Posts Tagged ‘police misconduct’

“The first and most important thing to understand about politics is this: forget Right, Left, Center, socialism, fascism, or democracy. Every government that exists — or ever existed, or ever will exist — is a kleptocracy, meaning ‘rule by thieves.’ Competing ideologies merely provide different excuses to separate the Productive Class from what they produce. If the taxpayer/voters won’t willingly fork over to end poverty, then maybe they’ll cough up to fight drugs or terrorism. Conflicting ideologies, as presently constituted, are nothing more than a cover for what’s really going on, like the colors of competing gangs.” — Author L. Neil Smith

The American kleptocracy (a government ruled by thieves) continues to suck the American people down a rabbit hole into a parallel universe in which the Constitution is meaningless, the government is all-powerful, and the citizenry is powerless to defend itself against government agents who steal, spy, lie, plunder, kill, abuse and generally inflict mayhem and sow madness on everyone and everything in their sphere.

Case in point: in the same week that Wikileaks dropped its bombshell about the CIA’s use of spy tools to subject law-abiding Americans to all manner of government surveillance and hacking—a revelation that caused barely a ripple of concern among the citizenry—the government quietly and with little fanfare continued to wage its devastating, stomach-churning, debilitating war on the American people.

Incredibly, hardly anyone noticed.

This begs the question: if the government is overstepping its authority, abusing its power, and disregarding the rule of law but no one seems to notice—and no one seems to care—does it matter if the government has become a tyrant?

Here’s my short answer: when government wrongdoing ceases to matter, America will have ceased to be.

Just consider the devastation wrought in one week in the life of our American kleptocracy:

On Monday, March 6, police were given the go-ahead to keep stealing from Americans who were innocent of any wrongdoing.

In refusing to hear a challenge to Texas’ asset forfeiture law, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed Texas police to keep $201,000 in ill-gotten cash primarily on the basis that the seized cash—the proceeds of a home sale—was being transported on a highway associated with illegal drug trade, despite any proof of illegal activity by the owner. Asset forfeiture laws, which have come under intense scrutiny and criticism in recent years, allow the police to seize property “suspected” of being connected to criminal activity without having to prove the owner of the property is guilty of a criminal offense.

On April 1, 2013, James Leonard was driving with a companion, Nicosa Kane, on U.S. Highway 59 in Texas when the vehicle was stopped by a state police officer for allegedly speeding and following another vehicle too closely. A subsequent search of the vehicle disclosed a safe in the trunk, which Leonard explained belonged to his mother, Lisa Leonard, and contained cash. When the police officer contacted Lisa Leonard, she confirmed that the safe’s contents belonged to her, that the contents constituted personal business, and that she would not consent to allowing the officer to open the safe. After police secured a search warrant, the safe was opened and found to contain $201,000 and a bill of sale for a home in Pennsylvania.

Neither the Leonards nor Kane were found to be in possession of illegal drugs. However, the state initiated civil forfeiture proceedings against the $201,100 on the ground that it was substantially connected to criminal activity because Highway 59 is reputed to be a drug corridor. At trial, Lisa Leonard testified that the money was being sent to Texas so that she could use it to purchase a home for her son and Kane. Both the trial and appeals courts affirmed the authority of state officials to seize and keep Leonard’s funds under the state’s asset forfeiture law, basing their ruling on wholly circumstantial evidence and the reputation of Highway 59. Leonard then asked the U.S. Supreme Court to compel Texas to return her money, given that she was innocent of any crime. In refusing to hear the case on a technicality, the Supreme Court turned its back on justice and allowed the practice of policing for profit to continue.

On Tuesday, March 7, hacked information about the surveillance state was met with a collective shrug by the public, a sign of how indifferent the citizenry has become to living in an electronic concentration camp.

Wikileaks confirmed what we’ve suspected all along: the government’s ability to spy on law-abiding Americans is far more invasive than what we’ve been told. According to the Wikileaks Vault 7 data dump, government agencies such as the CIA and the NSA have been spying on the citizenry through our smart TVs, listening in on our phone calls, hacking into our computerized devices (including our cars), and compromising our security systems through the use of Trojan horses, spyware and malware.

As this Wikileaks revelation confirms, we now have a fourth branch of government. This fourth branch came into being without any electoral mandate or constitutional referendum, and yet it possesses superpowers, above and beyond those of any other government agency save the military. It is all-knowing, all-seeing and all-powerful. It operates beyond the reach of the president, Congress and the courts, and it marches in lockstep with the corporate elite who really call the shots in Washington, DC.

You might know this branch of government as Surveillance, but I prefer “technotyranny,” a term coined by investigative journalist James Bamford to refer to an age of technological tyranny made possible by government secrets, government lies, government spies and their corporate ties. Beware of what you say, what you read, what you write, where you go, and with whom you communicate, because it will all be recorded, stored and used against you eventually, at a time and place of the government’s choosing.

