The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." The amendment assures us that only when law enforcement has "probable cause" to suspect a person of a crime, may their space be violated.
Well, here's a wake-up call, folks. For years now, and especially since 9/11, that most fundamental American right has been eroding. All across the nation, every single day armed officers with badges are stopping, interrogating, searching and detaining U.S. citizens with little or no explanation, or probable cause. This isn't my America.
The time has come for law-abiding citizens to rise up and demand that law enforcement give us the courtesy and respect that all human beings should display toward each other. It is time we stopped acting like their unconstitutional activity is OK.
I get that there are terrorists and other criminals out there. I understand that an officer's job is fraught with the potential for danger. But that does not give officers the right to treat all of us like suspects. From the nation's airports, train stations and federal buildings to random spot checks along roads and at public gatherings — checkpoints with scowling, intimidating officers have become the norm.
At the risk of winding up on some Homeland Security Department watch list, I declare that the bulk of today's violations emanate from a bloated DHS that consistently falls back on the mysterious claim that it is merely (as its mission statement puts it), "Preventing terrorists and terrorists' weapons, including weapons of mass destruction, from entering the United States." DHS is now the largest uniformed federal law enforcement agency in the nation, and every day it reaches out to local and state police and even to other federal agencies demanding citizen stops with little or no explanation.
Since 2008, Terry Bressi calculates that he has been stopped and interrogated by DHS's Customs and Border Patrol officers about 300 times. Each time he is asked to declare his citizenship and each time he politely declines. Bressi is put off by what he calls the "creeping authoritarianism" that is taking over the country. His work for the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Lab in Tucson requires him to drive 56 miles away to the Kitt Peak National Observatory. Bressi takes an east-west state road that is almost 50 miles north of the Mexican border and never intersects with any other road coming from the border.
"CBP has diverted border patrol agents away from the border — where actual crimes are known to take place — and brought them inland to stop, seize, interrogate and search domestic travelers inside the country," Bressi told National Public Radio. "People who live and commute in the area have to go through this checkpoint and are stopped by armed border agents as they are simply trying to go about their daily lives." The mild-mannered Bressi became so outraged with the frequent stops that he began to videotape them and put them on his website, Checkpointusa.
At small general aviation airports, private pilots have reported being surrounded by local and federal agents and intimidated into allowing random searches of their airplanes. This has happened, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, to at least 40 of their members from New York to California, Colorado to Oklahoma. Most of the pilots were not told why they were stopped, interrogated and searched. None of the stops resulted in charges being filed.
There have been reports that CBP has routinely boarded Amtrak trains operating between Chicago and New York questioning passengers about their citizenship and detaining thousands of nonresidents who don't immediately produce the proper papers. Again, answering these officers is voluntary, but at these little-publicized checkpoints those questioned say they are never informed of that right and, when confronted by armed agents, they feel intimidated into automatic compliance.
Earlier this summer three car loads of U.S. citizens returning to the states from the same wedding in Toronto were detained simultaneously in Detroit and Niagara Falls, N.Y. They were held incommunicado in a freezing cold room, without explanation, for more than six hours. When Sarah Abdurrahman asked an agent why they were being detained for so long, she says, "He said it was not my right to know." When she asked for the names of the agents who held her family and friends she was told it was not her right to know. These detainees are sure they were singled out because they are practicing Muslims.
Because so few of us politely stand up for our own civil rights, this idea of an anything-goes-policing has seeped down to state and local departments.
After several residents of Albemarle, Va., complained about speeding cars in their neighborhood, police responded. They didn't increase patrols or establish a speed trap to catch lawbreakers. No, they put up a checkpoint and demanded every driver present their driver's license and state their destination. This did not set well with Joe Draego who was simply trying to get home.
"I kept asking, 'Have I committed a crime?' and they kept saying, 'No.' And I said I'm not willing to give you my ID. I've done nothing wrong," Draego told a local TV reporter. A police officer threatened to present him with an arrest warrant the next day. It never arrived.
"This is how it started in Nazi Germany — police state checkpoints," Draego said.
Jack Furlong is a veteran criminal defense and civil rights lawyer for whom I have great respect. In discussing this decline of our Fourth Amendment rights he summed it up best: "We have become a nation of roadblocks, temporary detention, and stop and frisk, and we have accepted the status quo as sheep. Our Founding Fathers would be appalled."
Think about that.
— Diane Dimond is the author of Be Careful Who You Love: Inside the Michael Jackson Case. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.