennault’s car with a drug dog, Chennault obliged, believing that he had done nothing wrong and had nothing to hide and completely unaware that he had fallen into a forfeiture trap.

During the search, the drug dog alerted on a black bag in the back seat of the car which contained about $22,000 in cash. The money, Chennault explained, was intended for a down payment on a home.  The dog did not find any drugs in the car, nor was there any evidence of criminal activity. However, instead of letting Chennault go on his way with a traffic citation, the police confiscated the cash, claiming that since the drug dog alerted to it, it must have been used in the commission of a drug crime. Chennault challenged the seizure in court, after months spent traveling to and from Illinois on his own dime, and eventually succeeded in having his money returned, although the state refused to compensate him for his legal and travel expenses.

Tenaha, Texas, is a particular hotbed of highway forfeiture activity, so much so that police officers keep pre-signed, pre-notarized documents on hand so they can fill in what property they are seizing. Between 2006 and 2008, for instance, Tenaha police seized roughly $3 million.

As Roderick Daniels discovered, it doesn’t take much to get pulled over in a forfeiture corridor like Tenaha’s. Daniels was stopped in October 2007 for allegedly traveling 37 mph in a 35 mph zone. He was ordered to hand over his jewelry and the $8,500 in cash he had with him to purchase a new car. When he resisted, he was taken to jail, threatened with money-laundering charges and “persuaded” to sign a waiver forfeiting his property in order to avoid the charges.

In an even more egregious case, Jennifer Boatright and Ron Henderson, an interracial couple travelling through Tenaha, were forced to forfeit the $6,000 cash they had with them to buy another car when police threatened to turn their young children over to Child Protective Services. Another traveler, Maryland resident Amanee Busbee, was also threatened with losing her child to CPS after police stopped her, her fiancé and his business partner when they were en route to Houston with $50,000 to complete the purchase of a restaurant. Boatright and Busbee were eventually able to reclaim their money after mounting legal challenges.

Comparing police forfeiture operations to criminal shakedowns, journalist Radley Balko paints a picture of a government so corrupt as to render the Constitution null and void:

Police in some jurisdictions have run forfeiture operations that would be difficult to distinguish from criminal shakedowns. Police can pull motorists over, find some amount of cash or other property of value, claim some vague connection to illegal drug activity and then present the motorists with a choice: If they hand over the property, they can be on their way. Otherwise, they face arrest, seizure of property, a drug charge, a probable night in jail, the hassle of multiple return trips to the state or city where they were pulled over, and the cost of hiring a lawyer to fight both the seizure and the criminal charge. It isn’t hard to see why even an innocent motorist would opt to simply hand over the cash and move on.

In an age in which the actions of the police—militarized extensions of the government—are repeatedly sanctioned by the legislatures and the courts, hard-won concessions such as the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in Florida v. Jardines that the use of drug-sniffing dogs to carry out warrantless searches of homes is unconstitutional comes as little comfort. After all, it was not long ago that this very same court sanctioned the use of drug-sniffing dogs in roadside stops, a practice that has proven extremely profitable for law enforcement officials tasked with policing the nation’s forfeiture corridors. — John W. Whitehead

Walking a narrow line, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled 5-4 in Florida v. Jardines that the use of drug-sniffing dogs by police to carry out warrantless searches of homes is unconstitutional.

In keeping with the Court’s recent decision in Florida v. Harris, in which the justices ruled unanimously that police may use drug dogs to conduct warrantless searches during traffic stops, the Court did not address the question of whether a drug dog’s sniff constitutes a violation of one’s reasonable expectation of privacy. Instead, the Court ruled that an officer bringing a drug-sniffing dog to the front of a home without a warrant constitutes an unconstitutional invasion of private property.

In an age in which the police can probe, poke, pinch, taser, search, seize, strip and generally manhandle anyone they see fit in almost any circumstance, all with the general blessing of the courts, it’s difficult to really celebrate this ruling given that it basically just gives a head nod to the Fourth Amendment. What we are experiencing today is a slow death by a thousand cuts, only it’s the Fourth Amendment being inexorably bled to death. It remains to be seen whether today’s ruling by the Supreme Court proves to be little more than a band-aid fix to a rapidly worsening condition.

