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Jim Hightower: America’s Constitutional Rights in God’s Hands in Paragould, Ark.

By Jim Hightower |

No doubt you had a lot on your mind in December — the dancing of sugar plum fairies, America stumbling toward the fiscal cliff, the outcome of the classic Beef O’Brady’s Bowl game and whatnot — so you might have missed this bit of big news that got very little news coverage: Our Constitution had a hole burned in it.

The culprits were the police chief and mayor of Paragould, Ark. — and, although their torching of our basic constitutional right to be free of abusive police actions is despicable, both men apparently had good intentions and were acting out of an abundance of ignorance. It seems that this burg of 25,000 citizens in northeast Arkansas has a serious crime problem. So, by gollies, Chief Todd Stovall and Mayor Mike Gaskill were determined to take bold action to secure the streets.

At a Dec. 13 town hall meeting, Stovall declared a new order in Paragould, stating that he was deploying a quasi-military force that would “be in SWAT gear and have AR-15s around their necks.”

Some might think: “OK, chief, go get those bad guys!” But, wait! He wasn’t limiting his SWAT squad to detaining known criminals or even crime suspects. “If you’re out walking,” the top cop announced autocratically, “we’re going to stop you, ask why you’re out walking, check for your ID. We’re going to do it to everybody.”

The mayor then chimed in with an exuberant endorsement of the plan. He noted that a hapless resident “may not be doing anything but walking their dog. But they’re going to have to prove it.” And what’s the legal basis for accosting innocent citizens? Crime statistics and public fear, the chief blithely replied, “allow us to do what we’re fixing to do.”

Admitting that they had not consulted an attorney before imposing martial law on Paragouldians, the dynamic duo proceeded to take a flamethrower to the Fourth Amendment by insisting that the town’s SWAT teamers need not even be looking for a specific suspect in their street sweeps. And don’t even think of resisting. Individuals who do not produce their ID on demand, Stovall barked, will be subject to arrest for interfering with a governmental operation.

“Will there be people who buck us? There may be. But,” he said, tumbling deeper down the rabbit hole of ignorance and arrogance, “we have a right to be doing what we’re doing. ... We are prepared to throw your hind-end in jail, OK? We’re not going to take a lot of flack.”

Hoo-boy! Stovall and Gaskill were wrong from the get-go about their “right” to set fire to our rights, but they were terminally wrong about even thinking they wouldn’t “take a lot of flack.” The public blowback was instantaneous and hot. Two subsequent town hall meetings they had scheduled later in December to further inform the citizenry of the new police state were abruptly canceled, with the police department citing “public safety concerns” as the reason.

Yeah, concerns by the mayor and chief that they were not safe from a political thrashing by an enraged public!

The two officials have not merely backpedaled from their plan, they fled from it like a pair of panicked squirrels. On Dec. 18, a “clarification” was issued by Stovall, who had obviously been given a crash course in the American concepts of reasonable suspicion and probable cause. “It is in these instances alone,” the chastened chief wrote, “in which officers will ask an individual” for ID.

All in all, here in small-town America, Stovall and Gaskill did every one of us and our venerable Constitution a favor by attempting such an extremist overreach. They outraged the good people of Paragould, who promptly rallied themselves to confront and reject the imposition of overbearing police power.

“It’s a wonderful thing,” Arkansas ACLU Director Rita Sklar said, “to know that people care about their rights.”

What a good way to lead America into the new year. Thank you, Paragould.

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, writer, public speaker and author of Swim Against The Current: Even A Dead Fish Can Go With The Flow. Click here to contact him, follow him on Twitter: @JimHightower, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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