Privacy, as we have known it, is dead.

On Wednesday, March 8, police were given further incentives to use the “fear for my life” rationale as an excuse for shooting unarmed individuals.

Upon arriving on the scene of a nighttime traffic accident, an Alabama police officer shot a driver exiting his car, mistakenly believing the wallet in his hand to be a gun. From the time the driver stumbled out of his car, waving his wallet in the air, to the time he was shot in the abdomen, only six seconds had elapsed. Although the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals concluded “that a reasonable officer in Hancock’s position would have feared for his life,” the video footage makes clear that the courts continue to march in lockstep with the police, because no reasonable person would shoot first and ask questions later.

A report by the Justice Department on police shootings in Philadelphia, which boasts the fourth largest police department in the country, found that half of the unarmed people shot by police over a seven-year span were “shot because the officer saw something (like a cellphone) or some action (like a person pulling at the waist of their pants) and misidentified it as a threat.”

What exactly are we teaching these young officers in the police academy when the slightest thing, whether it be a hand in a pocket, a man running towards them, a flashlight on a keychain, a wallet waved in a hand, or a dehumanizing stare can ignite a strong enough “fear for their safety” to justify doing whatever is deemed necessary to neutralize the threat, even if it means firing on an unarmed person?

On Thursday, March 9, police were given even more leeway in how much damage they can inflict on those they serve and the extent to which they can disregard the Constitution.  

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a police officer who allowed a police dog to maul a homeless man innocent of any wrongdoing. The case arose in 2010 after a police dog attacked a homeless man near an abandoned house where police were tracking a robbery suspect. The cop refused to call off the dog immediately, despite the man’s pleading and the fact that he did not match the description of the robbery suspect. The homeless man suffered deep bites on his hand, arm and thigh, that required a nearly 16-inch skin graft, as well as severe bleeding, bruising, swelling and an arterial blood clot. Incredibly, not only did the court declare that the police officer was protected by qualified immunity, which incentivizes government officials to violate constitutional rights without fear of repercussion, but it had the nerve to suggest that being mauled by a police dog is the equivalent of a lawful Terry stop in which police may stop and hold a person for questioning on the basis of “reasonable suspicion.”

Also on March 9, government officials assured the Michigan Supreme Court that there was nothing unlawful, unreasonable or threatening about the prospect of armed police dressed in SWAT gear knocking on doors at 4 a.m. and “asking” homeowners to engage in warrantless “knock-and-talk” sessions. Although government lawyers insist citizens can choose to say no to such heavy-handed requests by police to conduct unwarranted interrogations, if such coercive tactics are allowed, it would give SWAT teams further incentive to further terrorize anyone even remotely—or mistakenly—suspected of wrongdoing without fear of repercussion.

On Friday, March 10, the military industrial complex continued to wage war abroad, while government agencies, including members of the military, remained embroiled in controversies over sexual misconduct.

A day after military brass defended the U.S.-led raid in Yemen that killed 10 children and at least six women, Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, informed members of Congress that even more U.S. troops were needed in Afghanistan to combat the Taliban. Some 8400 American troops have been stationed in Afghanistan since the U.S. invaded the country post 9/11. Approximately 400 more Marines are being sent to Syria to aid U.S. forces in their fight against ISIS.

That same day, news reports indicated that members of several branches of the U.S. military, including the Marines, have been using online bulletin boards to either share or solicit nude or explicit photos and videos of women in the military. One Facebook page for Marines, which has nearly 30,000 followers, contained graphic language about how the women photographed, some without their knowledge or consent, should be treated. As the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) revealed, “One member of the Facebook group suggested that the service member sneaking the photos should ‘take her out back and pound her out.’ Others suggested more than vaginal sex: ‘And butthole. And throat. And ears. Both of them. Video it though … for science.’” According to CIR, the photo sharing began less than a month after the first Marine infantry unit was assigned women.

The FBI has also been getting in on the photo-sharing gig, only its agents have been distributing child porn, allegedly in an effort to catch consumers of child porn. Curiously, the Department of Justice has opted to drop its case against a man accused of child pornography rather than be forced to disclose the FBI’s tactics for spying on suspected child porn consumers and entrapping them as part of its Operation Pacifier sting. What the case revealed was that for a little while, in its single-minded pursuit of lawbreakers, the FBI became a lawbreaker itself as the largest distributor of child pornography. All told, the FBI uploaded tens of thousands of images of child pornography to the “dark web.”

As reporter Bryan Clark points out:

At the intersection of technology and law, we’ve proven two things as the result of Operation Pacifier: 1. Government bodies have proven their willingness to circumvent — or even break — the law to capture suspected criminals it’s not even willing to prosecute. 2. We’re living in an age where — to agencies like the FBI — criminals and their victims are less important than the tools used to track them down. It’s hard to argue on the side of an alleged pedophile. But in this case, the FBI was the pedophile’s equal. It was the agency, you’ll recall, that disseminated these images to some 150,000 registered members… this means the FBI perpetrated the same heinous crime it attempted to charge others with, all while securing what could result in zero convictions.