Florida v. Jardines arose out of an incident that took place in November 2006, when Miami police responded to an “anonymous” tip that marijuana was being grown at the residence of Joelis Jardines. After police surveillance of the Jardines home failed to reveal any incriminating evidence, the police brought in a drug-sniffing dog and handler to inspect the property at 7:30 a.m. The police handler walked the dog up to the front door on a leash and the dog allegedly “alerted” to the scent of contraband, which was reported to the investigating police who also approached the door and allegedly smelled marijuana. Using this information, the police obtained a warrant to search the Jardines residence, resulting in the seizure of marijuana plants.

In court, Jardines’ lawyer moved to suppress the evidence obtained under the warrant, insisting that the warrant itself was invalid because of its reliance on the alert by the drug-sniffing dog. On appeal, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the use of detection dogs at private residences raises significant privacy concerns. The U.S. Supreme Court, having ruled in previous cases that dog sniffs do not constitute “searches” for purposes of the Fourth Amendment, agreed to review the state court decision.

In weighing in on the matter, The Rutherford Institute had asked the Supreme Court to declare the warrantless use of drug-sniffing dogs in both scenarios, searches of homes and vehicles, to be unconstitutional in violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. In an amicus curiae brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in Florida v. Jardines, Institute attorneys cited mounting empirical evidence that narcotics detection dogs are unreliable and inaccurate, pointing out that both anecdotal evidence and research show that dogs frequently signal false alerts and show sensitivity to handler bias. Institute attorneys also pointed out that the amount of time it takes for the dogs to carry out a detection sniff on the perimeter of a private residence constitutes a trespass under Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.

The Court ruled unanimously in a similar case, Florida v. Harris, that police officers may use drug-sniffing dogs to conduct warrantless searches of cars during routine traffic stops. — John W. Whitehead

My new post on school truancy laws that jail parents and levy excessive fines. Disguised as well-meaning attempts to resolve attendance issues in the schools, these truancy laws are nothing less than stealth maneuvers aimed at enriching school districts and court systems alike through excessive fines and jail sentences, while the ones being singled out for punishment—more often than not from middle- to low-income families—are the very ones who can least afford it.

Watch it here: 

And if you missed my commentary on the subject, you can catch up on your reading here. — John W. Whitehead

My recent testimony before the Maryland Senate Education, Health & Environmental Affairs Committee on the need for legislation such as The Reasonable School Discipline Act of 2013 (SB 1058), introduced by Senator J.B. Jennings, which aims to establish straightforward guidelines for meting out discipline appropriate to an infraction without overreacting or unnecessarily and permanently marring a student’s academic record.

As president of The Rutherford Institute,[1] a national civil liberties organization that has been at the forefront of an ongoing effort to defend young people victimized by overzealous zero tolerance policies in the public schools, I can personally attest to the need for legislation such as The Reasonable School Discipline Act of 2013 (SB 1058), which aims to establish straightforward guidelines for meting out discipline appropriate to an infraction without overreacting or unnecessarily and permanently marring a student’s academic record.

Indeed, in the wake of the Columbine school shootings, The Rutherford Institute has been called on to intervene in hundreds of cases involving young people who were suspended, expelled, and even arrested for violating school zero tolerance policies that criminalize childish behavior and punish all offenses severely, no matter how minor or non-threatening the so-called infraction may have been. In many cases, the offense is nothing more than students playing cops and robbers on the playground, drawing pictures of soldiers, and writing ghoulish creative stories.[2]

While we all have an interest in ensuring school safety, these zero tolerance policies, which the American Bar Association has rightly condemned as being “a one-size-fits-all solution to all the problems that schools confront,” have proven ineffective at discouraging actual criminal, violent behavior in the schools.

Maryland is no stranger to egregious zero tolerance policies. In their well-intentioned zeal to make the schools safer, school officials have succumbed to a near-manic paranoia about anything even remotely connected to guns and violence, such that a child who brings a piece of paper loosely shaped like a gun to school is treated as harshly as the youngster who brings an actual gun. Such was the case in two separate incidents which recently played out in two separate Maryland elementary schools, where students were suspended for pretending their fingers were guns in a game of cops and robbers on the school playground.[3]

The administrative response to these incidents rightly inspired outrage among parents and legislators alike, resulting in SB 1058, which is noteworthy for its recognition of the need for cooler heads to prevail when attempting to distinguish between behavior in the schools that is merely childish and nonthreatening versus behavior that is violent and poses a clear danger.

