The Patriot Act – Does it Violate Our Civil Liberties?
The USA PATRIOT Act, which in formal legislature is entitled “The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (PATRIOT) Act,” was very quickly developed in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Of note, the act passed by a vote of 99 to 0. Inherently, there are bound to be some questionable provisions buried within this hastily passed act.
The objective was to make sweeping reforms to existing laws so states and international intelligence agencies could conduct surveillance of American citizens and immigrants. It changes some of the fundamental provisions of the Constitution under the guise of giving law enforcement a free hand to apprehend suspected terrorism agents.
For example, the Government can monitor how an individual surfs the web, i.e., is that individual looking for an Al-Qaeda site to fund their activities? The Government can also use roving wiretaps to monitor phone calls, wherein a single judge can now authorize a wiretap that applies to any phone a suspect uses, anywhere. It also allows for Government to access Internet Service Provider (ISP) records, and also (shades of the 1960’s Vietnam War protests) monitor the records of people who are protesting for whatever reason. This is frightening stuff.
Nat Hentoff, a writer for the Village Voice, published an excellent article in the New Jersey Star-Ledger.
Quoting the author,
“Section 215 (of the Patriot Act) has spurred particular resistance among both conservatives and liberals. It provides the FBI with access, during foreign intelligence and international terrorism investigations, to an array of business records – financial reports, genetic information, library use, educational records, credit reports and medical records.” “…Section 215 gives the government too much power to seize the personal records of innocent Americans who are not suspected of terrorism or espionage.”
Hentoff also stated that:
“If the government is not required to search our records on the basis of individualized suspicion, then former U.S. intelligence officer …… has a chilling point: ‘We need a Requiem Mass for the Fourth Amendment, because it’s gone…buried by the Patriot Act’”.
As a point of reference, the fourth amendment in part states that:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause…, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Some of the other provisions of the Patriot Act are really cause for alarm:
· It permits foreign and domestic intelligence agencies to spy on all Americans.
· It allows more secrecy to government activities by eliminating government accountability to the very people it purports to help.
· It authorizes the use of “Sneak and Peak” search warrants in connection with any Federal crime including misdemeanors. Previously, just cause must be documented and a search warrant issued. It also permits law enforcement to enter private premises without the occupant’s permission (or knowledge).
· The most frightening aspect of this new law is that it includes powers that have absolutely nothing to do with terrorism. The government can add DNA samples to DNA databases (formerly maintained for proving innocence or guilt) for any individual convicted of any crime of violence. They may also spy on suspected computer trespassers.
According to Bernie Sanders of the House of Representatives:
“The Patriot Act so broadly defines “domestic terrorism” that it could subject political organizations to draconian law enforcement powers like the power to seize property, just for engaging in civil disobedience…”
“Section 215 of the USA Patriot allows the FBI to monitor our reading habits. Under Section 215, after showing minimal justification, the FBI can get an order allowing them to search a library or bookstore for “any tangible things” including library circulation records, book purchasing lists, computers with hard drives, Internet use records, and registration information stored in any medium, and Under the Patriot Act, non-citizens can be locked up without charges on the Attorney General’s say-so, without showing a court that they are in fact dangerous or a risk of flight.”
The American Library Association (ALA) had this to say, in part, about government scrutiny of our reading habits:
“The American Library Association opposes any use of governmental power to suppress the free and open exchange of knowledge and information or to intimidate individuals exercising free inquiry…ALA considers that sections of the USA PATRIOT ACT are a present danger to the constitutional rights and privacy rights of library users.”
The key to this temporary “war time” acts is that legislation of this type is only intended as an interim measure until the “war” is over. Somehow, Congress never seems to get around to cleaning up their mess.
In 2004, a New York district court ruled that the Patriot Act violates the Constitution. The district judge struck down a provision in the act that allows the FBI to gather phone and web customer records. On top of that, the act stipulates that the service provider is not permitted to disclose that the search ever took place. Judge Victor Marrero said the law violated the Fourth Amendment because it barred or deterred any judicial challenge to government searches, and it also violated the First Amendment because the provision that bans the disclosure of the search was a prior restraint on free speech. It’s about time someone took issue with certain despicable provisions of this act.
The U. S. Attorney General at that time, John Ashcroft, said the government would likely appeal the ruling.
The ACLU stated, “This simple little clause is being used as an end-run around the Fourth Amendment. It is a “power grab [that] will sweep in Americans as well as aliens.” These organizations are not alone as 384 towns and dozens of colleges and universities have condemned the loss of freedoms pervasive within the act.
We must recognize that Al-Qaeda unfortunately is not comprised of ignorant fanatics. Although they made a few errors along the way, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were well rehearsed and precisely coordinated. The major problem was that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies bungled the job of stopping a least a few of the terrorists because intelligence agencies didn’t share the information they did have. This was one of the major reasons why the Department of Homeland Security was created to stop the petty bickering between the forty or so agencies that collect intelligence. The wording of the Patriot Act is available to the general public through hundreds of venues including newspapers, universities and libraries. You don’t think that senior Al-Qaeda operatives are not aware of the provisions of this act, and the first thing they will tell their underlings is not to visit a library to gather information or to use code words on phone conversations to divert attention away from themselves. So in reality would possible good can a clause that permits the FBI to “gather phone and customer records” do in the fight against terrorism? The only result of these unconstitutional provisions is negative by once again undermining our civil liberties.