Mind you, this was just one week of shootings, degradation, excessive force, abuse of power and complicity in the American police state. Magnify the impact of these events 52 times over, because they are taking place every week in this country, and you will find yourself weak at the knees.

Somewhere over the course of the past 240-plus years, democracy has given way to kleptocracy, and representative government has been rejected in favor of rule by career politicians, corporations and thieves—individuals and entities with little regard for the rights of American citizens.

This dissolution of that sacred covenant between the citizenry and the government—establishing “we the people” as the masters and the government as the servant—didn’t happen overnight. It didn’t happen because of one particular incident or one particular president. It is a process, one that began long ago and continues in the present day, aided and abetted by politicians who have mastered the polarizing art of how to “divide and conquer.”

Unfortunately, there is no magic spell to transport us back to a place and time where “we the people” weren’t merely fodder for a corporate gristmill, operated by government hired hands, whose priorities are money and power.

Our freedoms have become casualties in an all-out war on the American people.

As I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, this war is being fought on many fronts, with bullets and tasers, with surveillance cameras and license readers, with intimidation and propaganda, with court rulings and legislation, with the collusion of every bureaucrat on the government’s payroll, and most effectively of all, with the complicity of the American people, who continue to allow themselves to be easily manipulated by their politics, distracted by their pastimes, and acclimated to a world in which government corruption is the norm.

How do we stop the hemorrhaging?

Start by waking up. Pay attention to what’s going on around you. Most of all, think for yourself.

As H. L. Mencken observed:

The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable, and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it. And even if he is not romantic personally he is very apt to spread discontent among those who are.

WC: 2468

ABOUT JOHN W. WHITEHEAD

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book Battlefield America: The War on the American People (SelectBooks, 2015) is available online at http://www.amazon.com. Whitehead can be contacted at johnw@rutherford.org.

PUBLICATION GUIDELINES / REPRINT PERMISSION

John W. Whitehead’s weekly commentaries are available for publication to newspapers and web publications at no charge. Please contact staff@rutherford.org to obtain reprint permission.

 

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“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.”—“ Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture,” Institute for Justice

In jolly old England, Robin Hood stole from the rich to give to the poor.

In modern-day America, greedy government goons steal from the innocent to give to the corrupt under court- and legislature-sanctioned schemes called civil asset forfeiture. In fact, according to The Washington Post, “law enforcement took more stuff from people than burglars did.”

This is how the American police state continues to get rich: by stealing from the citizenry.

Here’s how the whole ugly business works in a nutshell.

First, government agents (usually the police) use a broad array of tactics to profile, identify, target and arrange to encounter (in a traffic stop, on a train, in an airport, in public, or on private property) those  individuals who might be traveling with a significant amount of cash or possess property of value. Second, these government agents—empowered by the courts and the legislatures—seize private property (cash, jewelry, cars, homes and other valuables) 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, without any charges being levied against the property owner, or any real due process afforded the unlucky victim, the property is forfeited to the government, which often divvies it up with the local police who helped with the initial seizure.

It’s a new, twisted form of guilt by association.

Only it’s not the citizenry being accused of wrongdoing, just their money.

What this adds up to is a paradigm in which Americans no longer have to be guilty to be stripped of their property, rights and liberties. All you have to be is in possession of something the government wants.

Motorists have been particularly vulnerable to this modern-day form of highway robbery.

For instance, police stole $201,000 in cash from Lisa Leonard because the money—which Leonard planned to use to buy a house for her son—was being transported on a public highway also used by drug traffickers. Despite the fact that Leonard was innocent of wrongdoing, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the theft on a technicality.

Police stole $50,000 in cash from Amanee Busbee—which she planned to use to complete the purchase of a restaurant—and threatened to hand her child over to CPS if she resisted. She’s one of the few to win most of her money back in court.

Police stole $22,000 in cash from Jerome Chennault—which he planned to use as the down payment on a home—simply because a drug dog had alerted police to its presence in his car. After challenging the seizure in court, Chennault eventually succeeded in having most of his money returned, although the state refused to compensate him for his legal and travel expenses.

Police stole $8,500 in cash and jewelry from Roderick Daniels—which he planned to use to purchase a new car—and threatened him with jail and money-laundering charges if he didn’t sign a waiver forfeiting his property.

Police stole $6,000 in cash from Jennifer Boatright and Ron Henderson and threatened to turn their young children over to Child Protective Services if they resisted.

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.

As the Huffington Post explains, these police forfeiture operations have become little more than criminal shakedowns:

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.