In adopting this legislation, Maryland would lead the way in setting an example for other state legislatures and educational bodies to follow. Certainly, the Maryland State Board of Education has shown itself to be cognizant of the need for a more balanced approach to such matters.

For example, in April 2012, the Maryland State Board of Education, in response to an appeal filed by The Rutherford Institute, agreed to reverse the suspensions of two Easton High School lacrosse players targeted under school zero tolerance policies for keeping tools, namely a penknife and a lighter, for maintaining their sporting equipment in their lacrosse bags. The Board’s ruling came after local school officials and the Talbot County Board of Education elected not to reverse the suspensions and expunge the players’ academic records. In coming to the defense of the two boys, The Rutherford Institute challenged the suspensions as violating fundamental principles of due process of law and insisting that the students’ academic records be completely expunged of the incident.[4]

To our detriment, the courts have done little to improve conditions for young people who are the unfortunate casualties in the schools’ so-called quest for “student safety.” Indeed, with each school shooting, the climate of intolerance for “unacceptable” behavior such as getting into food fights, playing tag, doodling, hugging, kicking, and throwing temper tantrums only intensifies. And as surveillance cameras, metal detectors, police patrols, zero tolerance policies, lock downs, drug sniffing dogs and strip searches become the norm in elementary, middle and high schools across the nation, the punishments being meted out for childish behavior grow harsher.

Whereas in the past minor behavioral infractions at school such as shooting spitwads may have warranted a trip to the principal’s office, in-school detention or a phone call to one’s parents, today, they are elevated to the level of criminal behavior with all that implies. Consequently, young people are now being forcibly removed by police officers from the classroom, strip searched, arrested, handcuffed, transported in the back of police squad cars, and placed in police holding cells until their frantic parents can get them out. For those unlucky enough to be targeted for such punishment, the experience will stay with them long after they are allowed back at school. In fact, it will stay with them for the rest of their lives in the form of a criminal record.

The following incidents provide just a small glimpse into the growing problem posed by school officials doling out increasingly harsh punishments and investigative tactics on young people for engaging in childish behavior or for daring to challenge their authority.

  • Wilson Reyes, a seven-year-old elementary school student from the Bronx, got into a scuffle with a classmate over a $5 bill. Reyes was arrested, transported to a police station and allegedly handcuffed to a wall and interrogated for ten hours about the location of the money. His family is in the midst of pursuing a lawsuit against the police and the city for their egregious behavior.[5]
  • A North Carolina public school allegedly strip-searched a 10-year-old boy in search of a $20 bill lost by another student, despite the fact that the boy twice told school officials he did not have the missing money. The missing money was later found in the school cafeteria.[6]
  • In Chicago, a 15-year-old boy accused by an anonymous tipster of holding drugs was taken to a locker room by two security guards, a Chicago police officer, and a female assistant principal, and made to stand against a wall and drop his pants while one of the security guards inspected his genitals. No drugs were found.[7]
  • Even the most innocuous “infractions” are being shown no leniency, with school officials expelling a 6-year-old girl for bringing a clear plastic toy gun to school, issuing a disciplinary warning to a 5-year-old boy who brought a toy gun built out of Legos to class, and expelling a fifth-grade girl who had a “paper” gun with her in class.[8] The six-year-old kindergarten student in South Carolina was classified as such a threat that she’s not even allowed on school grounds. “She cannot even be in my vehicle when I go to pick up my other children,” said the girl’s mom, Angela McKinney.[9]
  • Other cases include nine-year-old Patrick Timoney[10] being sent to the principal’s office and threatened with suspension after school officials discovered that one of his Legos, a policeman, was holding a 2-inch toy gun.
  • David Morales,[11] an 8-year-old Rhode Island student, ran afoul of his school’s zero tolerance policies after he wore a hat to school decorated with an American flag and tiny plastic Army figures in honor of American troops.
  •  A 7-year-old New Jersey boy,[12] described by school officials as “a nice kid” and “a good student,” was reported to the police and charged with possessing an imitation firearm after he brought a toy Nerf-style gun to school. The gun shoots soft ping pong-type balls.
  • Four little boys at a New Jersey school were suspended for pretending their fingers were guns.[13] In another instance, officials at a California elementary school called the police when a little boy was caught playing cops and robbers at recess. The principal told the child’s parents their child was a terrorist.
  • And in Oklahoma, school officials suspended a first grader simply for using his hand to simulate a gun.[14]