Patriot Act Reauthorization
Various organizations have attempted to pressure Congress into repealing this act without success, but congressional committees have recommended that certain provisions of the hastily written law be amended. On June 14, 2005, the House of Representatives, apparently recognizing the extreme danger voted to rollback Section 215 of the act. Representative Bernard Sanders said, “Every member of Congress and every American understands we have to do everything we can to protect the American people from terrorism. That is not the debate. The debate is whether we can and must do that and protect the constitutional rights that make us a free people. That is what Congress voted for today. This sends a real message to the president that the American people do not want Big Brother looking over their shoulder when they walk into a library or bookstore."
In late June 2005, in a closed session, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence voted to reauthorize and EXPAND the powers of the act, even though it is not due to expire before 2007. The Libertarian Party said that, “In its current form the Patriot Act violates at least six of the amendments that comprise the Bill of Rights. Under the act, law enforcement may conduct no-notice searches of residences and businesses; conduct roving wiretaps; or seize personal files such as medical, financial, employment and even library lending history. Additionally, the PATRIOT Act has led to peaceful community groups being investigated as terrorist cells.”
So how does the Senate respond to the House? In a closed session, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence voted to reauthorize and EXPAND the powers of the act, even though it is not due to expire before the end of the year. The Libertarian Party said that, “In its current form the Patriot Act violates at least six of the amendments that comprise the Bill of Rights. Under the act, law enforcement may conduct no-notice searches of residences and businesses; conduct roving wiretaps; or seize personal files such as medical, financial, employment and even library lending history. Additionally, the PATRIOT Act has led to peaceful community groups being investigated as terrorist cells.”
We are not saying that the American people don’t deserve every opportunity to fight terrorism with every tool in our arsenal of democracy, but that’s exactly the point. New laws cannot impinge on our constitutional rights in doing so. Some knowledgeable experts point out that Section 215 has not been abused to-date and that the FBI has other means to achieve the same results. But that’s not the fundamental issue. Government should never be given the slightest opportunity to abuse our rights. It will eventually turn very ugly.
Big Brother is watching. Let us not forget the quote from Benjamin Franklin:
“They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Federal Government Demands Passenger Records
As another example of Big Brother taking over our lives, in 2004 the Federal government demanded that the 77 airlines operating within the country turn over their passenger records to initially test a new computer system, dubbed CAPPS (Computer Assisted Passenger Profiling System) II. Naturally, this huge effort is promoted as a tool to fight terrorism.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has spent over $100 million on the computer system to-date. The system will compare the passenger data with commercial databases to assist in the verification of each passenger’s identity. These are the same databases used to check your credit for mortgages and other transactions. It will actually give each passenger a “risk score.” I’m sure they used the credit system-scoring algorithm as the basis for this user-friendly approach.
The previous version of the system was used to scan passenger records for violent criminals and people with outstanding arrest warrants. The new system is intended to focus only on terrorists. I shudder at the thought at how a terrorist is defined under this system.
The irony of all of this is that many passenger records only contain an individual’s name and city of record. I can just envision the consequences once a passenger is mistakenly identified as a terrorist, and how that individual will pull his or her hair out with the bureaucracy trying to get himself or she removed from the list. Every time that person attempts to fly, they will likely be detained or arrested until the matter is resolved, so obviously the victim will not fly until the issue is adjudicated.
I don’t want to sound cynical about all government efforts, but I see another $100 million being poured down the ol’ rat hole.
Big Brother Is Watching Day and Night
If you think that Big Brother is a far fetched concept, the City of Chicago plans to add 250 surveillance cameras to the almost 2,000 that have been previously installed. The difference is that with these new cameras, a computerized system will alert the police when anyone wanders aimlessly, lingers outside of a public building, pulls a car onto the highway shoulder or leaves a package and walks away from it. Oh yes, of course, this is all being done under the guise of preventing terrorism. Private firms have the option of hooking into Big Brother, too. Why am I suspicious? I predict that ten years from now, there will likely be 10,000 surveillance cameras quietly placed in the city over the years without much fanfare or debate on the subject. City officials did admit that tentative discussions have been held to place cameras in commuter and rapid transit cars and even on street sweepers. What’s next, cameras in the public toilets?
Automated Ticket Maker
On another subject, recently I was the recipient of an automated traffic ticket from the City of New York, wherein they purported that I ran a traffic light on the borough of Staten Island in New York. Now let me emphasize that 1) I have not been stopped by a policeman in over 25 years, 2) I consider myself a very safe driver, and 3) I have taken defensive driving courses and I try to never exceed the speed limit.
When you receive the ticket in the mail (a $50 fine by the way – not exactly chump change), it has all of the earmarks of a formal court process, whereby the “Notice of Liability” states that it is “The City of New York vs. XXXXXXX.” Obviously, this judicial mentality is deliberately intended to intimidate any poor slob who hems and haws about not paying this “bail amount.” A picture taken of your car supposedly running the red light accompanies the ticket, although my car was well through the light in the picture.
Is there merit in this cop-less extortion? Does this methodology not change the entire legal process from “innocent until proven guilty” to “guilty until proven innocent?” Municipalities extort anywhere from $50 in the City of New York to $351 in Sacramento, California. Will it help deter people from challenging traffic laws? I think not!
Advocates of the cameras point out the 92,000 accidents and 950 deaths attributable to running red lights in the nation, and that certain locales have reported a drop in accidents and fatalities since the cameras were installed.
