Tag Archives: Fourth Amendment

Change Is In The Air: Alleged Pot Smell No Longer Constitutes Reasonable Suspicion in Massachusetts

marihuana-syringe

It was clear from the moment that Massachusetts decriminalized the ownership of small amounts of pot, that it would create a problem for the police. Specifically, it would create a problem for their ability to continue to make the 6.5% of arrests nationwide, as of 2010, that related to pot specifically [source: FBI Uniform Crime Reports].

Let’s say that you’re a police officer, and you see a “gang member” or other darn no-goodnik driving down the block like they own the place, and maybe, as they’re driving, expressing a less than full appreciation of the patriotic protection you are providing to the community. If you pull them over, and claim to smell pot, then, whether or not there is actually pot in the car, the officer’s “good faith” belief that there might have been pot, renders a search of the car valid and allows into evidence the fruits of any such search.

Now, reports the Globe, that’s no longer true in Massachusetts. The Supreme Judicial Court has ruled unanimously that, as it is no longer actually criminal to possess small amounts of pot, police can no longer use the smell of burning or unburned marijuana to justify a warrantless stop and search of a car. The Justices explicitly rejected the argument that it was still a valid pretext for a stop because pot remains illegal under federal law.

In this instance, the SJC has substantially strengthened the liberties of everyone, including non-pot-smokers like myself. This was a case where the War on Drugs had effectively allowed an officer’s mere word (sometimes supplemented by the highly questionable evidence of an alerting dog) to open up anybody’s car contents to a warrantless search.

It is a sign that as a society we are moving beyond that kind of madness, that we can recognize that there are better things for the police to be doing, and that therefore fewer drivers will be stopped based on a hunch or on prejudice. In turn, this means that fewer young people, especially people of color, will be shunted into the criminal justice system based on violations of the Fourth Amendment. Last, we can hope, there will also be an increase in people driving rather more slowly, and therefore possibly more safely, than average.

MA Fusion Center Reform Stalls Out

leo_reynolds_spy_modified

Digital Fourth’s second major campaign is to close the fusion centers, which are like mini-NSAs that gather data on residents’ “suspicious activities” in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Now, the major fusion center reform bill in the Massachusetts legislature has died in committee. In this post, we’re exploring why the Free Speech Act was important, and the challenges that lie ahead for fusion center reform in the Commonwealth.

Fusion centers aim to “encourage effective, efficient, ethical, lawful, and professional intelligence and information sharing; and prevent and reduce the harmful effects of crime and terrorism.” In practice, thanks to devastating reporting by the ACLU and by the US Senate, we know that their “Suspicious Activity Reports” (SARs) system has never actually thwarted a terrorist attack; that they routinely spy on peaceful dissidents and collect unverified, sometimes racially motivated gossip; and that the ocean of data on which they rely is so vast that they cannot prioritize and synthesize it in a timely way. Our own report on Massachusetts’ Commonwealth Fusion Center uses their own documents to demonstrate major threats to Constitutional protections from the fusion centers’ work.

To his everlasting credit, Rep. (now Sen.) Jason Lewis introduced the Free Speech Act (prior analysis here) to deal with some of these issues. Sadly, the Judiciary Committee has not moved forward with that bill this session, though they advanced another important but less controversial electronic privacy bill.

This points up two problems, even in Massachusetts, of fusion center reform. One, it’s hard to get people up to speed on fusion centers. They’re a very low-profile part of the surveillance state. People get more easily fired up about the NSA, because it has been all over the news for a year, but it’s hard to grasp the fact that every state government is complicit in mass surveillance and has the power to defund their own mass surveillance efforts. The evidence is already out there for lawmakers not only to advance the Free Speech Act, but to wonder whether it goes far enough; but both fusion centers in Massachusetts have so far failed to respond to our FOIA requests seeking transparency into their activities.

Sen. Lewis comments:

[the Free Speech Act] “is an important step in reining in the data collection of fusion centers, and would protect individuals from the collection of data relative to those activities covered by the First Amendment. It is critical that we strike the right balance between security and privacy protections, and I believe that this legislation accomplishes just that. I am eager to continue to move forward with this legislation, either this year, or upon filing it again next session.”