Things have gotten so bad that it doesn’t even take a toy gun, pretend or otherwise, to raise the ire of school officials.

  • A high school sophomore was suspended for violating the school’s no-cell-phone policy after he took a call from his father,[15] a master sergeant in the U.S. Army who was serving in Iraq at the time.
  • A 12-year-old New York student was hauled out of school in handcuffs for doodling on her desk with an erasable marker.[16]
  • In Houston, an 8th grader was suspended for wearing rosary beads[17] to school in memory of her grandmother (the school has a zero tolerance policy against the rosary, which the school insists can be interpreted as a sign of gang involvement).

With the distinctions between student offenses erased, and all offenses expellable, we now find ourselves in the midst of what Time magazine described as a “national crackdown on Alka-Seltzer.”[18]

  • Indeed, at least 20 children in four states have been suspended from school for possession of the fizzy tablets in violation of zero tolerance drug policies. In some jurisdictions, carrying cough drops, wearing black lipstick or dying your hair blue are actually expellable offenses.
  • Students have also been penalized for such inane “crimes” as bringing nail clippers to school, using Listerine or Scope, and carrying fold-out combs that resemble switchblades.
  • A 9-year-old boy in Manassas, Virginia, who gave a Certs breath mint to a classmate, was actually suspended,[19] while a 12-year-old boy who said he brought powdered sugar to school for a science project was charged with a felony for possessing a look-alike drug.[20]
  • Another 12-year-old was handcuffed and jailed after he stomped in a puddle, splashing classmates.[21]
  • After students at a Texas school were assigned to write a “scary” Halloween story, one 13-year-old chose to write about shooting up a school. Although he received a passing grade on the story, school officials reported him to the police, resulting in his spending six days in jail before it was determined that no crime had been committed.[22]

These incidents, while appalling, are the byproducts of an age that values security over freedom, where police have relatively limitless powers to search individuals and homes by virtue of their badge, and where the Constitution is increasingly treated as a historic relic rather than a bulwark against government abuses.

However, by majoring in minors, as it were, treating all students as suspects and harshly punishing kids for innocent mistakes, the schools are setting themselves and their students up for failure—not only by focusing on the wrong individuals and allowing true threats to go undetected but also by treating young people as if they have no rights, thereby laying the groundwork for future generations that are altogether ignorant of their rights as citizens and unprepared to defend them.

As Professor David Elkind of Tufts University has noted, “children do not organize, have no access to the media, and do not vote. They are relatively powerless to improve their own condition. Children need adults who will advocate for them.”

Thus, it falls to state representatives like yourselves to lead the way in sending a strong message to the schools that criminalizing childish behavior will not result in safer schools.  It is our hope that SB 1058 will be a positive first step in pushing back against the tyranny of zero tolerance policies in our nation’s schools by excluding childish behavior from punishment while also targeting malicious intention as the crucial factor in determining appropriate discipline. — John W. Whitehead


[1] The Rutherford Institute is a non-profit civil liberties organization that provides free legal representation to individuals whose civil rights are threatened or infringed.

[2] “Censoring artistic expression,” First Amendment Center, (http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/madison/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Silencing-36-76.pdf.

[3] “Playing cops and robbers gets 6-year-old suspended,” WTSP, (January 18, 2013), http://www.wtsp.com/news/national/article/292543/81/Playing-cops-and-robbers-gets-6-year-old-suspended.

[4] “Zero Tolerance Victory: Md. Board of Ed. Reverses Suspension of H.S. Lacrosse Players for Possession of Deadly Weapons (Penknife, Lighter),” The Rutherford Institute (April 11, 2012), https://www.rutherford.org/publications_resources/Press%20Release/zero_tolerance_victory_md_board_of_ed_reverses_suspension_of_hs_lacross/.

