Posts Tagged ‘u.s. supreme court’

“To the degree that we take away play, we deprive children of the ability to practise adulthood, and we create people who will go through life with a sense of dependence and victimisation, a sense that there is some authority out there who is supposed to tell them what to do and solve their problems. That is not a healthy way to live.” – psychologist Peter Gray

These days, it is far too easy to rattle off the outrageous examples of zero tolerance policy run amok in our nation’s schools. A 14-year-old student arrested for texting in class. Three middle school aged boys in Florida thrown to the ground by police officers wielding rifles, who then arrested them for goofing off on the roof of the school. A 9-year-old boy suspended for allegedly pointing a toy at a classmate and saying “bang, bang.” Two 6-year-old students in Maryland suspended for using their fingers as imaginary guns in a schoolyard game of cops and robbers. A 12-year-old New York student hauled out of school in handcuffs for doodling on her desk with an erasable marker. An 8-year-old boy suspended for making his hand into the shape of a gun, in violation of the school district’s policy prohibiting “playing with invisible guns.” A 17-year-old charged with a felony for keeping his tackle box in his car parked on school property, potentially derailing his chances of entering the Air Force. Two seventh graders in Virginia suspended for the rest of the school year for playing with airsoft guns in their own yard before school.

Thus, it’s tempting, when hearing about the 7-year-old suspended for chewing his Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun to chalk it up to an isolated example of school officials lacking in common sense. However, as I point out in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, these incidents are far from isolated, occurring as they have for the better part of the past 30 years under the guise of maintaining safety and security in the schools. They are part of a concerted, top-down approach to creating a generation of obedient worker-bees content to be directed, distracted and kept in line.

Despite a general consensus that zero tolerance policies have failed to have any appreciable impact on student safety, schools have doubled down on these policies to the detriment of children all across the nation. Indeed, the zero tolerance mindset is so entrenched among school administrators all over America that we are now seeing school officials reaching into the personal lives of students to police their behavior at all times. For example, 13,000 students in the Glendale Unified School District in California are now being subjected to constant social media monitoring by school officials. Superintendent Richard Sheehan has hired private firm Geo Listening to analyze the public social media posts of students both off and on campus. Whether on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, or any other social media platform, students will have their posts and comments analyzed for evidence of “bullying, cyber-bullying, hate and shaming activities, depression, harm and self harm, self hate and suicide, crime, vandalism, substance abuse and truancy.”

Unfortunately, the Glendale program is simply one component of a larger framework in which all student activity is treated as an open book by school administrators. What we are witnessing is a paradigm shift in American society, in which no personal activity is safe from the prying eyes of government agents and their corporate allies. Every decision and action, no matter how innocent, is scrutinized, analyzed, filed, stored, and eventually held against you when those in power feel like it.

When one pulls back the veil of zero tolerance, one can see the real culprit is the corporate-state, which has been meticulously applying the zero tolerance mindset to not just public schools in America, but our workplaces, our political forums, our social interactions and even our own homes. The end result is a society which is completely pacified and willing to march in lockstep with the corporate-state.

Government officials have worked hard to indoctrinate Americans into the belief that everything you do is suspect, and anything you do can be held against you at a later date. This mindset is clear in all aspects of society, from zero tolerance policies in our nation’s schools, to SWAT team raids in our neighborhoods, from the NSA’s surveillance of all Americans’ communications, to the corporate-state’s insistence that people aren’t capable of managing their own affairs. More and more people are becoming suspicious of others, quick to judge, and more than willing to follow the government’s dictates, however irrational and immoral they may be.

This manner of thinking has been slowly adopted by many Americans, but more worrisome is the manner in which it’s being foisted upon our nation’s youth. We are now living in an era in which childhood as it was once understood, a time to learn, to make mistakes, to try and fail, to try again and succeed, has been replaced by the worst elements of corporate and government culture. Children are treated as workers and prisoners, collected, corralled and controlled by teachers who increasingly act as bureaucrats, forced to fit every child into the exact same mold, regardless of their personal abilities and talents. This mindset is apparent among the proponents of the Common Core Testing Standards which threaten to unleash a new system of standardized testing on a new generation of kids.

As communications consultant Luba Vangelova has noted, the key attributes of a productive member of society are “a zest for life, creativity, perseverance, empathy, effective communication and the ability to cooperate with others. These are things that can’t be measured well – if at all – by tests.” Our obsession with testing leaves children without basic reasoning and analysis skills. They are taught to parrot information, rather than produce arguments. Their value is tied to letter grades and numbers.

Psychologist Peter Gray takes this criticism further, noting that children today are rarely allowed the opportunity to engage in undirected creative activity, also known as playing. Gray notes that since the 1960s, time for play has taken a backseat in the lives of children in favor of rigid curriculums revolving around high-stakes testing. Even sports, which were once simply games played on the fly by a mixed group of neighborhood kids, have taken on the rigidity of life in a factory or cubicle.  The obsession with quantifying childhood progress has gone so far that charter schools in DC are beginning to conduct high stakes testing for three and four year old children.