Unsurprisingly, these asset forfeiture scams have become so profitable for the government that they have expanded their reach beyond the nation’s highways.

According to USA Today, the U.S. Department of Justice received $2.01 billion in forfeited items in 2013, and since 2008 local and state law enforcement nationwide has raked in some $3 billion in forfeitures through the federal “equitable sharing” program.

So now it’s not just drivers who have to worry about getting the shakedown.

Any American unwise enough to travel with significant amounts of cash is fair game for the government pickpockets.

In fact, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has been colluding with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and local police departments to seize a small fortune in cash from American travelers using the very tools—scanners, spies and surveillance devices—they claimed were necessary to catch terrorists.

Mind you, TSA agents already have a reputation for stealing from travelers, but clearly the government is not concerned about protecting the citizenry from its own wolfish tendencies.

No, the government isn’t looking to catch criminals. It’s just out for your cold, hard cash.

As USA Today reports, although DEA agents have seized more than $203 million in cash in airports alone since 2006, they almost never make arrests or build criminal cases in connection to the seized cash.

For instance, DEA agents at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport stole $11,000 in cash from college student Charles Clarke—his entire life savings, in fact—simply because they claimed his checked suitcase smelled like marijuana. Apart from the sniff test, no drugs or evidence of criminal activity were found.

Christelle Tillerson was waiting to board a flight from Detroit to Chicago when DEA agents stole $25,000 in cash from her suitcase, money she planned to use to buy a truck. Tillerson was never arrested or charged

Joseph Rivers was traveling on an Amtrak train from Michigan to Los Angeles when police stole $16,000 in cash in a bank envelope—money the 22-year-old had saved up to produce a music when he arrived in Hollywood—based solely on their groundless suspicions that the money could have been associated with drugs.

How does the government know which travelers to target?

Through surveillance of Americans’ domestic travel records, by profiling train and airport passengers, and by relying on a “network of travel-industry informants that extends from ticket counters to back offices.” In one instance, the DEA actually promised to give a TSA security screener a reward for identifying luggage with large sums of cash: the more cash found, the bigger the reward.

Starting to notice a pattern?

First, the government claims it needs more powers and more weapons in order to fight crime and terrorism: the power to spy on Americans’ communications and travel; the ability to carry out virtual and actual strip searches of Americans’ luggage, persons and property; the authority to stop and interrogate travelers for any reason in the name of national security.

Then, when government agents have been given enough powers and weapons to transform them into mini-tyrants, they’re unleashed on an unsuspecting citizenry with few resources to be able to defend themselves or protect their property.

So much for those long-cherished ideals about the assumption of innocence and due process.

For example, the federal government 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.

Gerald and Royetta Ostipow had their Michigan farm and property seized, including a classic muscle car, and then sold by the local sheriff’s office. As USA Today reports:

The Ostipows were required to provide a $150,000 cash bond before they could begin the legal proceedings to contest the forfeiture and get their property back. But they couldn’t afford to. An appeals court later overturned the Ostipow’s hefty bond requirement… But the ruling didn’t stop the nightmare for the couple who were never charged with a crime. They still had to win a court case seeking the return of hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of property taken from the Ostipow’s rural Michigan home, including a cherished classic car. Eventually, an appeals court found that the property was wrongly forfeited. But it was too later to recover the car. With the odometer mysteriously bearing an additional 56,000 miles, police had already sold the car and spent the proceeds.

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.

Under a federal equitable sharing program, police turn asset forfeiture cases over to federal agents who process seizures and then return 80% of the proceeds to the police. Michigan police actually get to keep up to 100% of forfeited property.

This is what has become known as “policing for profit.”

According to USA Today, “Anecdotal evidence suggests that allowing departments to keep forfeiture proceeds may tempt them to use the funds unwisely. For example, consider a 2015 scandal in Romulus, Michigan, where police officers used funds forfeited from illicit drug and prostitution stings to pay for …  illicit drugs and prostitutes.”

Police agencies have also used their ill-gotten gains “to buy guns, armored cars and electronic surveillance gear,” reportsThe Washington Post. “They have also spent money on luxury vehicles, travel and a clown named Sparkles.”

So what’s to be done?

As I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, we are now ruled by a government so consumed with squeezing every last penny out of the population as to be completely unconcerned if essential freedoms are trampled in the process.

Our freedoms aren’t just being trampled, however.

They’re being eviscerated.

At every turn, “we the people” are getting swindled, cheated, conned, robbed, raided, pickpocketed, mugged, deceived, defrauded, double-crossed and fleeced by governmental and corporate shareholders of the American police state out to make a profit at taxpayer expense.

President Trump has made it clear his loyalties lie with the police, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has previously declared his love for civil asset forfeiture, the Supreme Court keeps marching in lockstep with the police state, and the police unions don’t want their gravy train to go away, so there’s not much hope for federal reform anytime soon.

As always, change will have to begin locally and move upwards.