[5] Ben Waldron, “7-Year-Old Handcuffed Over $5, Says Suit,” ABC News, (January 30, 2013), http://gma.yahoo.com/blogs/abc-blogs/7-old-handcuffed-over-5-says-suit-232812597–abc-news-topstories.html.

[6] “Mom Angry After 3rd Grader Strip-Searched Over $20,” KTLA Los Angeles, (June 20, 2012), http://www.ktla.com/news/landing/ktla-third-grader-strip-searched,0,7844144.story.

[7] “Parents Of Teen Strip-Searched At School Sue Assistant Principal, Police,” CBS Chicago (Dec. 5, 2012), http://chicago.cbslocal.com/2012/12/05/parents-of-teen-strip-searched-at-school-sue-assistant-principal-police/.

[8] Erik Ortiz, “Overreaction? 6-year-old South Carolina girl is expelled from school after bringing plastic toy gun to class,” NY Daily News (Jan. 31, 2013),

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/s-student-6-expelled-plastic-toy-gun-article-1.1252179#ixzz2JwpYP0Mb.

[9] Erik Ortiz, “Overreaction? 6-year-old South Carolina girl is expelled from school after bringing plastic toy gun to class,” NY Daily News (Jan. 31, 2013),

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/s-student-6-expelled-plastic-toy-gun-article-1.1252179#ixzz2JwpYP0Mb.

[10] Carlin DeGuerin Miller, “Two-Inch LEGO Gun Gets 4th-Grader Patrick Timoney in Trouble; Where’s the NRA?” CBS News, (February 4, 2010), http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504083_162-6173526-504083.html.

[11] “Rhode Island school will reverse the ban on student’s toy soldier hat,” Cleveland.com, (June 20, 2010), http://www.cleveland.com/nation/index.ssf/2010/06/rhode_island_school_will_rever.html.

[12] “Seven-year-old charged after bringing toy ‘Nerf’ gun to school,” Daily Mail, (February 3, 2011), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1353233/Boy-7-charged-police-bringing-toy-Nerf-gun-school.html#ixzz1CvXi3vrI.

[13] Julie Foster, “Zero Tolerance Policies Victimize Good Kids,” World Net Daily, (June 7, 2000), http://www.wnd.com/2000/06/4522/.

[14] Meredith Jessup, “‘Gun’ Hand Gesture Gets Oklahoma 1st-Grader Suspended,” (January 21, 2011), http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2011/01/21/gun-hand-gesture-gets-oklahoma-1st-grader-suspended/.

[15] CJ Grisham, “Boy Suspended for Talking with Deployed Father,” A Soldier’s Perspective, (April 23, 2008), http://asp.militarygear.com/2008/04/23/boy-suspended-for-talking-with-deployed-father/.

[16] Stephanie Chen, “Girl’s arrest for doodling raises concerns about zero tolerance,” CNN, (February 18, 2010), http://www.cnn.com/2010/CRIME/02/18/new.york.doodle.arrest/index.html.

[17] Judy Molland, “8th Grader Suspended For Wearing Rosary Beads,” Care2, (January 14, 2011), http://www.care2.com/causes/8th-grader-suspended-for-wearing-rosary-beads.html.

[18] John Cloud, “The Columbine Effect,” TIME, (December 6, 1999), http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,992754,00.html.

[19] “Pupil suspended in candy rap,” Reading Eagle, (September 23, 1997), http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1955&dat=19970923&id=e-IxAAAAIBAJ&sjid=XqYFAAAAIBAJ&pg=1230,4467416.

[20] “Boy charged with felony for carrying sugar,” Free Republic, (February 11, 2006), http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1576762/posts.

[21] “THE FAILED EDUCATION “REFORMS” (12-year old cuffed for puddle jumping),” Free Republic, (April 13, 2003), http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/news/892483/posts.

[22] “Censoring artistic expression,” First Amendment Center, (http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/madison/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Silencing-36-76.pdf.