On the east coast, cities like Baltimore and Washington, D.C, claim that the cameras reduced violations for running red lights by 60%. On the opposite side of the coin, cities like San Diego, California, Charlotte, North Carolina and Melbourne, Australia have found that the reduction in side-angle collisions has been offset by rear end collisions, due to people who panic at the mere thought of running a red light. A consultant’s study in San Diego found that read-end collisions increased by 3% after the cameras had been installed, but other studies found that rear-end collisions had gone up nearly 15% in several cities that were studied by two independent researchers, while side-angle collisions had decreased by 24%.
Some drivers have attempted to counter the camera technology by using simple sprays and shields to cover their license plates to the tune of about $30. So now we have the people fighting back at Big Brother by wasting their time by spending money to beat Big Brother and then, more likely, paying the fines that are against the very foundations of the Constitution.
Some honest legislatures recognize the problem and propose to remove the cameras. In February, 2005, Virginia rejected legislation that would have allowed Virginia communities to continue using the cameras citing that they have a duty to uphold the basic rights of all Virginians. According to one legislator, “Our job is to figure out where the lines for reasonableness between the compelling need and the absolute requirement to defend individual liberty.” Chapel Hill, North Carolina abandoned the cameras after four months.
But the improvement in safety is not the primary issue. In the first place, the presumption of “guilty until proven innocent” is the fundamental issue that’s rarely mentioned. In the second place, we all know the only purpose is to feed the already bloated city coffers and has little to do with traffic safety. And how could you possibly challenge the ticket? At least when you are issued a ticket by a police officer, you can challenge the ticket in court and demand that the arresting officer appear and testify as to your danger to society. But in this situation, you can’t ask Big Brother to testify, as Big Brother is strictly a metaphor. If I want to contest this injustice, I would need to go to court, sit for hours, wait until I’m called and then offer my evidence, the poor quality picture – no doubt an all-day affair. Since I am self-employed, it’s a losing proposition for me financially even if I win my case, which is highly unlikely. Big Brother knows that the average citizen will often find it very difficult to take the time and effort to fight this encroachment of our civil rights.
Some Congressmen have raised issues about the “stealth” technology citing that the cameras are a perverse incentive for the municipalities that use them. It has been proven that the cameras sometimes take pictures of more than one license plate.
The District of Columbia has netted over $117 million from red light violations. The companies that install and operate receive a portion of the revenue from each paid citation. Talk about built-in incentive if the cameras are not working to perfection. One company, IMS (a division of Lockheed Martin) was paid $44 million through 2004 by the District of Columbia.
Whenever our civil liberties are stepped on, the reason is always cloaked in some heroic term invoking security or terrorism or safety, when the underlying purpose is simply government greed and control of the populace. I would love to find the time to investigate how many other citizens have been ripped off by this same racket in other cities across the country.
Supreme Court Decisions
There have been torrents of rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and various state Supreme Courts that seemingly defy direct provisions of the Constitution, generally in favor of political cronies or education, i.e., forcing states to finance school construction or allocate more monies towards school funding. This is called political activism.
Borrowing Money to Balance the Budget - The most abusive of these decisions was handed down by Chief Justice Deborah Poritz of the New Jersey Supreme Court in her 2002 decision mandating that New Jersey could borrow $8.6 billion to fund school construction. This decision completely bypassed the state constitution that clearly states in simple language that when the state borrows “in any manner,” voters must approve the request via a referendum. Of note, the school districts are now complaining that they are running out of school construction money to finish the construction. Who will investigate what happened to the money that was allocated? Will an arbitrary decision be made that more money will be needed, or will someone demonstrate fiscal responsibility and deny the request? It likely makes little difference, as some fool will petition the Supreme Court to mandate more money, anyway. The irony of this pathetic situation is that a few newspaper columnists have delved into this issue in more detail, and discovered that perfectly functioning relatively modern schools are being torn down for new construction simply because Deborah Poritz’s decision gave them the money to abuse taxpayers.
This decision opened the door for the state to continually borrow money to balance the budget. The state actually tried to obtain backing for a $1.47 billion loan from Wall Street by offering cigarette taxes over the next 25 years as collateral based on the fact that smokers will pay $17 per pack in 30 years. I hardly think so - only government could concoct such distorted logic. Wall Street, with a much keener eye on spending money, rejected funding the bond issue without so much as a whimper. Watch out for similar decisions in your own state.
Ten Commandments Sacrilege - A Federal judge ordered Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore to remove a monument from the State Judicial Building that acknowledges that our source of law is descended from the Ten Commandments. Obviously this ruling was in line with other overt acts bending to the secular “separation of church and state” mentality that is the basis for this nonsense. Many authorities on constitutional law have expressed their disgust with the ruling.
Justice Moore adamantly refused to comply with the law and was removed from office. The state’s Attorney General issued a statement congratulating Justice Moore on his “faithfulness to the ‘rule of law’” by not bending to the Federal judge.