Some state legislatures (Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Ohio) are beginning to push back against these clearly unconstitutional asset forfeiture schemes. As the National Review reports, “New Mexico now requires a criminal conviction before law enforcement can seize property, while police in Florida must prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that property is linked to a crime before it’s seized.”

More than legislative change, however, what we need is a change of mindset on the part of the citizenry. We need to stop acting like victims and start acting like citizens with rights.

Remember, 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.

Yet if the government can arbitrarily freeze, seize or lay claim to your property (money, land or possessions) under government asset forfeiture schemes, you have no true rights.

Enough is enough.

WC: 2345

ABOUT JOHN W. WHITEHEAD

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book Battlefield America: The War on the American People (SelectBooks, 2015) is available online at http://www.amazon.com. Whitehead can be contacted at johnw@rutherford.org.

PUBLICATION GUIDELINES / REPRINT PERMISSION

John W. Whitehead’s weekly commentaries are available for publication to newspapers and web publications at no charge. Please contact staff@rutherford.org to obtain reprint permission.

 

 

“The Fourth Amendment was designed to stand between us and arbitrary governmental authority. For all practical purposes, that shield has been shattered, leaving our liberty and personal integrity subject to the whim of every cop on the beat, trooper on the highway and jail official. The framers would be appalled.”—Herman Schwartz, The Nation

Trying to predict the outcome of any encounter with the police is a bit like playing Russian roulette: most of the time you will emerge relatively unscathed, although decidedly poorer and less secure about your rights, but there’s always the chance that an encounter will turn deadly.

The odds weren’t in Walter L. Scott’s favor. Reportedly pulled over for a broken taillight, Scott—unarmed—ran away from the police officer, who pursued and shot him from behind, first with a Taser, then with a gun. Scott was struck five times, “three times in the back, once in the upper buttocks and once in the ear — with at least one bullet entering his heart.”

Samuel Dubose, also unarmed, was pulled over for a missing front license plate. He was reportedly shot in the head after a brief struggle in which his car began rolling forward.

Levar Jones was stopped for a seatbelt offense, just as he was getting out of his car to enter a convenience store. Directed to show his license, Jones leaned into his car to get his wallet, only to be shot four times by the “fearful” officer. Jones was also unarmed.

Bobby Canipe was pulled over for having an expired registration. When the 70-year-old reached into the back of his truck for his walking cane, the officer fired several shots at him, hitting him once in the abdomen.

Dontrell Stevens was stopped “for not bicycling properly.” The officer pursuing him “thought the way Stephens rode his bike was suspicious. He thought the way Stephens got off his bike was suspicious.” Four seconds later, sheriff’s deputy Adams Lin shot Stephens four times as he pulled out a black object from his waistband. The object was his cell phone. Stephens was unarmed.

If there is any lesson to be learned from these “routine” traffic stops, it is that drivers should beware.

At a time when police can do no wrong—at least in the eyes of the courts, police unions and politicians dependent on their votes—and a “fear” for officer safety is used to justify all manner of police misconduct, “we the people” are at a severe disadvantage.

According to the Justice Department, the most common reason for a citizen to come into contact with the police is being a driver in a traffic stop. On average, one in 10 Americans gets pulled over by police. Black drivers are 31 percent more likely to be pulled over than white drivers, or about 23 percent more likely than Hispanic drivers. As the Washington Post concludes, “‘Driving while black’ is, indeed, a measurable phenomenon.”

As Sandra Bland learned the hard way, the reason for a traffic stop no longer matters. Bland, who was pulled over for allegedly failing to use her turn signal, was arrested after refusing to comply with the police officer’s order to extinguish her cigarette and exit her vehicle. The encounter escalated, with the officer threatening to “light” Bland up with his taser. Three days later, Bland was found dead in her jail cell.

You’re doing all of this for a failure to signal?” Bland asked as she got out of her car, after having been yelled at and threatened repeatedly. Had she only known, drivers have been pulled over for far less. Indeed, police officers have been given free range to pull anyone over for a variety of reasons.

This approach to traffic stops (what I would call “blank check policing,” in which the police get to call all of the shots) has resulted in drivers being stopped for windows that are too heavily tinted, for driving too fast, driving too slow, failing to maintain speed, following too closely, improper lane changes, distracted driving, screeching a car’s tires, and leaving a parked car door open for too long.

Motorists can also be stopped by police for driving near a bar or on a road that has large amounts of drunk driving, driving a certain make of car (Mercedes, Grand Prix and Hummers are among the most ticketed vehicles), having anything dangling from the rearview mirror (air fresheners, handicap parking permits, troll transponders or rosaries), and displaying pro-police bumper stickers.

Incredibly, a federal appeals court actually ruled unanimously in 2014 that acne scars and driving with a stiff upright posture are reasonable grounds for being pulled over. More recently, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that driving a vehicle that has a couple air fresheners, rosaries and pro-police bumper stickers at 2 MPH over the speed limit is suspicious, meriting a traffic stop.

