Surrendering the Bill of Rights in the 21st Century

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Three stories I read today shared a common thread: the slow, but ubiquitous degradation of some fundamental freedoms in name of the modern police state. It began with a post over on bOINGbOING about police in America seizing citizens’ property for “suspected” involvement in narcotics trafficking. Cory Doctorow writes:

The story…revolves around the notorious town of Tenaha, TX, a small town on US 59 where a corrupt system allowed cops to pull over people — mostly brown people — and simply take away all their possessions: their cars, their cash, even the gold crosses around their necks.

I first ran across this issue on an episode of The Good Wife (of all places), and the type of search highlighted by the episode was given greater publicity when the Supreme Court ruled on a similar case earlier this year. It touches on a number of issues, but the story discussed by bOINGbOING is very much about the immoral seizure of property:

In general, you needn’t be found guilty to have your assets claimed by law enforcement; in some states, suspicion on a par with “probable cause” is sufficient. Nor must you be charged with a crime, or even be accused of one. Unlike criminal forfeiture, which requires that a person be convicted of an offense before his or her property is confiscated, civil forfeiture amounts to a lawsuit filed directly against a possession, regardless of its owner’s guilt or innocence.

If you’re driving down the road in one of these communities and get pulled over (for speeding or driving “too close to the white line” or whatever), and you’re black or brown, there’s a decent chance the police will attempt to confiscate your valuables:

Patterns began to emerge. Nearly all the targets had been pulled over for routine traffic stops. Many drove rental cars and came from out of state. None appeared to have been issued tickets. And the targets were disproportionately black or Latino. A finding of discrimination could bring judicial scrutiny. “It was a highway-piracy operation,” Guillory said.

It was after reading this story that I happened across Charles Pierce:

Almost all of the extra-constitutional atrocities attributed to the “war” on terror have their philosophical — and, in many cases, their literal — roots in the equally futile “war” on drugs. It was there where the Fourth and Fifth Amendments first took a beating similar to the one that Edward Snowden revealed they are currently enduring on the part of the NSA.

MARC CommutersThus, story No. 2: if you hadn’t heard the news, the Drug Enforcement Agency is “funneling information from intelligence intercepts, wiretaps, informants and a massive database of telephone records to authorities across the nation to help them launch criminal investigations of Americans.” In and of itself, this is crazy enough, but Pierce makes the necessary connection:

Consider how unremarkable drug-testing without probable cause — which is essentially both an unwarranted search and forcible testimony that might be incriminating — has become. Not even the Major League Baseball Players Association, the most powerful union in the country, can stand up against it any more.

For many of the people profiled in the New Yorker piece voluntarily surrendered their property. They did so because authorities threatened to charge them with felonies, or deportation, or said they would lose their kids. But this voluntary acquiescence to our modern police state is everywhere. Cue story No. 3 about the TSA’s new tactical teams:

The teams, which are typically composed of federal air marshals, explosives experts and baggage inspectors, move through crowds with bomb-sniffing dogs, randomly stop passengers and ask security questions. There is usually a specially trained undercover plainclothes member who monitors crowds for suspicious behavior, said Kimberly F. Thompson, a T.S.A. spokeswoman. Some team members are former members of the military and police forces.

The entire security theater apparatus we’ve established around travel in the United States is incredible. Here’s Digby:

But the effect of this isn’t, in the end, to make little old ladies feel safer by confiscating the 8oz bottle of Geritol in their handbagsIt’s to train citizens to submit to authorities without probable cause. That’s exactly what’s happened in airports, after all. Americans are so docile about it that people in other countries are astonished to see us taking off our shoes and otherwise disrobing at airport security without even being told. (They don’t have to.)

And so here we are, in 2013, going about our daily lives, wrapped in the protection of all our law enforcement personnel and no longer in the protection of the Bill of Rights.

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