Replacing A Candidate – Just prior to the 2002 election Senator Robert Torricelli of New Jersey faced Federal charges for receiving sizable gifts from David Chang, who already resided in the slammer for violating Federal campaign contribution laws. The United States Senate Ethics Committee severely admonished “The Torch” (as Torricelli was known) for accepting illegal contributions and for his pattern of evasion and secrecy. Torricelli decided to call it quits in the Senate race, leaving the door wide open for his Republican challenger 34 days before the election. Although the people of New Jersey can rightfully be accused of political ineptness, it is hard to believe that they would have elected this sleaze bag given the circumstances. So what did the New Jersey Democratic Party do about this situation? They had quite a quandary on their hands, as the state constitution is quite clear that candidate’s names must be submitted 60 days prior to the election to afford the state ample time to print and distribute literature and to create the ballots for the people of the state. Unfortunately for the Democrats, under the state Constitution the Torch’s name would appear on the ballot.
Who do they turn to if the legislature won’t act in violation of the Constitution? Well they turned to the friendly neighborhood Supreme Court, that’s who. The court had made many irrational rulings before, so there might be gold in them hills, by gummy!
Chief Justice Deborah Poritz, the poster child for political activism, in her interpretation of the statute ruled that the candidate substitution was perfectly acceptable, and that “The court concluded there was sufficient time, although it required expeditious action by the election officials. We have a two-party system; a fact some commentators lament.” I wonder, if it had been the Republican candidate who dropped out would Judge Poritz have ruled in the Republican Party’s favor? I seriously doubt it. The irony of that decision is throughout the country, on occasion there is only one candidate vying for an elected position, as the opposition party either cannot find a qualified candidate or the district is so overwhelmingly slanted in the oppositions favor, it would be a waste of time to field someone. Does this mean in Justice Poritz’s opinion that these elections are somehow invalid?
The decision was greeted by joy within the Democratic Party, while civil libertarians, who don’t have a vested interest in either the Republican or Democratic parties, were horrified. Robert Torricelli was replaced on the ballot by Frank Lautenberg, a gentleman in his 70s, who had often exhibited sighs of senility. How did the people of New Jersey respond? Instead of fighting back at this violation of their rights, they elected Senator Frank Lautenberg to Congress. “Stupid knows stupid.”
Indicative of the logic imparted by this individual, Justice Poritz has stated that New Jersey judges are underpaid. Poritz, who brings home a $164,200 a year, says she should be making $188,000 annually. In 2003, Poritz went before the state Public Officers Salary Review Commission crying crocodile tears. She said some judges have resigned because they can’t feed and educate their kids on the menial salary of $158,500 a year. Let’s see now. The average American makes $28,000 per year. Those people are able to make it with great difficulty. Maybe the Justice isn’t very adept with her household budget, or just maybe she has been heavily influenced by government-spending habits?
As opposed to the U. S. Supreme Court where justices are tenured for life, New Jersey justices sit for 7 years, and must be renominated and reconfirmed. Not only should she not get the raise, Deborah Poritz should be removed from the bench as a danger to society.
Getting More Money For Education By Any Means
Certain elements within society have determined that the states are not providing enough money to educate the kids, except that horror stories abound of the tremendous waste by the education establishment. These elements have therefore decided to bypass the legislature and the people to take their need for more money to the highest court to plead their case. They support “activist” judges who arrive at the results they desire, while casually ignoring the shredding of the Constitution.
New Jersey – The essential gripe from some citizens is that the municipality in which the school resides primarily funds school districts. In a landmark decision, Abbott vs. Burke, the New Jersey Supreme Court “ordered” the state to equalize opportunities in poor and rich school districts by 1996. The state now heavily subsidizes the poorer, urban schools in an effort to equalize the school funding, to the point where poor districts, on average, receive $324 more per student than the rich districts. The urban district of Newark receives more funding than any other school district, but the student test results are dismal. One of the reasons according to a Newark schoolteacher is that “we only have them from 9 to 3,” obviously meaning that parental supervision is sorely lacking when the students are not in school, so throwing money at the education establishment will never solve the problem until the culture in the ghettos is changed.
Cigarette Taxes – The state of Iowa is considering increasing the sales tax on a pack of cigarettes by $.80 per pack. Now you don’t honestly believe that increase has anything to do with helping people to quit smoking, do you? It’s just another illegal mechanism to feed the bloated state coffers. In the state of New Jersey, only $.06 of every dollar collected in the vastly increased tobacco tax program (over $6.00 for a pack of cigarettes) goes towards smoking cessation programs. New York imposes combined excise and sales taxes of $33.30 on every carton of cigarettes sold by stores located in the Big Apple.
If you want to realistically improve people’s health, add a $1.00 tax to the price of each can of beer and $5.00 to each bottle of liquor sold in the nation, wherein alcohol is a scourge equal to tobacco. Watch the death rate from drunken driving, cirrhosis of the liver and other alcohol-related illnesses drop significantly. But that will never happen. Why is that, you may ask? The bureaucrats count on the fact that the anti-smoking lobby is strong in the country and that smokers comprise 26% of the population while the majority of adults generally consume alcohol in some form. I can just visualize the riots in the streets about that new tax if the legislature even vaguely suggested that possibility, just as prohibition was eventually repealed because people fought the law tooth and nail. The point is government has no business legislating/penalizing people’s vices under the ruse of saving the people’s health in violation of their civil liberties, especially when it only impacts a small and vulnerable portion of the population regardless of whether it’s smoking or any other vice.
How To Stop the Madness
Let me emphasize that these are not isolated incidences. Thousands of cases have been documented. There is a bill pending before Congress, the Constitution Restoration Act, which proposes amongst other provisions that:
One example of government power that was never intended by our Founding Fathers is Eminent Domain. In case you are not familiar with the definition of “Eminent Domain,” it means:
“The right of a government to appropriate private property for public use, usually with compensation to the owner.”
