An intellectual freedom blog with an emphasis on libraries and technology

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Hidden subtexts and innocence is no defense published an editorial by one of the fired U.S. Attorney, Bud Cummings, which contained a reminder of the power that the people have given the government. I must admit, this consideration remained hidden to me until I read a passage of Mr. Cummings' editorial which hit me like a brick:

"When a federal prosecutor sends FBI agents to your brother's house with an arrest warrant, demonstrating an intention to take away years of his liberty, separate him from his family, and take away his property, you and the public at large must have absolute confidence that the sole reason for those actions is that there was substantial evidence to suggest that your brother intentionally committed a federal crime. "

I almost forgot: due to another draconian piece of legislation, The RICO Act, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies can, with only an arrest, strip you of your property. It's called "Civil Asset Forfeiture" and various State and Local police have used it to fund their agencies, even reviewing old cases looking for "seizure opportunities." In the 1990s, Barlett and Steele of the Philadelphia Inquirer reviewed about 10,000 such cases and found a disproportionate number of people who were not really part of organized crime had their property confiscated without a trial or conviction. RICO's asset forfeiture provisions specifically target the suspect's assets before trial because of the resources available to organized crime members to hire high-priced lawyers. But the actual application of this has hit people like cancer or glaucoma patients who grow their own weed for their own use in self-medicating. My favorite is a case that reached the Supreme Court: "Bennis v. Michigan" in which a woman lost the family car she needed to go to work to support her children because her husband was arrested in it-- caught in the act with a prostitute. The majority opinion upholding the confiscation amounted to "innocence is no defense."

Years of the rest of us allowing blatant injustices and draconian legislation come to pass will come back to bite us all. Imagine this sort of power in the hands of someone intent upon using the agencies of government to punish and harass his political opponents. Oops! Already happened. Nixon, whose administration spawned the likes of Cheney and Rumsfeld, already tried that. And now the Bush administration has worked tirelessly to bring about a "unitary President." The steady erosion of civil liberties and protections may someday reach a saturation point (if it hasn't already) resulting in a President who can crush any political opposition with confication of property, IRS audits, and unfounded accusations gone unexplained because of the FBI's policy on not commenting on an ongoing investigation.

For years I have read or heard the rationalization: but if you're innocent you have nothing to worry about. Sorry, but innocence is no defense.

Another historical footnote:

I recall throughout the 80s and 90s the FBI would have a former agent accuse anti-war groups of "links with terrorist organizations" or "involvement in terrorist activities." Every time someone asked for substantiation, the official FBI spokesmen would say the standard disclaimer that the FBI has a policy of not commenting on an ongoing investigation. But starting in the late 1990s the National Security Archive at Georgetown University and the ACLU obtained documents showing no evidence of terrorist or violent activities by these groups. While trying to tack the "terrorist" label on Mothers Against Nuclear War the FBI wasted time and resources in addition to smearing people whose politics the FBI dislikes. One of my favorite references to verify this comes from an FBI agent named John Ryan, who in the 80s the FBI dismissed due to his refusal to follow orders to investigate anti-war groups such as Veterans Fast for Life and Swords to Plowshares. (He worked out of the Peoria, IL office and received the orders from the Chicago office). He stated flatly "I believe that in the past members of our government have used the FBI to quell dissent, sometimes where the dissent was warranted." (Herbert Mitgang's Dangerous Dossiers, NY : Fine, 1988, pp. 312-313).

Those interested in more information about the FBI and its practice of "bad-jacketing" take a look at Churchhill and Wall's Agents of Repression [corrected edition] (Boston : South End, c1990).

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