We Need Real Surveillance Reform, Not The House’s “USA Freedom Act”

shredded-constitution

Last week, the House of Representatives passed the bill called The USA Freedom Act, 303 votes to 121. Following a series of amendments, the bill as it passed in the end contained much weaker reforms than even the very modest ones it originally proposed. The Chair of the Judiciary Committee’s manager’s amendment removed two-thirds of its substantive reforms; the Chair of the Intelligence Committee and the White House worked hard to remove as much as possible of what remained, leaving a shell that will still permit mass surveillance.

The Fourth Amendment is clear: Mass surveillance is unconstitutional. A government search is unreasonable, and therefore unconstitutional, if it is not authorized beforehand by a warrant issued by a judge, on the basis of “probable cause” of involvement in an actual crime, supported by an “oath or affirmation, and particularly describing” the “persons or things to be seized.”

That’s what ought to happen. This bill, on the other hand, would allow government searches of millions of innocent people’s data and movements, not based on probable cause or even reasonable suspicion of their personal involvement in a crime, but simply on any “selection term” vaguely associated with a target of surveillance. The “selection term” could be as broad as the government likes, covering, for example, everyone born in Hawaii, or everyone with the middle name Hussein. The argument for this “reform” that supporters are touting is that this is better than the current government practice of collecting everything with no selection term at all. While that’s true, it misses the larger point. The standard is individualized probable cause warrants, not “whatever is most convenient for the NSA.” A standard that can be redefined at will is marginally – if at all – better than having none.

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Animal welfare clashes with the Fourth Amendment in Lynn

In April, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts expanded the circumstances under which police could enter a home without a search warrant.

The facts of the case are of a nature almost calculated to extinguish sympathy with the defendant. As reported in the Lynn Daily Item, the Duncan family mistreated their dogs and left them outside in January of 2011.

Massachusetts in a typical January is no picnic.

Massachusetts in a typical January is no picnic.

A neighbor called the police, and the police found two dogs dead in the front yard and a third starving to death.

Normally, the Fourth Amendment prevents access to the home or the “curtilage” (surroundings) of a home without a warrant based on probable cause. However, the Fourth Amendment is also honeycombed through with two centuries’ worth of exceptions and special circumstances driven by facts such as these. Here, the court ruled that the already-existing “exigent circumstances” exception to needing a warrant in order to save human life, also applied to animal life. The Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, among others, were pleased at the outcome.

We are not altogether so pleased at the implications of this ruling. Let me explain why.

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Why Would Anybody Distrust The Spies? Ben Wittes on the “Intelligence Legitimacy Paradox”

Ben Wittes of the Brookings Institute has a new article on the popular security blog Lawfare in which he worries that the intelligence project has lost legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

No kidding.

Wittes argues,

the threat environment America faces is growing ever more complicated and multifaceted, and the ability to meet it is growing ever-more-deeply dependent on first-rate intelligence. Yet at precisely the same time, the public has grown deeply anxious about our intelligence authorities and our intelligence community is facing a profound crisis of legitimacy over its basic authorities to collect.

He ascribes this to “technology”, but technology is not the reason for public skepticism here. The immortal Marcy Wheeler over at Emptywheel correctly points out that bringing the nation into war based on false intelligence may just have played a role in public skepticism. Trevor Timm would probably add that lying to get cases dismissed should create further public skepticism about intelligence agents’ claims. However, there’s a still larger question raised by the article.

Let’s talk about the “complicated and multifaceted threat environment”.

A realistic assessment of the threats to American national security today, relative to 25 years (1989), 50 years (1964) or 75 years ago (1939), would be as follows.

America faces today no major threats to its way of life.

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NH: Warrants now likely to be required for cellphones

doormat

Following on from February’s ruling by Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court that law enforcement needs a warrant to obtain cellphone location information, New Hampshire is now strengthening its laws relating to cellphone searches.

