Academic journal article Policy Review

How Washington Subverts Your Local Sheriff

Academic journal article Policy Review

How Washington Subverts Your Local Sheriff

Article excerpt

In recent years, two tragic events have fundamentally changed the way many Americans view federal law-enforcement agencies and jeopardized public confidence in the federal government itself. In August 1992, U.S. marshals sought to arrest white separatist Randy Weaver at his remote mountain cabin in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. A confrontation resulted in the death of a federal marshal and Weaver's 14-year-old son. Special FBI teams were called in, and during the siege that followed, Weaver's wife was killed by an FBI sniper's bullet. At his subsequent trial, Weaver was acquitted of all but the most minor offenses.

Since Ruby Ridge, federal law enforcement as a whole has come under intense congressional and media scrutiny. Even those normally supportive of the police ask: Should the federal government have risked this loss of life and expended $10 million to capture a hermit whose only alleged crime was selling two sawed-off shotguns to an undercover federal agent?

In February 1993, a 51-day standoff first erupted when agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) tried to apprehend the leaders of the Branch Davidian cult at their compound in Waco, Texas, for the violation of federal gun laws. Four BATF agents lost their lives in the initial foray, and the subsequent siege ended in the deaths of 85 cult members, killed either by gunfire or by a suicidal fire that was ignited when FBI agents stormed the compound. Again, conflicting versions of events led to congressional hearings as well as public and media criticism.

Both these tragedies are the direct result of federal jurisdiction in crimes once considered wholly within the province of state and local police agencies. In neither incident did the underlying crime involve interstate activity or pose a threat to the federal government. Without the federalization of laws regulating firearms, a matter left to the states during most of our country's history, neither the BATF or FBI would have had jurisdiction at Ruby Ridge and Waco, and any law-enforcement actions would have been handled locally, if at all.

3,000 Federal Crimes

"We federalize everything that walks, talks, and moves,"chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee from 1986 to 1994.

Unfortunately, this is not much of an exaggeration: Today there are more than 3,000 federal crimes on the books. Hardly any crime, no matter how local in nature, is beyond the reach of federal criminal jurisdiction. Federal crimes now range from serious but purely local crimes like carjacking and drug dealing to trivial crimes like disrupting a rodeo. President Clinton's 1994 crime bill alone created two dozen new federal crimes. The bill federalized such crimes as drive- by shootings, possession of a handgun near a school, possession of a handgun by a juvenile, embezzlement from an insurance company, theft of "major artwork,"official assisting a federal law-enforcement agent. Although many of these crimes pose a real threat to public safety, they are already outlawed by the states and need not be duplicated in the federal criminal code.

The federal judiciary, for its part, has imposed national standards on all state criminal proceedings. In cases like Mapp v. Ohio and Miranda v. Arizona, the Supreme Court overruled state law and forced every state to exclude evidence under certain conditions. This massive federalization of the rules of evidence greatly increased the rights of criminal defendants and further burdened law-enforcement agencies throughout the nation. In addition, the federal courts have virtually taken over such vital state functions as the operation of prisons and mental hospitals. By 1993, the federal courts operated 80 percent of all state prison systems in America. Amazingly, federal judges determine virtually every detail of these prisons, including standards for food and clothing, grievance procedures, and cell space per convict.

The nationalization of criminal law has included the criminalization of environmental and regulatory laws. …

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