Over the same time period, incidences of childhood mental illness have steadily increased. The number of children and young adults suffering from major depression and generalized anxiety disorder have increased between five and eightfold since the 1950s. The suicide rate for 15 – 24 year olds has doubled, while the suicide rate for those under the age of 15 has quadrupled.

The rise in these mental illnesses is coupled with a decrease in empathy and an increase in narcissism in young people, indicating that their ability to work with others — as is necessary in a society — has been muted. We’re raising a generation of anxious individuals who expect their life’s direction to come to them from orders from above. In short, we’re creating a generation ingrained with an authoritarian mindset.

This authoritarian mindset is an unavoidable consequence of the American education system. Indeed, while so-called education reformers insist on more tests, pushing schools to emulate the Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean educational systems, they miss a big piece of the puzzle: educators in those countries consider their systems a failure. Despite performing better than American children on certain international standardized tests, Chinese educators have noted that Chinese students have also demonstrated a “lack of social and practical skills, absence of self-discipline and imagination, loss of curiosity and passion for learning.”

Despite this fact, states are pushing ahead with programs like Common Core, which not only threatens our children’s quality of education, but their privacy as well. A great deal of data will be collected under new guidelines proposed by the program. While the purposes of the data collection appear legitimate on their face, mainly focused on keeping track of student progress, we must keep in mind that we are living in the era of Big Data, in which information becomes currency between the government and their corporate benefactors. The data collected on students goes beyond test scores and includes “social security numbers, attendance records, records of interaction with school counselors, identification of learning disabilities, and even disciplinary records.” Of course, having all of this information about every misstep or mistake one has made through his whole life does not bode well in a society in which government and corporate authorities are happy to punish any minor mishap.

We are living in an era where every personal decision, such as where to work, where to shop, where to play, who to love, who to befriend, who to worship, what to believe, and what to say, is open to scrutiny by government officials and corporate managers. It’s a poisonous mentality for those hoping to preserve democracy, and it’s being foisted upon our children, whether in the form of bureaucrats fashioning one-size-fits-all educational standards, or police officers investigating innocent activities such as children playing in the street as possible crimes.

This situation will only get worse as our children are taught to accept the police state as normal. Between the regimes of zero tolerance, the surveillance of students both in school and in their homes, and the value placed in standardized testing over teaching analytical thinking skills, we are raising a generation which is being encouraged to adopt the authoritarian mindset which pollutes the minds of our government and corporate leaders. By allowing our children to be subject to the forces of the market and the dictates of the state, we are ensuring tyranny within a generation or two, if not sooner. — John W. Whitehead

“How far does a man have to go to be thought so dangerous that he needs to be locked away, physically separated from the rest of the world, behind stone walls and iron bars? Clearly, it is a last resort.”—Joe, Land of the Blind

In the Wachowskis’ iconic 1999 film, The Matrix, the protagonist Neo is wakened from a lifelong slumber by Morpheus, a freedom fighter seeking to liberate humans from virtual slavery—a lifelong hibernation state—imposed by hyper-advanced artificial intelligence machines. With their minds plugged into a perfectly crafted virtual reality, few humans ever realize they are living in a dream world to such an extent that most are willing to give their lives in order to preserve the system that enslaves them.

Sound familiar? It should, because as I make clear in my new book, A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State (available on Amazon.com and in stores), we too are living in a fantasy world carefully crafted to resemble a representative democracy, while in reality we are little more than slaves in thrall to an authoritarian regime, with its constant surveillance, manufactured media spectacles, secret courts, inverted justice, and violent repression of dissent. And for the few who dare to challenge the status quo such as Edward Snowden, they are assured of being branded either as conspiratorialists, alarmists, lunatics or outright traitors.

A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State by John W. Whitehead

Consider how quickly the government’s attack dogs went from defending the NSA’s warrantless mass surveillance of Americans’ phone calls to targeting and punishing any and all parties involved in the “leak” of sensitive information, including labeling Snowden a traitor, charging him with espionage and warning foreign governments against giving him refuge. Adding to the surreal drama, President Obama has begun preaching about the need for Americans to “trust” their government, insisting that the NSA’s surveillance is perfectly legal with no acknowledgment of the fact that the information leaked by Snowden shed much-needed light on government corruption, illicit programs and treachery on the part of our so-called representatives.

So well-oiled and interconnected are the cogs, wheels and gear shifts in our government machinery that it can be near to impossible to decipher where the fault lies when something goes awry. What some are slowly coming to realize, however, is that the mechanism itself has changed. Its purpose is no longer to keep our republic running smoothly. To the contrary, this particular contraption’s purpose is to keep the corporate police state in power. Thus, when hiccups, belches, whinges and jams arise, they are not being caused by the mechanism itself becoming faulty—its various parts are already a corrupt part of the whole. Rather, that’s the sound of someone jamming the mechanism and interrupting the smooth flow of the corporate state.