In the first place, the term “Eminent Domain” does not appear in any of the legal documents created by our Founding Fathers although the issue of seizure of private property was added at a later date by the V Amendment wherein it states “…nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” A little bit of history is in order to explain the whys and wherefores of eminent domain. It was not recognized until 1876 in a court case wherein the U. S. Supreme Court acknowledged the legality of eminent domain.
Why am I concerned about Eminent Domain? Because it is another example of the loss of our civil liberties, under our increasingly totalitarian government, that has been invoked much more frequently in the liberal environment of our times. Eminent Domain is used by the Federal, state and local governments to routinely condemn property for the sake of lucrative commercial enterprises or to increase the municipalities’ tax base. Liberals are generally in favor while conservatives despise the concept. Governments regularly use these seizures as supposedly valid excuses to eliminate blight and slums regardless of the real-world situations. In theory, when the government buys your property, they are obligated to pay you a fair market price.
The problem with eminent domain in today’s world is that courts and municipalities have aggressively been grabbing one person’s property in order to give it to another person who ultimately makes more financial gain from the transaction. Recent rulings have caused the implementation of eminent domain from legally permitting seizures for “public use” to seizures for “public purpose”, which can be broadly interpreted by the authorities. Within this framework, the possibility of abuse has reached epic proportions.
In the 1950s, courts passed laws allowing states to seize property for slum-clearance projects, under the premise that slums are a danger to public health. According to the Castle Coalition (www.castlecoalition.org), over 10,000 cases of seizure of private property have been documented in their files. The cases of eminent domain seizure are not restricted to seizure of private property to convert these properties into public facilities like parks or hospitals. Over the years an incestuous relationship has developed between government and private business to invoke eminent domain for the benefit of big business, mostly at the expense of the little guy. In theory, there is no need to invoke eminent domain if developers are willing to pay what owners may themselves consider just compensation, but just compensation may differ substantially from so-called fair market value given the sentimental and other values many of us attach to our homes. Even worse, eager sellers will be hurt by this ruling, since developers will have every incentive to lowball their bids now that they can freely threaten to invoke eminent domain.
Whatever happened to the concept of “…Rights – among these life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” guaranteed under the Constitution.
Representative examples of the collusion between big business and big government follow:
Wal-Mart I - There is a bit of irony in recent decisions. In one recent case, an official in Phenix City, Alabama proposed to condemn property and buildings in the downtown area to make room for a new Wal-Mart. The city government joyfully takes actions of this nature because they can realize higher tax revenues for the city government.
Wal-Mart II - In a separate development, Rowan University and Wal-Mart are squabbling over 25 acres of a previously approved eminent domain acquisition of 115 acres in Harrison Township, New Jersey by Wal-Mart.
Another Blow to Private Property Ownership – The U. S. Supreme Court has ruled that the city of San Francisco was justified in charging a $567,000 fee to a building owner who converted 30 housing units into hotel rooms. In 1979, the Board of Supervisors decided they had a severe shortage of affordable rental housing units, so it barred builders from converting rental housing into units for tourists, obviously advantageous financially to those same owners. Later they amended the law permitting the conversion if the owners built new rental units or paid a fee to the city. The owners had converted rental housing into the 62-unit San Remo Hotel and paid the fee under protest arguing that it violated the Constitution’s guarantee that “private property [shall not] be taken without just compensation.” The California Supreme Court previously upheld the city of San Francisco and the latest ruling by the U. S. Supreme Court ended the 12-year legal battle. Even though this battle pitted big money against big government, Justice Janice Rogers Brown called it an example of thievery by government, and that “Private property already an endangered species in California, is now entirely extinct in San Francisco.” This ruling does not bode well for the pending court decision on the battle between private home owners and the city of New London, Connecticut’s right to cease private property for commercial development. It looks like the little guy will be trampled into the dust, again.
Port Chester, New York – A classic case of American entrepreneurship was trampled by government invoking eminent domain. Mr. Bill Brody of Port Chester, New York had bought and renovated four buildings with much hard work and then rented the buildings out to clients. He was informed that the city was taking his four buildings so Stop & Shop could build a supermarket on his property. The government used the tried and true “blighted area” argument to justify the seizure although the city had spent millions of dollars putting in new roads, underground wires, and picturesque 19th century street lamps. Note that Mr. Brody had paid $60,000 in new assessments. At the time of the seizure, the street had been upgraded to a thriving mix of antique shops, restaurants and commercial endeavors. He missed out on a chance to protest the decision when he missed the miniscule announcement in the local paper announcing the local government’s decision. Mr. Brody stood his ground and decided his only course of action was to take them to court. A decision is pending.
Lakewood, Ohio – An entire neighborhood was condemned because the city decided that the older colonial homes were a “blight” because they had small backyards and the homes were not built with two-car garages. Naturally, immediately thereafter the city gave the land to a rich real estate developer to build expensive condominiums and stores.
Bremerton, Washington – In one of the more disgusting cases, the city of Bremerton, Washington took an 85-year old woman’s home (after she had lived there for 55 years), for the purported purpose of building a sewage treatment plant. Somehow, magically, the property wound up in the hands of an auto dealer.