Unfortunately for drivers, not only have traffic stops become potentially deadly encounters, they have also turned into a profitable form of highway robbery for the police departments involved.

As The Washington Post reports, “traffic stops for minor infractions such as speeding or equipment violations are increasingly used as a pretext for officers to seize cash from drivers.” Relying on federal and state asset forfeiture laws, police set up “stings” on public roads that enable them to stop drivers for a variety of so-called “suspicious” behavior, search their vehicles and seize anything of value that could be suspected of being connected to criminal activity. Since 2001, police have seized $2.5 billion from people who were not charged with a crime and without a warrant being issued.

“In case after case,” notes The Washington Post, “highway interdictors appeared to follow a similar script. Police set up what amounted to rolling checkpoints on busy highways and pulled over motorists for minor violations, such as following too closely or improper signaling. They quickly issued warnings or tickets. They studied drivers for signs of nervousness, including pulsing carotid arteries, clenched jaws and perspiration. They also looked for supposed ‘indicators’ of criminal activity, which can include such things as trash on the floor of a vehicle, abundant energy drinks or air fresheners hanging from rearview mirrors.”

If you’re starting to feel somewhat overwhelmed, intimidated and fearful for your life and your property, you should be. Never before have “we the people” been so seemingly defenseless in the face of police misconduct, lacking advocates in the courts and in the legislatures.

So how do you survive a police encounter with your life and wallet intact?

The courts have already given police the green light to pull anyone over for a variety of reasons. In an 8-1 ruling in Heien v. North Carolina, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that police officers can pull someone over based on a “reasonable” but mistaken belief about the law.

Of course, what’s reasonable to agents of the police state may be completely unreasonable to the populace. Nevertheless, the moment those lights start flashing and that siren goes off, we’re all in the same boat: we must pull over.

However, it’s what happens after you’ve been pulled over that’s critical. Survival is the key.

Technically, you have the right to remain silent (beyond the basic requirement to identify yourself and show your registration). You have the right to refuse to have your vehicle searched. You have the right to film your interaction with police. You have the right to ask to leave. You also have the right to resist an unlawful order such as a police officer directing you to extinguish your cigarette, put away your phone or stop recording them.

However, as Bland learned the hard way, there is a price for asserting one’s rights. “Faced with an authority figure unwilling to de-escalate the situation, Bland refused to be bullied or intimidated,” writes Boston Globe contributor Renee Graham. “She understood her rights, but for African-Americans in encounters with police, the appalling price for asserting even the most basic rights can be their lives.”

So if you don’t want to get probed, poked, pinched, tasered, tackled, searched, seized, stripped, manhandled, arrested, shot, or killed, don’t say, do or even suggest anything that even hints of noncompliance when it comes to interactions with police.

One police officer advised that if you feel as if you’re being treated unfairly, comply anyhow and contest it in court later. Similarly, black parents, advising their kids on how to deal with police, tell them to just obey the officer’s orders. “The goal,” as one parent pointed out, “is to stay alive.”

It seems that “comply or die” has become the new maxim for the American police state.

Then again, not even compliance is a guarantee of safety anymore. “Police are specialists in violence,” warns Kristian Williams, who has written extensively on the phenomenon of police militarization and brutality. “They are armed, trained, and authorized to use force. With varying degrees of subtlety, this colors their every action. Like the possibility of arrest, the threat of violence is implicit in every police encounter. Violence, as well as the law, is what they represent.”

In other words, in the American police state, “we the people” are at the mercy of law enforcement officers who have almost absolute discretion to decide who is a threat, what constitutes resistance, and how harshly they can deal with the citizens they were appointed to “serve and protect.”

Battlefield_Cover_300As I point out in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, this mindset that any challenge to police authority is a threat that needs to be “neutralized” is a dangerous one that is part of a greater nationwide trend that sets the police beyond the reach of the Fourth Amendment. Moreover, when police officers are allowed to operate under the assumption that their word is law and that there is no room for any form of disagreement or even question, that serves to chill the First Amendment’s assurances of free speech, free assembly and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Frankly, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a casual “show your ID” request on a boardwalk, a stop-and-frisk search on a city street, or a traffic stop for speeding or just to check your insurance. If you feel like you can’t walk away from a police encounter of your own volition—and more often than not you can’t, especially when you’re being confronted by someone armed to the hilt with all manner of militarized weaponry and gear—then for all intents and purposes, you’re under arrest from the moment a cop stops you.

Sad, isn’t it, how quickly we have gone from a nation of laws—where the least among us had just as much right to be treated with dignity and respect as the next person (in principle, at least)—to a nation of law enforcers (revenue collectors with weapons) who treat us all like suspects and criminals?