A short and simple bill introduced by Reps. Kurk, Sandblade and O’Flaherty, all of Hillsborough County, NH, provides that a warrant, “signed by a judge and based on probable cause,” is required for “information contained in a portable electronic device”. It’s not clear to me whether that would include cellphone location information or not, because that could be interpreted to not be “contained in” the phone. The House version includes misdemeanor penalties for a “government entity” which violates the act, as well as civil liability. The Senate version keeps civil liability, allowing a person to sue for damages, while removing the criminal penalties. This difference is what will be worked out in a joint committee in the coming week, before it heads to the Governor’s desk.

This is great news for the Fourth Amendment, and it’s good evidence that we can get meaningfully greater protections for our personal data by working through state legislatures.

UPDATE: A warrant is required only for phones that are password-protected. If you live in NH, or are visiting for the weekend, add that password!

New Police-Community Relations Bill Looking Good in RI

There’s a great new police-community relations bill up in Rhode Island. Randall Rose of the Rhode Island Coalition to Defend Human and Civil Rights (CDHCR) has the goods:

Image courtesy of Salon.com.

Image courtesy of Salon.com.

The Comprehensive Community-Police Relationship Act of 2014 has just been introduced in the RI Senate. This is the result of a compromise between civil-rights people working on the issue and Rhode Island’s police. It doesn’t have everything that civil-rights people might want, but the civil-rights people who negotiated it are confident that it doesn’t take any backward steps in people’s legal rights. No hearings have been scheduled yet. In the past, many bills addressing racial profiling have failed due to public police opposition, but this time the RI Police Chiefs Association says that they will not be testifying against the bill.

This is a significant step forward if we can pass the bill. Rhode Island already has a law on the books that says racial profiling is illegal, like about 20 other states, but we don’t yet have a law that takes serious steps to reduce racial profiling. As far as I know, RI will be the only state (if this bill passes) that will take enforceable steps to reduce racial disparities in community-police interactions.

The proposed law also includes some other good things for civil liberties:

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Racial profiling, Muslim surveillance, and the NYPD

NYPDOn Tuesday, April 15 the New York City Police Department (NYPD) announced it was disbanding a controversial unit that had been spying on Muslims since its inception in 2003. The NYPD’s “Demographics Unit” specifically gathered intelligence on Muslims living in New York City, New Jersey, and even as far away as Philadelphia. It sent plain clothed detectives to cafes, restaurants, and other community centers frequented by Muslims with the stated purpose of identifying potential centers of terrorist activity. Detectives were told to speak with the employees at such establishments about political issues in attempt to identify anti American sentiment. The NYPD also sent informants to Muslim student groups on various college campuses. Despite the wide breadth of surveillance, even the NYPD acknowledged that the program has failed to create a single lead.

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At 2014 Boston Marathon, bags searched without warrants at police checkpoints

UPDATE: The Bay State Examiner has informed us that the correct byline for this story is “Andrew.”

For the 2014 Boston Marathon, police established checkpoints on various streets near the finish line where private security guards searched the bags of any spectators who attempted to pass through. The checkpoints were part of a new security plan, which was put in place in response to last year’s Boston Marathon bombings, which killed three and injured more than 260 people.

Prior to the race, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) published a list of recommendations for spectators including no backpacks, no loose clothing, no costumes or masks, no liquids in excess of one liter, and no weapons of any kind. MEMA also said that spectators may have their bags and bulky items searched at the aforementioned checkpoints.

We saw a number of these checkpoints in action and observed that the searches were primarily carried out by private security guards under the watch of Boston police officers. Once a person’s bag had been searched, the security guards would attach a tag to it and allow the person through.

The searches were not voluntary. Each checkpoint featured a banner reading “All bags and containers are subject to search.” We saw one man being forcibly removed from the area beyond a checkpoint by police officers who noticed that his mesh bag did not have a tag on it. Police took the bag away from the man and would not allow him back into the area until a security guard had searched it.

search 1024x575 At 2014 Boston Marathon, bags searched without warrants at police checkpoints

A security guard searches through a man’s bag after police removed him from the area beyond a checkpoint

It was apparent that the police did not suspect the man had a bomb because they did not call a bomb squad to the scene. Instead, they asked the man for personal information such as his address, which they wrote down, and lectured him about the need to follow the rules the police had established.

“You got a bag, you put a tag on it. Okay? Simple,” one police officer told the man.

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