New Jersey - In one case in Maplewood, New Jersey, the government proposed building a new police station by ousting five businesses and four private houses. The citizens rose up and forced the township committee to reverse the decision. Why am I suspicious that some public servant is pocketing a few bucks from this shady deal?
In another instance of big business ruling the day, in Long Branch, New Jersey, hundreds of residents were forced to pack their belongings to make way for the private development of luxury homes and apartments, which of course the displaced residents couldn’t afford. But many citizens are fighting back. 36 homeowners who own property bounded by Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace and Seaview Avenue have banded together to form a group, MTOTSA, an abbreviation for the three street names. The city has declared their neat and well-manicured bungalows and ranch houses a “blighted” area. The Long Branch Redevelopment Zone, a sprawling $1 billion multi-phase project where townhouses typically sell for between $400,000 and $2,000,000 has used its economic muscle to push out the majority of the mostly long-term residents. City officials claim that most of the 140 homes were acquired without the need to impose eminent domain, but in reality the sellers said that the implied threat of eminent domain alone was enough to force them to sell. 21 homes were seized through eminent domain, with ongoing court battles over the value of the seized property. MTOTSA has formed their own web site, http://www.mtotsa.com/, in which the residents request support in the form of both financial contributions to fight this violation of their civil rights, or you can volunteer your time, expertise, products or services.
New London, Connecticut - in perhaps the death knell to the fight against the abuses of Eminent Domain, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that the city of New London, Connecticut was within its rights to proceed with a plan to replace an older neighborhood with an $350 million upscale development of office spaces, a hotel, condominiums, and a “riverwalk.” The ruling means that the owners of 15 homes who had resisted the plan and refused to accept the city’s offer of “fair compensation” are looking for a new place to live. Below is a picture of one of the “economically depressed” New London homes. They unsuccessfully argued that the intent of the V Amendment of the Constitution was never intended to permit the taking of land to enable private economic development, even development that would enhance the tax base, and that land could only be taken to permit actual ownership or use by the public, such as with the construction of a school or library.
In their ruling, the Supreme Court provided their interpretation of the term “public use” within the Constitutional clause, “…nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” The justices incredibly ruled that “public use” was more properly defined as “public purpose,” an extremely broad and dangerous definition. Typically, conservative members of the court voiced very strong dissent against the ruling. Even Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who has generally been associated with liberal opinions, on this occasion, protested the decision saying, “Under the banner of economic development, all private property is now vulnerable to be taken and transferred to another private owner, so long as it might be upgraded.” Liberal Justices who voted in the majority opinion included Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony M. Kennedy and David H. Souter. I only ask one question, “How did these people pass the bar exam and even more incredulously become justices in the highest court in the land?” This ruling is another imperfect example of the “judicial activists” who are offering opinions that promote their personal political objectives instead of reflecting an unbiased interpretation of the Constitution. How can any rational supposedly well-educated legal mind come to the conclusion that “public use” can be construed as “public purpose?”
The fifth Amendment was added in 1789 and reads as follows:
“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
Note the wording of the entire amendment. The first ten amendments that were added to the Constitution were, for the most part, written into the Constitution as a “Bill of Rights” to provide additional protection for Americans from the omnipresent powers of governments. Our Founding Fathers must be rolling over in their graves at this latest affront to the idea that the fifth Amendment would be used against the very people it was designed to protect by excluding government from seizing people’s property without any recourse.
In theory, there is no need to invoke eminent domain if developers are willing to pay what owners may themselves consider just compensation, but just compensation may differ substantially from so-called fair market value given the sentimental and other values many of us attach to our homes, wherein many of us have labored for years devoting many hours of loving care to turn our homes into personal sanctuaries to escape the turmoil of every day life. Even more disparaging, eager sellers will be hurt by this ruling, since developers will have every incentive to lowball their bids now that they can freely threaten to invoke eminent domain. Be aware that this decision does not affect every state in the union as some intelligent legislators (an endangered species, I’m sure) saw the handwriting on the wall and wrote very specific rules regarding seizure of private property into their state constitutions.
And of course what would we expect from the New York Times regarding this travesty. In an editorial on June 24, 2005, they stated, “The Supreme Court’s ruling yesterday that the economically troubled city of New London, Connecticut can use its power of eminent domain to spur development was a welcome vindication of cities’ ability to act in the public interest. It is also a setback to the property rights movement, which is trying to block government from imposing reasonable zoning and environmental regulations.” Imposing reasonable zoning and environmental regulations? What does that have to do with the ruling regarding New London? The ruling is the simple case of big money and big government trampling all over the little guy, again. But what else should we expect from the New York Times? I sincerely hope that their readership levels fall through the Black Hole of Calcutta.
This decision, of epic importance in the annals of American history, opens the floodgates for any municipality to throw any homeowner onto the street for virtually any trumped up reason when big development money desires their property in collusion with a government agency. The ownership of private property is meaningless and dead in America.
Eminent Domain Can Get Downright Nasty
Not only is the use of Eminent Domain by government often an illegal misuse of the Constitutions’ eminent domain clause, it can often lead to blatant political corruption and Mafia-inspired tactics.
In 2004 in the state of New Jersey, David D’Amiano, a businessman and fund-raiser for outgoing Governor James E. McGreevey, was charged with extortion when he offered to intercede for a local farmer to get more money for his farm than the City of Piscataway and Middlesex County were prepared to pay. The government had condemned the land to preserve it, as they were concerned that the owner, Mark Halper, was negotiating with private developers to sell his 74-acre farm, his right under a free government. The government offered $3 million, which Halper considered far below its commercial value.