Clearly, the language of freedom is no longer the common tongue spoken by the citizenry and their government. With the government having shifted into a language of force, “we the people” have been reduced to suspects in a surveillance state, criminals in a police state, and enemy combatants in a military empire.

How can the life of such a man

Be in the palm of some fool’s hand?

To see him obviously framed

Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land

Where justice is a game.—Bob Dylan, “Hurricane

 

 

Justice in America is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Just ask Jeffrey Deskovic, who spent 16 years in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit. Despite the fact that Deskovic’s DNA did not match what was found at the murder scene, he was singled out by police as a suspect because he wept at the victim’s funeral (he was 16 years old at the time), then badgered over the course of two months into confessing his guilt. He was eventually paid $6.5 million in reparation.

James Bain spent 35 years in prison for the kidnapping and rape of a 9-year-old boy, but he too was innocent of the crime. Despite the fact that the prosecutor’s case was flimsy—it hinged on the similarity of Bain’s first name to the rapist’s, Bain’s ownership of a red motorcycle, and a misidentification of Bain in a lineup by a hysterical 9-year-old boy—Bain was sentenced to life in prison. He was finally freed after DNA testing proved his innocence, and was paid $1.7 million.

Mark Weiner got off relatively easy when you compare his experience to the thousands of individuals who are spending lifetimes behind bars for crimes they did not commit.

Weiner was wrongfully arrested, convicted, and jailed for more than two years for a crime he too did not commit. In his case, a young woman claimed Weiner had abducted her, knocked her out and then sent taunting text messages to her boyfriend about his plans to rape her. Despite the fact that cell phone signals, eyewitness accounts and expert testimony indicated the young woman had fabricated the entire incident, the prosecutor and judge repeatedly rejected any evidence contradicting the woman’s far-fetched account, sentencing Weiner to eight more years in jail. Weiner was only released after his accuser was caught selling cocaine to undercover cops.

In the meantime, Weiner lost his job, his home, and his savings, and time with his wife and young son. As Slate journalist Dahlia Lithwick warned, “If anyone suggests that the fact that Mark Weiner was released this week means ‘the system works,’ I fear that I will have to punch him in the neck. Because at every single turn, the system that should have worked to consider proof of Weiner’s innocence failed him.”

The system that should have worked didn’t, because the system is broken, almost beyond repair.

In courtroom thrillers like 12 Angry Men and To Kill a Mockingbird, justice is served in the end because someone—whether it’s Juror #8 or Atticus Finch—chooses to stand on principle and challenge wrongdoing, and truth wins.

Unfortunately, in the real world, justice is harder to come by, fairness is almost unheard of, and truth rarely wins.

On paper, you may be innocent until proven guilty, but in actuality, you’ve already been tried, found guilty and convicted by police officers, prosecutors and judges long before you ever appear in a courtroom.

Chronic injustice has turned the American dream into a nightmare.

At every step along the way, whether it’s encounters with the police, dealings with prosecutors, hearings in court before judges and juries, or jail terms in one of the nation’s many prisons, the system is riddled with corruption, abuse and an appalling disregard for the rights of the citizenry.

Due process rights afforded to a person accused of a crime—the right to remain silent, the right to be informed of the charges against you, the right to representation by counsel, the right to a fair trial, the right to a speedy trial, the right to prove your innocence with witnesses and evidence, the right to a reasonable bail, the right to not languish in jail before being tried, the right to confront your accusers, etc.—mean nothing when the government is allowed to sidestep those safeguards against abuse whenever convenient.

It’s telling that while President Obama said all the right things about the broken state of our criminal justice system—that we jail too many Americans for nonviolent crimes (we make up 5 percent of the world’s population, but our prison population constitutes nearly 25% of the world’s prisoners), that we spend more money on incarceration than any other nation ($80 billion a year), that we sentence people for longer jail terms than their crimes merit, that our criminal justice system is far from color-blind, that the nation’s school-to-prison pipeline is contributing to overcrowded jails, and that we need to focus on rehabilitation of criminals rather than retribution—he failed to own up to the government’s major role in contributing to this injustice in America.

Indeed, while Obama placed the responsibility for reform squarely in the hands of prosecutors, judges and police, he failed to acknowledge that they bear the burden of our failed justice system, along with the legislatures and corporations who have worked with them to create an environment that is hostile to the rights of the accused.

In such a climate, we are all the accused, the guilty and the suspect.

Battlefield_Cover_300As I document in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, we’re operating in a new paradigm where the citizenry are presumed guilty and treated as suspects, our movements tracked, our communications monitored, our property seized and searched, our bodily integrity disregarded, and our inalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” rendered insignificant when measured against the government’s priorities.

Every American is now in jeopardy of being targeted and punished for a crime he did not commit thanks to an overabundance of arcane laws. Making matters worse, by allowing government agents to operate above the law, immune from wrongdoing, we have created a situation in which the law is one-sided and top-down, used as a hammer to oppress the populace, while useless in protecting us against government abuse.

