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Archive for the ‘Civil Liberties’ Category

The New York Times had piece this weekend on the IRS and asset forfeiture:

Using a law designed to catch drug traffickers, racketeers and terrorists by tracking their cash, the government has gone after run-of-the-mill business owners and wage earners without so much as an allegation that they have committed serious crimes. The government can take the money without ever filing a criminal complaint, and the owners are left to prove they are innocent. Many give up.

In the kind of logic that only passes as logic when backed with the authority of the state:

Under the Bank Secrecy Act, banks and other financial institutions must report cash deposits greater than $10,000. But since many criminals are aware of that requirement, banks also are supposed to report any suspicious transactions, including deposit patterns below $10,000.

So deposits of over $10,000 are suspicious. Since criminals know that, deposits of under $10,000 are also suspicious. And suspicion—not proof of a criminal act—is sufficient for a seizure warrant. You can prove your innocence, of course. But that can be a daunting challenge once you have been stripped of your resources.

The one consolation—as of today, the IRS doesn’t have drones.

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A Fond Farewell

Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. is on his way out the door, and the New York Times Editorial Board has a lengthy farewell. Please read it in its entirety, because you will need to work through ten paragraphs before you arrive at this:

Under Mr. Holder, the Justice Department approved the targeted killing of civilians, including Americans, without judicial review, and the Obama administration fought for years to keep the justifications for such efforts secret. In the zeal to stop leaks of government information, Mr. Holder brought more prosecutions under the Espionage Act than during all previous presidencies combined. In tracking the sources of leaks, prosecutors seized phone and email records of journalists who were doing their jobs.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think this should have been the opening paragraph. Of course, after that paragraph little else would have–or should have–mattered.

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Bad guys (and gals) beware: Dustin Volz (National Journal) reports that the “FBI’s Facial-Recognition Technology Has Achieved ‘Full Operational Capability’”

The agency announced two new services Monday that complete the database’s “operational capability.” The first, called Rap Back, allows officials to receive “ongoing status notifications” regarding the reported criminal history of people “in positions of trust, such as schoolteachers.”

And

The other newly deployed service is the Interstate Photo System, a facial-recognition program that will allow law-enforcement agencies, including probation and parole officers, to cross-reference photographic images with criminal databases.

The Privacy Coalition (over 30 groups, including the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation) is not pleased. In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, it observed:

The facial recognition component of NGI [Next Generation Identification System] poses real threats to privacy for all Americans, and could, in the future, allow us to be monitored and tracked in unprecedented ways. NGI will include criminal and non-criminal photos, and the FBI projects that by 2015, the database could include as many as 52 million face images. 4.3 million of those would be taken for non- criminal purposes, such as employer background checks. It appears FBI plans to include these non-criminal images every time a law enforcement agency performs a criminal search of the database.

Fortunately, the Privacy Coalition does not need to be concerned. As Volz reports:

FBI Director James Comey attempted to dispel fears that the use of biometric data for identification purposes amounted to some sort of Orwellian tracking system. Comey testified before Congress that the database would not collect or store photos of everyday people. Its use, he said, is only intended to “find bad guys by matching pictures to mugshots.”

No federal laws limit the use of facial-recognition software, either by the private sector or the government.

As I concluded the other day when discussing asset forfeiture, “NSA collection of data, militarization of police forces, the wide scale practice of “stop and seize”… One does not have to be a cynic to discern a pattern here.” We can now add the fully operational facial recognition technology to the list.

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Michael Salla, Robert O’Harrow Jr, and Steven Rich (The Washington Post) have written an interesting series on asset forfeiture (see the teaser “Civil asset forfeitures more than double under Obama,” by Christopher Ingraham on Wonkblog). The basic presumption of asset forfeiture is simple: you are guilty until proven innocent. If you are the target of “stop and seize,” you bear the burden of proving that your assets were not involved in criminal activity. Even if charges are never filed, you may not get your assets back. And due to the Equitable Sharing Program, state and local authorities have strong financial incentives to take asset forfeiture seriously. What could possibly go wrong?

forfeitures

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The War at Home

Images of warfare abound these days, from Syria, Gaza, northern Iraq…and Ferguson, MO. As Dylan Scott (TPM) notes, the images out of Ferguson have been “harrowing.” “American law enforcement decked out in military fatigues, patrolling the streets in armored vehicles that look like they were plucked out of Afghanistan or Iraq.” 

I have blogged in the past about the distribution of war surplus to domestic police forces via the Department of Defense’s 1033 program (here and here).  Unsurprisingly, Ferguson and St. Louis County have both benefited from the 1033 program. Although precise information is difficult to come by—the Pentagon only releases information on tactical equipment for counties—USA Today has a partial list for St. Louis County, which includes twelve 5.56 mm rifles, six .45 caliber pistols, night vision equipment, vehicles, a trailer, and a generator.

