Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Feds

Of all the bizarre and disturbing aspects to the story widely report in the media yesterday (read Monica Davies reporting in the NYTimes) about the man impersonating a federal officer who led local law enforcement on a wave of house searches and arrests in a Missouri town this spring, the one that haunts me the most is the following:

Those whose homes were searched, though, grumbled about a peculiar change in what they understood — mainly from television — to be the law.

They said the agent, a man some had come to know as “Sergeant Bill,” boasted that he did not need search warrants to enter their homes because he worked for the federal government.
So, thanks to television!, people have a vague understanding that police ought to have a warrant before they could enter a persons home to arrest them or search through their private belongings. That's good, the right to privacy in one's home (at the very least) is guaranteed by something called the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution which provides as follows:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
But what is truly amazing, is the fact that "Sergeant Bill" was able to brush off such reservations by citing his status as a federal agent. Of course for students of constitutional law that is truly ironic, because for decades the 4th Amendment was believed only to apply to the federal government! (It was not until the 1949 case of Wolf v. Colorado that the Supreme Court recognized that that protections of the Amendment applied against state law enforcement officials).

But while Sergeant Bill's brush off makes no constitutional sense, it does resonate deeply with the constitutional deformation that governing through crime has wrought on the American polity. Indeed, the single greatest problem with our 40-year-old "war on crime" is precisely that it has been "led" by the federal government. The feds, who were deliberately deprived of a "police power" by the framers, should by nature have little capacity to set the agenda for states and local communities as they police themselves.

Criminologically, the federal government's take over of crime control practices in America, beginning in the 1960's (and supported by liberals and conservatives) has been a disaster. Almost all crime is local and requires deliberative strategies based on local knowledge. Instead, our crime policy has been set from the federal level where it is most certain to be dominated by lurid ideological images having little real purchase on local conditions. Indeed, the endless focus on drugs, instead of crimes against people and property, which Sergeant Bill was aggressively pursuing, is the primary projection of the federal government which needs the interstate nature of trafficking to justify its ownership of the crime problem.

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