OPINION – Concerns about the Fourth Amendment are plentiful in our time. This essential part of the Bill of Rights definitively underscores our natural right to be left alone by government unless it can show specific probable cause that a crime may have been committed.
As a check on government power, the Fourth Amendment has fallen out of fashion at virtually every level.
As Edward Snowden revealed, in the name of national security, each of us is being spied on and tracked as potential criminals. National agencies sweep up every bit of electronic data they can on us without any particular reason to suspect we’ve committed an offense.
Even local law enforcement has been encouraged to conduct warrantless surveillance on our cell phones with the federal government advising them keep it secret.
Law enforcement at all levels is becoming more authoritarian and aggressive in the name of officer safety. Officers in Aurora, Colorado, are being sued after pointing guns at innocent motorists, including children, and handcuffing them while searching for a bank robber in 2012.
Routine warrant service has become an excuse to engage in paramilitary raids with a massive show of force — even when going after nonviolent offenders. Sometimes innocent people can pay a heavy price.
A recent drug raid in Georgia resulted in a 19-month-old child being critically injured when a flash-bang grenade was thrown into the crib where he was sleeping. Neither the suspect that police were looking for nor any drugs were found in the raid.
Even when a show of force isn’t used, municipal code enforcers have inserted themselves into the lives of St. George residents with impunity.
The limits on government power that protect us from arbitrary and abusive actions are being ignored and perverted in ways that dishonor the role of proper government.
So where is the good news?
For me, it was found in a Fourth Amendment panel discussion I moderated in Salt Lake City earlier this week. This public forum was a cooperative effort hosted by Libertas Institute in conjunction with ACLU Utah and the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
The panelists included Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes and Parker Douglas from the AG’s office, Utah County Sheriff and president of the Utah Sheriff’s Association Jim Tracy, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, the ACLU’s Senior Counsel for its National Center for Justice Kara Dansky, and a longtime SWAT veteran named Chris Gebhardt.
This group of panelists came together to discuss the balance between law enforcement and civil liberties. The questions they considered and discussed were anything but softballs.
They were asked about the role of law enforcement and whether it has changed over time. They examined whether the police are becoming more militarized and why and when forcible entry should and shouldn’t be allowed.
They were questioned as to whether the legislature should restrain police with laws dealing with SWAT, search and seizure, and forcible entry.
The panelists conferred about whether officer safety should ever be prioritized below the safety and well being of those in the home where a warrant is being served.
This is just a small sampling of the issues covered over the course of two hours. As might be expected, there were some points of clear disagreement. There were also some surprising and encouraging perspectives offered in support of Fourth Amendment protections.
Attorney General Sean Reyes made a powerful statement about how when it comes to enforcing the laws of the state, his office wants to do everything in its power to win. However, he stated that it would actually be better to lose than to win by skipping over due process or cutting the corners where solid police work is needed.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill observed that citizens play a key role in shaping the laws that must be enforced. When we allow virtually everything to become a police matter, our prisons and jails fill to capacity.
Gill noted that the top four nations in the world in terms of incarceration are the United States, China, Russia, and Cuba. For the freest country on Earth, we’re keeping some interesting company.
Finally, former SWAT team leader Chris Gebhardt said that the paramilitary raids that go wrong are too often involve not highly-trained SWAT officers, but inadequately trained task force members or patrol officers acting like SWAT. Gebhardt spoke of how de-escalation, in many circumstances, can actually be safer for the police and public alike.
Concerns about our dwindling Fourth Amendment are not falling on deaf ears, but they require greater participation from all of us in our civic duties.
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Bryan Hyde is a news commentator and co-host of the Perspectives talk show on Fox News 1450 AM 93.1 FM. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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