National Journal has some images of the police response in Ferguson, in a piece aptly titled: “What a Militarized Police Force Does to a City.” Terrence McCoy (Washington Post) has an article on the use of tear gas in Ferguson. As McCoy explains:

Despite its ubiquity across the globe and in United States, tear gas is a chemical agent banned in warfare per the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, which set forth agreements signed by nearly every nation in the world — including the United States. The catch, however, is that while it’s illegal in war, it’s legal in domestic riot control.

Sven-Eric Jordt, Yale School of Medicine, is quoted as saying: “Tear gas under the Geneva Convention is characterized as a chemical warfare agent, and so it is precluded for use in warfare, but it is used very frequently against civilians. That’s very illogical.”

It is also illogical to provide police forces with military grade equipment based on the urgency of the war on drugs or the war on terror. As recent stories reveal (recounted in a fine piece by Radley Balko, WSJ), SWAT teams and the technology they have been provided through 1033 and Homeland Security grants have been used judiciously to break up illegal poker games at VFW halls, to stop underage drinking in a New Haven bar, and to apprehend Tibetan monks whose visas had expired in Iowa.

Balko concludes: “What would it take to dial back such excessive police measures? The obvious place to start would be ending the federal grants that encourage police forces to acquire gear that is more appropriate for the battlefield. Beyond that, it is crucial to change the culture of militarization in American law enforcement.”

Until that occurs, one fears, the war at home will continue.

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Marc blogged the other day about the New York Times editorial board’s endorsement of repealing federal marijuana prohibition, just months after having rejected that step. Now, this isn’t quite the same as endorsing marijuana legalization – just returning it to the states – but it is a significant step nonetheless. Still, they are well behind the rest of the country. An absolute majority of Americans favor legalizing, taxing, and regulating marijuana more or less like alcohol. Liberal Democrats are overwhelmingly in favor.

Fivethirtyeight recently showed how out-of-step the New York Times is by comparing their position to that of representative Americans with a similar demographic profile. Money quote:

[P]eople with this demographic profile are somewhere around 25 or 30 percentage points more supportive of marijuana legalization than the average American. That implies that back in 2000, when only about 30 percent of Americans supported legalization, perhaps 55 or 60 percent of these people did. The margin of error on this estimate is fairly high — about 10 percent — but not enough to call into question that most people like those on the Times’ editorial board have privately supported legalization for a long time. The question is why it took them so long to take such a stance publicly.

The political class everywhere, regardless of left-right ideology, has been vastly more opposed to marijuana legalization than equivalent Americans. Here in New Hampshire, Democratic governor Maggie Hassan has not only opposed and promised to veto recreational marijuana legalization, she has also opposed and threatened to veto marijuana decriminalization and even allowing terminally ill patients to grow their own medical marijuana plants. Her spineless copartisans in the state senate have gone meekly along. And is anyone really surprised that government bootlicker David Brooks opposes legalization? It’s no accident that the only two states to legalize recreational marijuana so far have been states with the popular ballot initiative. It’s also no accident that medical marijuana started in states with the popular ballot initiative. The people have had to go around the controllers and neurotics in office.

Now the Brookings Institution has come out with a study of marijuana legalization in Colorado. Their quick synopsis? (more…)

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This has not been a good Supreme Court term for the Obama administration. Damon Root (Reason) has a quick and delightful overview of some of the key decisions. The most recent defeat—the Hobby Lobby decision—can be viewed as a loss for the administration, but it may provide some political benefits with respect to fundraising and continuing the “war on women” meme, as Byron Tau (Politico) explains:

Shortly after the court’s 5-4 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which said for-profit employers with religious objections can opt out of providing contraception coverage under Obamacare, the liberal fundraising emails went flying. Democratic candidates and liberal groups were seeking to collect scores of new email addresses and bank last-minute cash contributions in advance of the monthly FEC deadline at midnight Monday.

As Megan McArdle notes in the conclusion to her interesting discussion of the decision (Bloombergview):

Presumably, the administration hates this ruling–but at the same time, it has to love the passion that it has engendered. This is going to be fundraising gold for Democrats for the next two years. In a politics that cares more about symbolism than substance, that too was predictable. And it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this was the prediction that mattered more. Politics may not be rational, but it still has its own remorseless logic.

Jeremy Peters and Michael Shear (New York Times) argue that this was also a decision that the conservative movement can run with: “The ruling comes as social conservatives have suffered setbacks on another high-profile social issue, same-sex marriage, and leaders predicted Monday’s decision would infuse Republicans with energy as they fight to take control of the Senate this year and reclaim the White House in 2016.” Their analysis suggests that the decision could contribute to a revivification of the culture wars that defined much of the politics of the past few decades.

I hope that Peters and Shear are wrong. Any efforts of Republicans and Democrats to reignite the tiresome culture wars will threaten to draw attention away from the far more pressing issues of late, e.g., the ongoing growth of executive power, long-term fiscal instability, the failure of immigration policy, targeted killings abroad, and the expansive violation of civil liberties in the name of national security. These are the kinds of issues that sizable parts of both parties and the public should agree are of sufficient importance to avoid any of the short-term tactical appeals offered by the culture wars.

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