Add to the mix a profit-driven system of incarceration in which state and federal governments agree to keep the jails full in exchange for having private corporations run the prisons, and you will find the only word to describe such a state of abject corruption is “evil.”

How else do you explain a system that allows police officers to shoot first and ask questions later, without any real consequences for their misdeeds? Despite the initial outcry over the shootings of unarmed individuals in Ferguson and Baltimore, the pace of police shootings has yet to slow. In fact, close to 400 people were shot and killed by police nationwide in the first half of 2015, almost two shootings a day. Those are just the shootings that were tracked. Of those killed, almost 1 in 6 were either unarmed or carried a toy gun.

For those who survive an encounter with the police only to end up on the inside of a jail cell, waiting for a “fair and speedy trial,” it’s often a long wait. Consider that 60 percent of the people in the nation’s jails have yet to be convicted of a crime. There are 2.3 million people in jails or prisons in America. Those who can’t afford bail, “some of them innocent, most of them nonviolent and a vast majority of them impoverished,” will spend about four months in jail before they even get a trial.

Not even that promised “day in court” is a guarantee that justice will be served.

As Judge Alex Kozinski of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals points out, there are an endless number of factors that can render an innocent man or woman a criminal and caged for life: unreliable eyewitnesses, fallible forensic evidence, flawed memories, coerced confessions, harsh interrogation tactics, uninformed jurors, prosecutorial misconduct, falsified evidence, and overly harsh sentences, to name just a few.

In early 2015, the Justice Department and FBI “formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period…. The admissions mark a watershed in one of the country’s largest forensic scandals, highlighting the failure of the nation’s courts for decades to keep bogus scientific information from juries, legal analysts said.”

“How do rogue forensic scientists and other bad cops thrive in our criminal justice system?” asks Judge Kozinski. “The simple answer is that some prosecutors turn a blind eye to such misconduct because they’re more interested in gaining a conviction than achieving a just result.”

The power of prosecutors is not to be underestimated.

Increasingly, when we talk about innocent people being jailed for crimes they did not commit, the prosecutor plays a critical role in bringing about that injustice. As The Washington Post reports, “Prosecutors win 95 percent of their cases, 90 percent of them without ever having to go to trial…. Are American prosecutors that much better? No… it is because of the plea bargain, a system of bullying and intimidation by government lawyers for which they ‘would be disbarred in most other serious countries….’”

This phenomenon of innocent people pleading guilty makes a mockery of everything the criminal justice system is supposed to stand for: fairness, equality and justice. As Judge Jed S. Rakoff concludes, “our criminal justice system is almost exclusively a system of plea bargaining, negotiated behind closed doors and with no judicial oversight. The outcome is very largely determined by the prosecutor alone.”

It’s estimated that between 2 and 8 percent of convicted felons who have agreed to a prosecutor’s plea bargain (remember, there are 2.3 million prisoners in America) are in prison for crimes they did not commit.

Clearly, the Coalition for Public Safety was right when it concluded, “You don’t need to be a criminal to have your life destroyed by the U.S. criminal justice system.”

It wasn’t always this way. As Judge Rakoff recounts, the Founding Fathers envisioned a criminal justice system in which the critical element “was the jury trial, which served not only as a truth-seeking mechanism and a means of achieving fairness, but also as a shield against tyranny.”

That shield against tyranny has long since been shattered, leaving Americans vulnerable to the cruelties, vanities, errors, ambitions and greed of the government and its partners in crime.

There is not enough money in the world to make reparation to those whose lives have been disrupted by wrongful convictions.

Over the past quarter century, more than 1500 Americans have been released from prison after being cleared of crimes they did not commit. These are the fortunate ones. For every exonerated convict who is able to prove his innocence after 10, 20 or 30 years behind bars, Judge Kozinski estimates there may be dozens who are innocent but cannot prove it, lacking access to lawyers, evidence, money and avenues of appeal.

For those who have yet to fully experience the injustice of the American system of justice, it’s only a matter of time.

America no longer operates under a system of justice characterized by due process, an assumption of innocence, probable cause, and clear prohibitions on government overreach and police abuse. Instead, our courts of justice have been transformed into courts of order, advocating for the government’s interests, rather than championing the rights of the citizenry, as enshrined in the Constitution.

Without courts willing to uphold the Constitution’s provisions when government officials disregard them, and a citizenry knowledgeable enough to be outraged when those provisions are undermined, the Constitution provides little protection against the police state.

In other words, in this age of hollow justice, courts of order, and government-sanctioned tyranny, the Constitution is no safeguard against government wrongdoing such as SWAT team raids, domestic surveillance, police shootings of unarmed citizens, indefinite detentions, asset forfeitures, prosecutorial misconduct and the like.