It is alleged that D’Amiano offered to intercede in return for $40,000 in cash to him and donations to the Democratic Party. After Halper made an initial payment of $10,000 to D’Amiano and $10,000 to the Democratic Party, the price for the property suddenly skyrocketed. All the time, Halper was working with the FBI and diligently following their direction. In May 2003, Middlesex County magically changed their offer to $7.3 million for the property, after D’Amiano had received the payoffs.
The scandal had all of the earmarks of a bloodcurdling Sopranos TV episode. According to prosecutors, D’Amiano told Halper that if he didn’t pay, “He could wind up with all of his body parts in a frying pan.” The U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie, who is responsible for prosecution, stated that, “This indictment paints a very vivid picture of the corrupt and broken political system in the state of New Jersey.”
Sometimes They don’t even inform you - Sometimes towns don’t need to resort to Mafia-inspired tactics. They just take your property and don’t bother telling the property owner. According to the Star-Ledger, in Passaic, New Jersey, Mr. Charlie Shennett, a disabled mechanic, wondered why he had not received a tax bill for the vacant lot he owned since 1987, so he marched down to City Hall to find out. He was stunned to find out that the city had arbitrarily taken the property as part of a redevelopment package. The city set aside $14,730 for him as “just compensation” and then turned around and sold the same property to a developer Wayne Alston, a former councilman, for $60,000. Of interest, Alston previously tried to purchase the property from Mr. Shennett but was told it wasn’t for sale. Based on the history of New Jersey politics, is it any surprise that Mr. Alston served time in a federal slammer for corruption?
Mr. Shennett asked, “How can you do this to me? I paid my taxes.” City officials are now ducking the heat about how this happened although they claimed that they tried on numerous occasions to inform Mr. Shennett about the seizure. The most likely scenario is that some government crook figured they could make a tidy $45,000 off the back of a poorly informed citizen. Apparently, Mr. Shennett is not the only victim. Passaic has declared dozens of properties rundown or blighted. Mr. Shennett’s lawyer managed to get a Supreme Court judge to rule that the price the city offered as compensation was too low, and appointed a 3-man panel to determine the “fair market value,” as he won’t get his property back. Mr. Alston has already built on a house on his new property.
Other Violations of Civil Liberties
Books About Jesus Christ – Infringement of Church and State – A seven-year old girl was barred from reading aloud from a book about Jesus Christ, according to the Boston Globe. The teacher asked the children to bring books to class about their Christmas traditions. The girl brought a book, “The First Christmas,” to her second grade show-and-tell, while other students brought books about Santa Clause and other holiday customs. The teacher would not permit her to read from the book because its religious content made it inappropriate.
The girls’ parents have sued the Leominster school system in a Federal lawsuit claiming that school officials violated her constitutional rights to freedom of speech and religion. The girl’s lawyer stated that, “This is a troubling example of a school district that is clearly exhibiting hostility toward religion.”
1984 in 2005 – School children in Sutter, California are forced to wear a name badge containing the student’s name, grade and photo, but above all, the badge contains a Radio Frequency Identifier (RFID) to test a new high-tech attendance system. George Orwell must be rolling over in his grave. Civil libertarians have descended on the town of less than 3,000 people in droves. According to the Brittan Elementary School principal, Ernie Graham, he liked the RFID badge idea because it would streamline the taking of attendance, and track the location of the children more accurately. Even though a number of parents protested, school administrators said the program is mandatory and threatened to discipline – and even expel – students who don’t wear the badges. Big Brother is alive and well in Sutter.
FCC May Fine Pay-To-View Broadcasters – Congress is now proposing to fine cable, satellite and Internet pay-to-view broadcasts for what they consider to be “indecent” broadcasts. This is not public broadcasting by any stretch of the imagination, as users must pay a fee to watch these broadcasts. If parents are concerned about certain objectionable material on the airwaves they can either elect to not subscribe to HBO or Showtime or obtain one of the many tools that let them control the TV their children watch by blocking channels or installation of the V-chip. If you concur, write letters to your congressional representatives supporting the Stamp Out Censorship Act of 2005, HR1440, which would prohibit the FCC from “imposing penalties for indecent broadcasts on providers of video over cable television systems, satellite carriers, the Internet, or non-broadcast providers.” What’s next, book burnings?
Banning Smoking in Cars - As the perfect example of the height of stupidity, New Jersey Assemblyman John McKeon (D – West Orange) has introduced legislation to ban smoking in our own cars. What’s next, banning playing the radio, adjusting the seat or turning and talking to a passenger? But let’s go all the way and ban thinking in your car because that too likely causes accidents too if you are not totally focused on the road ahead.
But Jefferson police sergeant Eric Wilsusen, a 20-year veteran, stated he could not recall one accident that was attributed to someone smoking in his car.
How do morons like McKeon ever get elected? Why are this man and his cohorts not focusing on real issues that are critical to the voters like finding ways to reduce the state budget, offering solutions to property taxes or rooting out corruption? Over the last few months, legislation has been passed that dictates that public employees (including legislators) attend ethics courses in a vain attempt to halt the hopeless spiral of corruption within the state. The Apathetic Voter suggests that there is a far more pressing need for courses in the Constitution and constitutional law and the meaning of the term “civil liberties” for few are left for the citizens to enjoy thanks to the ignorance of our “elected” representatives.