“I never thought I would see the day when a Justice Department would claim that only the most extreme infliction of pain and physical abuse constitutes torture and that acts that are merely cruel, inhuman and degrading are consistent with United States law and policy, that the Supreme Court would have to order the president of the United States to treat detainees in accordance with the Geneva Convention, never thought that I would see that a president would act in direct defiance of federal law by authorizing warrantless NSA surveillance of American citizens. This disrespect for the rule of law is not only wrong, it is destructive.”—Eric Holder, June 2008 speech to the American Constitution Society

Since the early days of our republic, the Attorney General (AG) of the United States has served as the chief lawyer for the government, entrusted with ensuring that the nation’s laws are faithfully carried out and holding government officials accountable to abiding by their oaths of office to “uphold and defend the Constitution.”

Unfortunately, far from holding government officials accountable to abiding by the rule of law, the attorneys general of each successive administration have increasingly aided and abetted the Executive Branch in skirting and, more often than not, flouting the law altogether, justifying all manner of civil liberties and human rights violations and trampling the Constitution in the process, particularly the Fourth Amendment.

No better example is there of the perversion of the office of the AG than its current occupant Eric Holder, who was appointed by President Obama in 2009. Hailed by civil liberties and watchdog groups alike for his pledge to “reverse the disastrous course that we have been on over the past few years” and usher in a new era of civil liberties under Obama, Holder has instead carried on the sorry tradition of his predecessors, going to great lengths to “justify” egregious government actions that can only be described as immoral, unjust and illegal.

Indeed, Holder has managed to eclipse both John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzalez, whose tenures under George W. Bush earned them constant reproach by Democrats and other left-leaning groups for justifying acts of torture, surveillance of American citizens and clandestine behavior by the government. Holder, however, has largely been given a free pass by these very same groups in much the same way that Obama has. The reason, according to former Senate investigator Paul D. Thacker, is that “Obama is a Democrat. And because he is a Democrat, he’s gotten a pass from many of the civil liberty and good-government groups who spent years watching President Bush’s every move like a hawk.”

Despite getting a “pass” from those who would normally have been crying foul, during his time as attorney general, Holder has “made the Constitution scream”—that according to one of his detractors. The colorful description is apt. Some of the Justice Department’s (DOJ) “greatest hits” under Holder begin and end with his stalwart defense of the Obama administration’s growing powers, coming as they do at the expense of the Constitution.

Moreover, as head of the DOJ, Holder’s domain is vast, spanning several law enforcement agencies, including the United States Marshals Service; FBI; Federal Bureau of Prisons; National Institute of Corrections; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Drug Enforcement Administration; and Office of the Inspector General (OIG), as well as the U.S. National Central Bureau for INTERPOL. To say that the agencies under Holder have struggled to abide by the rule of law is an understatement.

The following are just some of the highlights of the dangerous philosophies embraced and advanced by Holder and his Justice Department.

The military can detain anyone, including American citizens, it deems a threat to the country. Not only has the DOJ persisted in defending a provision of the National Defense Authorization Act that sanctions indefinite detentions of Americans, but it has also blasted the federal judge who ruled the NDAA to be vague and chilling as overstepping the court’s authority and infringing on Obama’s power to act as Commander in Chief.

Presidential kill lists and drone killings are fine as long as the president thinks someone might have terrorist connections. Holder has gone to great lengths to defend Obama’s use of drones to target and kill American citizens, even on U.S. soil, as legally justifiable. In fact, a leaked DOJ memo suggests that the President has the power to murder any American citizen the world over, so long as he has a feeling that they might, at some point in the future, pose a threat to the United States.

The federal government has the right to seize the private property—cash, real estate, cars and other assets—of those suspected of being “connected” to criminal activity, whether or not the suspect is actually guilty. The government actually collects billions of dollars every year through this asset-forfeiture system, which it frequently divvies up with local law enforcement officials, a practice fully supported by the DOJ and a clear incentive for the government to carry out more of these “takings.”

Warrantless electronic surveillance of Americans’ telephone, email and Facebook accounts is not only permissible but legal. According to court documents, more Americans have had their electronic communications spied on as a result of DOJ orders for phone, email and Internet information—40,000 people alone in 2011—and that doesn’t even begin to take into account agencies outside Holder’s purview, terrorism investigations or requests by state and local law enforcement officials.

