Magazine article Insight on the News

Devil Lurks in the Details of HR 666

Magazine article Insight on the News

Devil Lurks in the Details of HR 666

Article excerpt

If there is one lesson to learn from the tragedies in Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, it is the need for renewed vigilance in safeguarding our constitutional liberties from an increasingly gung-ho federal law enforcement. Yet, even as Congress concludes public hearings about these unsettling incidents, lawmakers are preparing to weaken the nation's civil-rights laws and expand the government's police powers to make it easier to conduct Rambo-style raids in the future.

The Republican "Contract With America" is designed to set the nation on a bold new course. But the GOP crime legislation of 1995 would push the country well beyond anything the Framers' contract included when they laid the cornerstones of freedom and democracy more than 200 years ago.

One of our most important liberties is spelled out in the Fourth Amendment, promising that all citizens shall be "secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." Generally, to breach the right to privacy, the authorities first must obtain a warrant from a neutral judge who determines whether there is "probable cause" to conduct a search. Otherwise, the government could invade one's activities or communications at will.

This compact soon may change, though. HR 666 - which passed in the House Feb. 8 - proposes to deal with the problem of crime by creating a "good faith exception" for "warrantless" searches. Under this statute, federal prosecutors could use evidence obtained illegally as long as an agent tells a judge, days after the episode occurred, that they meant well when they violated someone's rights.

Rep. Bill McCollum, a Florida Republican who introduced the measure in the House and cochaired the recent hearings on Waco, says the bill is intended to bring relief from the epidemic of crime sweeping the country. "It makes no sense to penalize the general public by allowing more criminals out on the streets, as are now being allowed, on technicalities," he said during floor debate.

Many are concerned that HR 666 would give far too much discretion to the police. What officer, even while beating someone, does not believe he or she is acting in good faith? What officer who finds something in an illegal search could not come up with a justification for the search? "There will always be people in law enforcement who are ambitious, who enjoy power and who will be willing to distort the truth to achieve their objectives or to hide from blame," says criminal defense attorney Tim Evans of Fort Worth, Texas. In the case of Waco, Treasury Department memos revealed that the internal "shooting review" was stopped because the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents' stories did not "add up." With Ruby Ridge, important documents were destroyed to protect those who changed the "rules of engagement."

To thwart police disregard for individual rights under the Fourth Amendment, the Supreme Court in Weeks vs. United States (1914) developed the "exclusionary rule." The rule prescribes that evidence obtained by illegal means may not be used in trials. Over the years, the court has emphasized that its purpose is to deter - to compel respect for the Constitution by removing incentives to break the law. But the court modified the rule in United States vs. Leon (1984), permitting evidence obtained in good faith under warrants later found to be invalid.

The Fourth Amendment, with its ban on unreasonable searches and seizures, was written to restrict police conduct. To remove the judge from the initial process would eliminate an important check on government police power. …

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