Just consider how insidious and incestuous the various “parts” of the mechanism have become.

Congress. Perhaps the most notorious offenders and most obvious culprits in the creation of the corporate-state, Congress has proven itself to be both inept and avaricious, oblivious champions of an authoritarian system that is systematically dismantling their constituents’ fundamental rights. Congress’ most grievous behavior, however, is its failure to bring the president to task, who for all intents and purposes now operates above the law. The precedent set during the Bush administration of Congressmen going along with senseless and illegal White House policies has turned the office of the president into an untouchable, unstoppable force.

The President. Despite having ridden into office on a wave of optimism and the promise of a new America free of civil liberties abuses, President Obama has proven to be a more effective manipulator of the American people than his predecessors. His presidency has been defined by “kill lists,” the murder of civilians in secret drone strikes, the assassination of American citizens, the continued operation of Guantanamo Bay, the championing of warrantless surveillance of American citizens, and most recently, the funneling of arms to al-Qaeda backed rebels in Syria.

The Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court—once the last refuge of justice, the one governmental body really capable of rolling back the slowly emerging tyranny enveloping America—has instead become the champion of the American police state, absolving government and corporate officials of their crimes while relentlessly punishing the average American for exercising his or her rights. Consider that in the past month alone, the justices have determined that criminal suspects, who are supposed to be treated as innocent until proven guilty, may have their DNA forcibly extracted from them by police. They have decided that staying silent while the police question you may be considered evidence of guilt, despite the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination and the well-established “right to remain silent.” Finally, the Court has decided that it operates in a zone in which First Amendment protections cease to exist, as they have unilaterally barred protests outside the Supreme Court building, countering a federal court decision that determined that activities on the Supreme Court grounds are protected by the First Amendment. These are just three examples of a Court that, like the rest of the government, places profit, security, and convenience above our basic rights.

The Media. Of course, this triumvirate of total control would be completely ineffective without a propaganda machine provided by the world’s largest corporations. Besides shoving drivel down our throats at every possible moment, the so-called news agencies which are supposed to act as bulwarks against government propaganda have instead become the mouthpieces of the state. One need only look at the media’s behavior post-9/11 to understand what I mean. From championing the invasion of Iraq based upon absolute fabrications, to the fanatic support of all surveillance state policies and the demonization of whistle blowers like Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, the pundits which pollute our airwaves are at best court jesters and at worst propagandists for the false reality created by the American government.

The American People. Of course, the most superior engine in the world still requires some form of energy to bring it to life and maintain it, and in this particular mechanism, “we the people” serve that vital function. We are the petrol that powers the motor, for good or bad. We now belong to a permanent underclass in America. It doesn’t matter what you call us—chattel, slaves, worker bees, drones, it’s all the same—what matters is that we are expected to march in lockstep with and submit to the will of the state in all matters, public and private.

Through our complicity in matters large and small, we have allowed an out-of-control corporate-state apparatus to take over every element of American society. Our failure to remain informed about what is taking place in our government, to know and exercise our rights, to vocally protest, to demand accountability on the part of our government representatives, and at a minimum to care about the plight of our fellow Americans has been our downfall. Having allowed ourselves to descend into darkness, refusing to see what is really happening, happily trading the truth for false promises of security and freedom, we have allowed the police state to emerge and to flourish.

Having started with The Matrix, allow me to conclude with a woefully overlooked film, Land of the Blind (2006), a dark political satire in which tyrannical rulers are overthrown by new leaders who prove to be just as bad, if not worse. In the film, citizens perceived as questioning the state are sent to “re-education camps” where the state’s concept of reality is drummed into their heads. Joe, a prison guard, is so impressed with a political prisoner Thorne that he eventually joins a coup to unseat the present dictator and replace him with Thorne. Before long, however, Joe becomes the target of the new government and comes to realize that the old boss is the same as the new boss.

In an age of governmental doublespeak, media obfuscation, and insidious subterfuge on all sides, it can at times be hard to know who is working for whom, and which side the “good guys,” if there are any, are really on. When in doubt, just remember what Orwell had to say about the matter in Animal Farm: “Four legs good, two legs bad.”

Declaring a federal ban on expressive activity on the U.S. Supreme Court plaza to be “repugnant” to the Constitution, a District of Columbia federal court has struck down a 60-year-old statute which broadly prohibits speech and expression in front of the United States Supreme Court.

The court’s ruling comes in response to a lawsuit filed by The Rutherford Institute on behalf of Harold Hodge, a 46-year-old African-American man who was arrested in January 2011 while standing silently in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building wearing a sign voicing his concerns about the government’s disparate treatment of African-Americans and Hispanics. In a ruling issued in Hodge v. Talkin, et al., District Court Judge Beryl L. Howell struck down a federal law that makes it unlawful to display any flag, banner or device designed to bring into public notice a party, organization, or movement while on the grounds of the U.S. Supreme Court, declaring that the “the absolute prohibition on expressive activity [on the Supreme Court plaza] in the statute is unreasonable, substantially overbroad, and irreconcilable with the First Amendment.”