Taxing Fast Food – The state of Iowa is planning to add $.80 to the cost of a pack of cigarettes. Now Detroit is hopping on the bandwagon by proposing to add 2% to the price of fast food (including items like salads and milk) in addition to the 6% state sales tax. Of course, the stated reasons for the additional taxes is to help people quit smoking and to eat less unhealthy fast food. The only reason for these new taxes is to find excuses to “beef up” the state’s income. Again the politicians are exploiting vulnerable populations. The mere fact that many years ago a woman (and her lawyer) was able to press a lawsuit past the laughing point by suing McDonald’s for making her child obese is indicative of the lunacy that permeates our society. If we are going to heavily tax smokers and the poor who are the predominate customers of the fast food joints, why not impose a tax penalty on people who drive excessive miles. Whoops! They are already planning for that scheme in California and Oregon. One college student switched cars from a gas-guzzling SUV to a fuel-efficient hybrid and saved $300 per month. Since the states are losing tax revenues as more and more people react to the price of gasoline, his innovative approach may be for naught as California is proposing to replace the gasoline tax with a “tax by the mile” tax plan. How will they know how many miles you’ve driven? Plans are afoot to install Global Positioning System (GPS) units in everyone’s car. Not only will Big Brother know exactly how much to charge you for mileage, the secret police will always know exactly where you are once you leave your house. And who will pay for the installation and maintenance of the GPS? What a great incentive NOT to buy fuel-efficient or hybrid cars. Government stupidity just keeps charging ahead.
Maryland Governor Vetoes Wal-Mart Healthcare Bill – Maryland Governor Robert L. Ehrlick Jr. vetoed a bill that would have forced companies with more than 10,000 employees to spend 8% of their payroll on healthcare benefits for their employees. The mere fact that the legislature passed this bill onto the governor demonstrates once again the country’s march to a socialist state. The wording of the bill was directed at only one company, Wal-Mart. On one side of the issue, Wal-Mart spends much less than their competition on employee benefits, which is one reason they are so successful, plus 80% of their vendors reside in communist China. On the flip side of the issue, because of the lack of adequate health benefits some Wal-Mart employees must rely on the state’s Medicaid program for their healthcare needs. The bottom line of this issue, however, is government has absolutely no business dictating how any company may spend it’s own operating capital. Other mechanisms must be found to remove Wal-Mart employees’ reliance on the state’s Medicaid program by cooperation between Wal-Mart executives and state government.
FCC May Fine Pay-To-View Broadcasters – Congress is now proposing to fine cable, satellite and Internet pay-to-view broadcasts for what they consider to be “indecent” broadcasts. This is not public broadcasting by any stretch of the imagination, as users must pay a fee to watch these broadcasts. If parents are concerned about certain objectionable material on the airwaves they can either elect to not subscribe to HBO or Playboy or obtain one of the many tools that let them control the TV their children watch by blocking channels or installation of the V-chip. If you concur, write letters to your congressional representatives supporting the Stamp Out Censorship Act of 2005, HR1440, which would prohibit the FCC from “imposing penalties for indecent broadcasts on providers of video over cable television systems, satellite carriers, the Internet, or non-broadcast providers.” What’s next, book burnings?
Is the Real ID Act the Real Thing? – The U. S. Senate unanimously passed the Real ID Act, which was buried within the second largest spending bill in the nation’s long history. The avowed purpose of the Real ID Act is to force states to abide by federal standards for driver’s licenses and citizen’s ID cards, and to “tie” their citizen databases to federal systems. The intended purpose of the Real ID Act is in response to the terrorist’s attacks of 9/11 to identify terrorists before they can act. In another example of the federal government’s trampling of state’s rights, the feds are using the tried and true “carrot and stick” approach with the new law by telling states unless they comply with the standards, funding for the program will be withheld, and more importantly driver’s licenses not in compliance will not be accepted by any federal agencies.
Some may see this new law as a blessing in that policing agencies will be able to ascertain a citizen’s identity by scanning their driver’s license/identity card. On the opposite hand, many of us view this as a significant abuse of our civil rights, in that “Big Brother” will finally get the “National ID Card” he has so long desired to be able to track citizen’s every move. This smacks precisely of the defunct Soviet Union, which used the same mechanism to track every Soviet citizen, who could not move or hold a job without a blessing from his or her superiors. As a minimum, the information to be stored in computer databases and embedded on the National ID card will consist of name, birth date, sex, an ID number (just like a convict), your address, and yet to be decided “physical security features designed to prevent tampering, counterfeiting, or duplication for fraudulent purposes.” I’m sure we all remember when the U. S. Treasury redesigned our currency with the magical stripe and new colors to prevent counterfeiting, crooks had bogus bills on the street within 2 weeks.
Within three years, if you are a citizen of the United States, you will not be able to travel on an airplane, open a bank account, collect Social Security, or take advantage of virtually any federal service. Although many citizens often question the agenda and reasoning of the Civil Liberties Union, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s technology and liberty program stated, “It’s going to result in everyone from the 7-Eleven store to the banks and airlines, which will demand to see your ID card. They’re going to scan it in. They’re going to have all the data on it from the front of the card…It’s going to be not just a national ID card but a national database.”
Do You Want More Information?
If you would like more information to fight the absurd legislature and court rulings, visit the web sites of these organizations: