Efforts to fight terrorism and crime while preserving personal liberty are becoming increasingly worrisome.
Recently, stories have appeared about National Security Agency surveillance, New York City’s “stop and frisk” law, and some governments forcing innocent people to turn over their property.
Each of these reports raises legitimate concerns about striking a reasonable balance between protecting people without making them pay an unacceptably high price for the protection.
There is no question that Edward Snowden leaked NSA data that he had pledged to protect. But for some people, he should lauded as a whistleblower who revealed that the NSA was snooping too deeply and unnecessarily into the communications of average citizens.
Ultimately, whether Snowden should be punished for leaks, praised for whistle-blowing or both may be determined in a court. In the meantime, however, it is clear his actions have forced the NSA to admit some questionable activities.
The agency has now acknowledged that it tapped communications of Americans using an expansive definition of its authority and may go far beyond what Snowden revealed. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that NSA can access the contents of most Americans’ Internet communications, both emails and phone calls.
Perhaps the NSA has been justified in some or all of the data collection that Snowden revealed. But, before Americans are subject to such scrutiny, many feel that the agency’s actions should be reviewed more fully by Congress and under better control than is exercised by the secret court that authorizes searches.
For the moment, Snowden has at least raised the question if there is a satisfactory balance between government keeping a watch on people and people keeping a watch on government.
In the New York City case, a federal judge took a careful look at the police policy of stopping people on the street usually with no obvious cause and subjecting many of them to embarrassing or even abusive public searches.
The judge found that in about nine cases out of ten the police came up with no reason to stop a person. And those subjected to “stop and frisk” were overwhelmingly black and Hispanic.
The police defense was that members of these groups disproportionately commit crimes in the city. While rejecting that yardstick, the judge found the police overdid it even by that standard.
But the crime rate had gone down, the police said, since the policy was put into effect. The judge did not ban the practice, but ruled the police would need to have better evidence to avoid violating the Constitution’s prohibition of “unreasonable searches and seizures.”
Like the NSA situation, the argument that invasive policies had worked might not be sufficient in a society in which a balance is supposed to be struck between well-intentioned government action and individual rights.
The scandal in some states of what is known as “civil forfeiture” was revealed by an article in the New Yorker magazine that has stirred widespread reaction.
Civil forfeiture works this way. You are driving along a road, and the police pull you over. They find you have a lot of cash in the car, which you claim to be transporting to the bank for your church. The police consider the cash suspicious and say they will charge you with carrying drug money.
They may have stopped you acting under a federal-state anti-terrorism program, though they do not charge you with being a terrorist.
They take you into the station, where they have an interesting proposition. If you simply turn the cash over to them, you will be free to go. If not, a cell awaits you while they file drug-related charges. You pay.
Civil forfeiture is allowed in federal matters and in most states. It was sold as a way to fight organized crime without having to go through a full criminal trial.
In some states, the police and local governments are allowed to keep some of the proceeds they collect. That gives them the incentive to stop anybody they can and seize anything they can.
The magazine reported that in Texas, civil forfeiture can be routine, big business and relentlessly unjust. In Florida, one small department seized $50 million and used the money to pay for police junkets and a fancy boat. In Maine, the money goes into general funds, removing the incentive.
These stories make it easy to understand why liberals and conservatives, though they distrust government for different reasons, are concerned about government incursions on personal rights.
They worry that being innocent may not be enough to protect people from their government.