Judge Howell’s frank, no-holds-barred ruling affirming the Supreme Court plaza as a free speech zone throws a lifeline to the First Amendment at a time when government officials are doing their best to censor, silence and restrict free speech activities. There are a good many things that are repugnant to the Constitution right now—mass surveillance of Americans, roadside strip searches, forcible DNA extractions, SWAT team raids, civil commitments for criticizing the government, etc.—but this ruling at least sends a message that all is not lost as long as we still have some members of the judiciary who understand and abide by both the letter and the spirit of the rule of law, our U.S. Constitution.

The case began on January 28, 2011, Harold Hodge quietly and peacefully stood in the plaza area near the steps leading to the United States Supreme Court Building, wearing a 3’ X 2’ sign around his neck that proclaimed: “The U.S. Gov. Allows Police To Illegally Murder And Brutalize African Americans And Hispanic People.” The plaza is a place where the public is allowed to gather and converse and is in all relevant respects like a public square or park where citizens have traditionally met to express their views on matters of public interest. However, Hodge was approached by a police officer who informed him that he was violating the law and issued him three warnings to leave the plaza. Hodge refused, was handcuffed, placed under arrest for violating 40 U.S.C. § 6135, moved to a holding cell, and then was transported to U.S. Capitol Police Headquarters where he was booked and given a citation. The charge was dismissed in September 2011 after Hodge complied with an agreement to stay away from the Supreme Court building and grounds for six months.

In asking the U.S. District Court to declare 40 U.S.C. § 6135 unconstitutionally vague and overbroad in violation of the First Amendment, Rutherford Institute attorneys argued that absolute prohibition on speech and expression on the Supreme Court plaza is unreasonable and unnecessary to protect any legitimate governmental interest with respect to the Court or its proceedings. Affiliate attorney Jeffrey Light assisted The Rutherford Institute in securing the victory for Hodge.

In a devastating ruling handed down in Maryland v. King, a divided U.S. Supreme Court has approved the practice by police of forcefully obtaining DNA samples from individuals arrested for serious crimes, even though they are presumed innocent, without first obtaining a search warrant.

Any American who thinks they’re safe from the threat of DNA sampling, blood draws, and roadside strip and/or rectal or vaginal searches simply because they’ve ‘done nothing wrong,’ needs to wake up to the new reality in which we’re now living. As the Supreme Court’s ruling in Maryland v. King shows, the mindset of those in the highest seats of power—serving on the courts, in the White House, in Congress—is a utilitarian one that has little regard for the Constitution, let alone the Fourth Amendment. Like Justice Scalia, all I can hope is that “today’s incursion upon the Fourth Amendment” will someday be repudiated.

As Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the dissent, points out, the Court’s ruling succeeds only in burdening “the sole group for whom the Fourth Amendment’s protections ought to be most jealously guarded: people who are innocent of the State’s accusations.” Moreover, if such a dubious practice were to prevail simply for the sake of “solving more crimes,” as Scalia suggests, it would not take much to justify the “taking of DNA samples from anyone who flies on an airplane (surely the Transportation Security Administration needs to know the “identity” of the flying public), applies for a driver’s license, or attends a public school.”

In 2009, Maryland police arrested Alonzo Jay King Jr. on charges of assault. Relying on a state law which authorizes DNA collection from people arrested but not yet convicted of a crime, police carried out a cheek swab on King to obtain his DNA profile without first procuring a warrant. The DNA sample was then matched up against a database which identified him as having allegedly been involved in a 2003 rape. King was then convicted of the 2003 crime. On appeal, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled in April 2012 that the state law violated the Fourth Amendment. In an unusual move, in July 2012, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts issued a stay of the lower court’s ruling, prior to the Court’s even agreeing to hear the case, using the rationale that collecting DNA from people accused of serious crimes is “an important feature of day-to-day law enforcement practice in approximately half the states and the federal government.”

In agreeing to hear the case, the Supreme Court was asked to determine whether the Fourth Amendment allowed law enforcement officials to collect DNA from people who have merely been arrested and so are presumed innocent. Yet  the Court’s subsequent 5-4 ruling which equates forcefully obtaining a DNA sample to “fingerprinting and photographing, a legitimate police booking procedure that is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment,” further guts an already severely disemboweled Fourth Amendment. Justices Anthony Kennedy, John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito affirmed the practice of warrantless DNA grabs by the police. Issuing a strongly worded dissent were Justices Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Maryland v. King is available at http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/12pdf/12-207_d18e.pdf.

For more on these issues, read my new book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State which paints a chilling portrait of a nation in the final stages of transformation into a police state, complete with surveillance cameras, drug-sniffing dogs, SWAT team raids, roadside strip searches, blood draws at DUI checkpoints, mosquito drones, tasers, privatized prisons, GPS tracking devices, zero tolerance policies, overcriminalization, and free speech zones.

“The First Amendment was intended to secure something more than an exercise in futility.”—Justice John Paul Stevens, dissenting in Minnesota Board for Community Colleges v. Knight (1984)

Living in a representative democracy such as ours means that each person has the right to stand outside the halls of government and express his or her opinion on matters of state without fear of arrest. That’s what the First Amendment is all about.

It gives every American the right to “petition the government for a redress of grievances.” It ensures, as Adam Newton and Ronald K.L. Collins report for the Five Freedoms Project, “that our leaders hear, even if they don’t listen to, the electorate. Though public officials may be indifferent, contrary, or silent participants in democratic discourse, at least the First Amendment commands their audience.”

As Newton and Collins elaborate:

“Petitioning” has come to signify any nonviolent, legal means of encouraging or disapproving government action, whether directed to the judicial, executive or legislative branch. Lobbying, letter-writing, e-mail campaigns, testifying before tribunals, filing lawsuits, supporting referenda, collecting signatures for ballot initiatives, peaceful protests and picketing: all public articulation of issues, complaints and interests designed to spur government action qualifies under the petition clause, even if the activities partake of other First Amendment freedoms.

Unfortunately, through a series of carefully crafted legislative steps, our government officials—both elected and appointed—have managed to disembowel this fundamental freedom, rendering it with little more meaning than the right to file a lawsuit against government officials. In the process, government officials have succeeded in insulating themselves from their constituents, making it increasingly difficult for average Americans to make themselves seen or heard by those who most need to hear what “we the people” have to say.

Indeed, while lobbyists mill in and out of the homes and offices of Congressmen, the American people are kept at a distance through free speech zones, electronic town hall meetings, and security barriers. And those who dare to breach the gap—even through silent forms of protest—are arrested for making their voices heard. The case of Harold Hodge is a particularly telling illustration of the way in which the political elite in America have sheltered themselves from all correspondence and criticism.

On a snowy morning on January 24, 2011, Harold Hodge walked to the plaza in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building with a sign around his neck. The 3’ x 2’ placard read: “The U.S. Gov. allows police to illegally murder and brutalize African Americans and Hispanic people.” Hodge, a 45-year-old African-American, stood silently at attention in front of the building displaying his message. There weren’t many passersby, and he wasn’t blocking anyone’s way. However, after a few minutes, Hodge was approached by a police officer for the Supreme Court. The officer informed Hodge that he was violating a law prohibiting expressive activity in and around the Supreme Court building and asked him to leave.

According to federal law (U.S. Code 40 U.S.C. § 6135), “It is unlawful to parade, stand, or move in processions or assemblages in the Supreme Court Building or grounds, or to display in the Building and grounds a flag, banner, or device designed or adapted to bring into public notice a party, organization, or movement.” The penalty for violating this law is a fine of up to $5,000 and/or up to 60 days in jail.

Hodge, steadfast in his commitment to peaceably exercise his right to assemble and petition his government, politely refused. Over the course of some 35 minutes, several more police officers gathered and began to slowly circle Hodge. After ordering Hodge two more times to disperse, the officers placed Hodge under arrest, handcuffing his hands behind his back and leading him to a holding cell within the Supreme Court building.

Hodge is not the only person to be arrested for demonstrating in front of the Supreme Court building. Not long ago, 14 anti-death penalty demonstrators were arrested for unfurling a banner on the Supreme Court steps. In October 2011, Dr. Cornel West, the Princeton University philosopher and activist, was arrested on the steps of the Supreme Court while protesting the influence of corporate money on the political process. In January 2008, 34 demonstrators protesting the indefinite detention of inmates at Guantanamo Bay were arrested for demonstrating outside the Supreme Court. D.C. Superior Court Judge Wendell P. Gardner Jr. stated that most of those demonstrators would be sentenced to probation, but that he would perhaps jail those who had prior convictions for civil disobedience so that they would stop doing “the same thing over and over.”

This desire to insulate government officials from those exercising their First Amendment rights stems from an elitist mindset which views them as different, set apart somehow, from the people they have been appointed to serve and represent. It is nothing new.

The law under which Harold Hodge was prosecuted was enacted by Congress in 1949. Since then, interactions with politicians have become increasingly manufactured and distant. Press conferences and televised speeches now largely take the place of face-to-face interaction with constituents. For example, in 2011, 60 percent of Congressmen did not schedule a town hall meeting with their constituents during their summer recess. Other Congressmen, such as Rep. Paul Ryan (R – WI), held luncheons instead, charging $10 to $35 per admission ticket. Meanwhile, politicians in Virginia have considered changing the meeting rules for their public officials, making it possible for officials to “meet” electronically or by phone, thus eliminating the two-way dialogues and face-to-face interactions that are inherent to a physical meeting.

Additionally, there has been an increased use of so-called “free speech zones,” designated areas for expressive activity used to corral and block protestors at political events from interacting with public officials. George W. Bush used “free speech zones” excessively during his first term as president and both the Democratic and Republican parties have used them at various conventions to mute any and all criticism of their policies.

Perhaps the most egregious instance of imposing a free speech zone upon protesters came in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention. It was there that Boston Police constructed a cage of jersey walls and chain link fences out of sight of the convention center into which protesters were huddled. After seeing the designated area, Judge Douglas Woodlock stated, “One cannot conceive of other elements put in place to make a space more of an affront to the idea of free expression than the designated demonstration zone.” Such an area is obviously not designed to respect the American people’s right to free speech and to peaceably assemble and petition their government officials.

Clearly, the government has no interest in hearing what “we the people” have to say. Indeed, what we’re dealing with is a government that wants its citizenry to remain deaf, mute and blind—ignorant about the violations of their rights taking place daily and incapable of voicing their discontent. Thankfully, we still have the First Amendment, which ensures that Americans can speak freely, assemble and petition their government for a redress of grievances. However, these freedoms are only relevant as long as people like Harold Hodge continue to exercise their rights and hold the government accountable when it attempts to undermine or do away with those rights.

In other words, if Americans are not able to peacefully assemble outside of the halls of government for expressive activity, the First Amendment has lost all meaning. If we cannot stand silently outside of the Supreme Court or the Capitol or the White House, our ability to hold the government accountable for its actions is threatened, and so are the rights and liberties which we cherish as Americans.

That’s where Harold Hodge comes in. With the help of The Rutherford Institute, Hodge is now challenging the constitutionality of the statute barring silent expressive activity in front of the Supreme Court. It will be an uphill battle, given that it challenges the domain of the elite, but it’s a battle that must be fought. The government has already filed motions asking that the case be dismissed.

The Supreme Court has already dismissed one challenge to the law. In United States v. Grace (1983), a case challenging the ban on expressive activity in front of the Supreme Court, the justices ruled that “[t]he Court grounds are not transformed into ‘public forum’ property merely because the public is permitted to freely enter and leave the grounds at practically all times and is admitted to the building during specified hours.”

Hopefully, freedom will win out in the end. As Justice John Paul Stevens noted in his dissent in Minnesota Board for Community Colleges v. Knight (1984):

We need not consider whether executives or legislators have any constitutional obligation to listen to unsolicited advice to decide this case. It is inherent in the republican form of government that high officials may choose—in their own wisdom and at their own peril—to listen to some of their constituents and not to others. But the First Amendment does guarantee an open marketplace for ideas—where divergent points of view can freely compete for the attention of those in power and of those to whom the powerful must account…

There can be no question but that the First Amendment secures the right of individuals to communicate with their government. And the First Amendment was intended to secure something more than an exercise in futility—it guarantees a meaningful opportunity to express one’s views. For example, [the Supreme] Court has recognized that the right to forward views might become a practical nullity if government prohibited persons from banding together to make their voices heard. Thus, the First Amendment protects freedom of association because it makes the right to express one’s views meaningful. — John W. Whitehead

In yet another victory for the Fourth Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in Missouri v. McNeely that police may not forcibly take blood from a drunk driving suspect without a warrant. Insisting that the Fourth Amendment requires judicial authorization for such drastic action except in emergency situations, the Court rejected arguments by state officials asking it to establish a per se rule that all cases of drunk driving present “exigent circumstances” allowing police to extract blood from a suspect without a warrant.

The Rutherford Institute filed an amicus curiae brief in the case on behalf of Tyler McNeely, who was forced to give a blood sample after being arrested on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. Although McNeely refused to submit to a blood test, the arresting officer ordered hospital personnel to extract his blood anyway and test it for alcohol levels. In weighing in on the case, Rutherford Institute attorneys argued that the state’s interests in ensuring public safety and discouraging drunk driving could have been realized in a manner that secured the desired blood alcohol evidence while at the same time protecting McNeely’s constitutional rights in keeping with the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement and prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures.

In accord with the Institute’s brief, the Supreme Court’s majority opinion held that forced extraction of a person’s blood is “an invasion of bodily integrity [that] implicates an individual’s most personal and deep-rooted expectations of privacy” and, absent some emergency, should not be allowed unless a judge has found probable cause to justify the intrusion.

While public safety is of great concern, especially when it comes to serious offenses such as driving under the influence of alcohol, Americans’ constitutional rights cannot be wholly discounted and conveniently discarded. This case has far-reaching implications that go beyond one man’s run-in with the police. The Supreme Court is to be commended for recognizing that if we allow government agents broad powers to invade our bodies without consent or court order, the bodily integrity of all persons in the United States will be in serious jeopardy.

The case arose out of an incident that took place in in October 2010 when Tyler McNeely was stopped by a Missouri state highway patrolman. Based upon his behavior, the patrolman suspected that McNeely was intoxicated. The patrolman led McNeely through a series of field sobriety tests and based upon the results, arrested him for drunk driving. After McNeely refused to submit to a breathalyzer test, the patrolman took him to a nearby hospital in order to secure a sample of his blood and test it for alcohol levels. Although McNeely refused to consent to a blood test, the patrolman ordered a hospital lab technician to take a blood sample from McNeely. At no point did the officer attempt to obtain a warrant authorizing the extraction.

In weighing in on the case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Rutherford Institute attorneys stressed that forcible bodily intrusions of the kind inflicted on McNeely are among the most serious abuses of government authority which the Fourth Amendment was meant to forbid, and that such intrusions should be allowed only in extremely urgent circumstances. Institute attorneys also noted that enforcement of drunk driving laws does not suffer when warrants for blood extraction are required, many of which can be obtained within a relatively short time, often within 30 minutes of an arrest. — John W. Whitehead

“A body of men holding themselves accountable to nobody ought not to be trusted by anybody.”―Thomas Paine

At a time when the courts are increasingly giving deference to the police and prioritizing security over civil liberties, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Millbrook v. United States is a glimmer of hope in a sea of gloom.

Handed down on the second day of the Court’s same-sex marriage arguments, Millbrook has been largely overshadowed by the debate over marriage equality. However, this ruling should not be overlooked—not only for what it says about the need to hold law enforcement officials accountable to abiding by the law, but more importantly for what it says about the extent to which the government has given itself free rein to abuse the law, immune from reproach.

In its ruling in Millbrook v. United States, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court concluded that the U.S. government may be held liable for abuses intentionally carried out by law enforcement officers—whether they’re police officers or prison guards—in the course of their employment. Critics of the government’s tactics hope the Court’s ruling 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 and holding them accountable to respecting citizens’ rights, especially while on the job.

The facts in Millbrook are particularly egregious.

Kim Lee Millbrook is serving a 31-year sentence, reportedly for drug and gun-related charges along with witness intimidation. On March 1, 2010, Millbrook was transferred to a high-security federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., which specializes in dealing with inmates who are highly disruptive and difficult to manage, including gang leaders. On March 4, 2010, a few days after being installed at the Special Management Unit (SMU) in Lewisburg, Millbrook and his cellmate got into a fight and were temporarily placed in a shower area. Then, according to Millbrook, three prison guards escorted him to the basement holding-cell area, where one guard choked him until he almost lost consciousness and a second guard made Millbrook perform oral sex on him, while a third guard stood watch by the door. Conveniently, no video cameras were monitoring the basement at the time of the alleged assault.

Although Millbrook claims the guards threatened to kill him if he reported the incident, he filed a complaint with prison officials, which then led to a formal investigation. During the course of the investigation, a prison physician determined that Millbrook did not show signs of having been choked, a prison psychologist concluded that Millbrook did not exhibit trauma consistent with a sexual assault, and the prison guards and Millbrook’s cellmate all testified to having no knowledge of any such assault taking place against him. Prison officials also noted that Millbrook had filed a similar complaint against guards at his previous prison, which was eventually dismissed when the charges could not be substantiated.

A non-lawyer relatively well-versed in navigating the legal system, Millbrook turned to the courts for relief in January 2011, suing the federal government for $1.5 million in damages for negligence, assault and battery and requesting a transfer out of the Lewisburg facility.

Neither the federal district court nor the Third Circuit Court of Appeals proved to be receptive to Millbrook’s argument that the prison guards should be held liable under a provision of the Federal Torts Claim Act (FTCA), which allows individuals to sue federal law enforcement officials for misconduct. As reporter Ailsa Chang explains:

Under the law, the government allows itself to be sued when a government representative commits a tort. A tort is an act done negligently or intentionally that results in injury to someone. However, if the tort was intentional, the law does not allow the lawsuit to proceed — except in cases where the defendant is a law enforcement official. And even in those cases, the federal government can be liable only if the officer was acting “within the scope of his office or employment.”

Although both courts noted that the prison guards’ alleged behavior was troubling, they ducked the issue and dismissed the case on the grounds that the federal government has sovereign immunity—that is, although an egregious wrong may have been committed by a government employee, they cannot be held liable for money damages for their behavior. Specifically, the courts reasoned that the FTCA only applies to “police officers” while they are in the process of making an arrest or seizure, or executing a search.

Undeterred, Millbrook filed a handwritten petition, in pencil no less, to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in a rare show of magnanimity, the Court agreed to hear his case and assigned a lawyer to represent him. Curiously enough, after the Court announced it could hear the case, the U.S. Justice Department—which had defended the government’s actions at every level of the judicial proceedings, including asking the Supreme Court not to take the case—did an about-face and switched its position to argue that the FTCA does apply to prison guards as law-enforcement officials.

The Supreme Court’s subsequent ruling, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, is a technical analysis of the FTCA, to whom it applies and in what circumstances. The bottom line, according to the nine justices in a rare show of agreement, is that the lower courts misconstrued the FTCA, which clearly provides for the government to be held accountable for wrongdoing carried out by law enforcement officials in its employ while on the job. (Although even the FTCA, it must be said, is notable for the many exceptions it provides to shield government officials from wrongdoing.)

Having been given the green light for his lawsuit to proceed, Millbrook still has an uphill battle ahead of him. Indeed, Millbrook has to prove to the lower courts that he was, in fact, sexually assaulted by the guards. Whether or not his allegations prove to be true, however, his case is a painful reminder that such kinds of abuses are not only par for the course in our nation’s overcrowded prisons but are often tolerated by prison officials.

Inmate Jens Soering’s insightful book One Day in the Life of 179212: Notes from an American Prison (Lantern Books, 2012), with its accounts of therapeutic beatings, rapes and the sense that one is in constant peril, may be the most vivid first-person portrait of the failure of America’s penal system to date. As Soering writes:

“Repeated anonymous surveys have determined that 20 percent of all inmates are forced to have sex each year, and 10 percent are violently raped. The overwhelming majority of these crimes are never reported: a silence maintained out of fear of retaliation from the perpetrators and because of the indifference of prison officials.  In 2004, only 8,210 sexual assaults were documented, even though correctional experts testifying at a U.S. Senate hearing in 2003 estimated the actual number of cases to range from 250,000 to 600,000per year.”

The question that we must ask ourselves is what kind of government not only turns a blind eye to such abuses but absolves itself of any responsibility for righting such wrongs?

The answer is a government whose system of “checks and balances” has given way to a concerted effort by all branches of the government, including the courts, to maintain their acquired powers at all costs. Looked at from this perspective, while Millbrook was, indeed, a welcome respite from the Supreme Court’s usual practice of giving law enforcement officials a “get out of jail free” card, it may prove in the long run to be little more than a bone tossed to a dog, a small concession amidst a sea of abuses.

Jeff Bucholtz, the lawyer who argued against Millbrook and in favor of government immunity, didn’t appear to view the ruling as much of a loss. Responding to the assertion that the Millbrook ruling ensures that the “government now has a direct pocketbook interest in stopping this kind of behavior,” Bucholtz pointed out that “FTCA judgments are paid by an unlimited fund provided by Congress, so it doesn’t hurt prison guards or their supervisors when judgments are paid out under the statute.”

In other words, it’s just business as usual, with the taxpayer forced to pay the penalty for the government’s misdeeds. In days gone by, this payment to right a wrong was called “blood money,” and it was paid by the guilty party to his victim. Could it be that the government has managed to slip the noose from around its own neck, leaving us to hang for the crime—figuratively speaking, of course? — 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

Talk about freedom going to the dogs…

In a 9-0 decision in Florida v. Harris, the U.S. Supreme Court has declared that police may use drug-sniffing dogs to carry out warrantless searches during routine traffic stops, despite the fact that published scientific studies show that drug dog alerts are wrong as much as 56% of the time, and are heavily influenced by the biases of the dog’s handler.

This ruling undercuts the entire basis of the Fourth Amendment, which was designed to protect us from unreasonable searches and seizures. When dog sniffs, which have proven to be unreliable, are considered probable cause for police to search your property without a warrant—whether it’s your home, your car or your person—then none of our rights are secure.

As CBS News points out, “The irony in this case, Florida v. Harris, is that the trained narcotics dog (named Aldo) did not find the drugs he was trained to find when he prompted an officer to search Clayton Harris’ truck.”

The case began in June 2006, when a Florida county sheriff stopped a vehicle driven by Clayton Harris for an expired license tag. When Harris refused the sheriff’s request for consent to search his vehicle, a drug-detection dog was deployed and conducted a “free air sniff” of the exterior of the vehicle. When the dog alerted to the door handle on the driver’s side, the officer conducted a warrantless search of the interior of the vehicle. Although the search didn’t turn up anything the dog was trained to find, the officer reportedly found pseudoephedrine and materials used for making methamphetamine.

Harris was arrested and charged.

Two months later, Harris was once again pulled over in his vehicle by the same police officer and drug-sniffing dog. Once again the dog “alerted,” and once again the search failed to turn up anything for which the dog was trained to find. Only this time, nothing of interest was found whatsoever.

In court, Harris’ attorneys moved to suppress the evidence found as a result of the search of his vehicle, asserting that the search violated the Fourth Amendment. The trial court denied the motion to suppress. The Florida Supreme Court granted the motion on appeal, however, ruling that the state’s claim that the dog was trained and certified to detect narcotics, standing alone, is not sufficient to establish the dog’s reliability for purposes of determining probable cause. The court held that the state has the burden of showing the officer had a reasonable basis for believing the dog was reliable by presenting evidence on matters such as training field performance records.

In asking the U.S. Supreme Court to affirm the lower court’s ruling, The Rutherford Institute documented empirical research showing dog alerts are not inherently reliable. One recent study at the University of California—Davis, showed that in a test where handlers were told drugs might be found at the test site, but no drugs were present, dogs gave false positive alerts an astonishing 85% of the time. The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to rule on a related case, Florida v. Jardines, which challenges the use of drug-sniffing dogs by police to carry out warrantless searches of private homes. The Rutherford Institute also filed an amicus brief in Florida v. Jardines. — John W. Whitehead