Judicial review is far from necessary. Moreover, while it is legal for the government to use National Security Letters (NSL) to get detailed information on Americans’ finances and communications without oversight from a judge, it is illegal to challenge the authority of the Justice Department. Administrative subpoenas or NSLs—convenient substitutes for court-sanctioned warrants that require only a government official’s signature in order to force virtually all businesses to hand over sensitive customer information—have become a popular method of bypassing the Fourth Amendment and a vital tool for the DOJ’s various agencies. Incredibly, the DOJ actually sued a telecommunications company for daring to challenge the FBI’s secret order, lacking in judicial oversight, that it relinquish information about its customers. The FBI alone has issued more than 300,000 NSLs since 2000.

Due process and judicial process are not the same. In one of his earliest attempts to justify targeted assassinations of American citizens by the president, Holder declared in a March 5, 2012 speech at the Northwestern University School of Law that “The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process.” What Holder was attempting to suggest is that the Fifth Amendment’s assurance that “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law” does not necessarily involve having one’s day in court and all that that entails—it simply means that someone, the president for example, should review and be satisfied by the facts before ordering someone’s death. As one history professor warned, “Insert even a sliver of difference between due process and judicial process, and you convert liberty into tyranny. Holder, sworn to uphold the laws of the United States, is the mouthpiece of that tyranny, and Obama is its self-appointed judge, jury and executioner.”

Government whistleblowers will be bankrupted, blacklisted, blackballed and in some cases banished. As AG, Holder has reportedly prosecuted more government officials for alleged leaks than all his predecessors combined. Relying on the World War I-era Espionage Act, the DOJ has launched an all-out campaign to roust out, prosecute, and imprison government whistleblowers for exposing government corruption, incompetence, and greed. Intelligence analyst Bradley Manning is merely one in a long line of so-called “enemies of the state” to feel the Obama administration’s wrath for daring to publicly criticize its policies by leaking information to the media.

Government transparency is important unless government officials are busy, can stonewall, redact, obfuscate or lie about the details, are able to make the case that they are exempt from disclosure or that it interferes with national security. AsSlate reports, “President Obama promised transparency and open government. He failed miserably.” Not only has Holder proven to be far less transparent than any of his predecessors, however, but his DOJ has done everything in its power to block access to information, even in matters where that information was already known. For example, when asked to explain the “Fast and Furious” debacle in which government operatives trafficked guns to Mexican drug lords, DOJ officials—unaware that much of the facts had already been revealed—“responded with false and misleading information that violated federal law.” When pressed for further information, the Justice Department retracted its initial response and refused to say anything more.

When it comes to Wall Street, justice is not blind. As revealed in a PBS Frontline report, the Obama administration has driven federal prosecutions of financial crimes down to a two-decade low, buoyed in its blindness to corporate corruption by campaign donations from Wall Street banks (whom Holder has determined are too big to prosecute anyhow) and staffers whose lucrative financial portfolios came about as a result of chummy relationships with financiers. As David Sirota points outs:

After watching the [PBS] piece, you will understand that the word “justice” belongs in quotes thanks to an Obama administration that has made a mockery of the name of a once hallowed executive department… Rooted in historical comparison, it contrasts how the Reagan administration prosecuted thousands of bankers after the now-quaint-looking S&L scandal with how the Obama administration betrayed the president’s explicit promise to “hold Wall Street accountable” and refused to prosecute a single banker connected to 2008′s apocalyptic financial meltdown.

Not all suspects should have the right to remain silent. In 2010, Holder began floating the idea that Miranda rights—which require that a suspect be informed of his right to remain silent—should be modified depending on the circumstances. Curiously, the Supreme Court is presently reviewing a case addressing a similar question, namely whether a suspect’s silence equates to an admission of guilt.

Clearly, it’s not the Constitution that Eric Holder is safeguarding but the power of the presidency. Without a doubt, Holder has taken as his mantra Nixon’s mantra that “When the President does it, that means it is not illegal.” It may be that the time has come to create a “non-political” and “independent” Attorney General, one who would serve the interests of the public by upholding the rule of law rather than justifying the whims of the President. — John W. Whitehead