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Trying to frame a discussion


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Published on: Thursday, January 16, 2014

By Brian J. Karem

Last week in an editorial we called recent police activity regarding the bust of an alleged underage drinking party reprehensible.

We got a lot of grief for that comment and a lot of praise. A public relations officer from the police told us at the beginning of the week they wouldn’t provide us any more information because they didn’t like our editorial. The police chief, Thomas Manger, while upset with the editorial agreed, God bless him, that denying us information wasn’t on the table. I’ve always respected him even if I disagree with him.

Others told us what a great editorial it was coming to the aid of those who wish to defend their home and drink in the privacy thereof. Everyone missed the two points the editorial tried to make, so for that we must take the responsibility.

We will attempt again to frame the argument. First, it is of great concern if pizza delivery people are out providing detailed information on people’s private lives to police officers. The economic implications are bad enough – after all if you can’t trust your delivery man, who can you trust? But the Orwellian implications are upsetting as well.

The greater issue concerns privacy and civil rights. Did the police overstep their boundaries and do you, as a citizen, have a right to expect a warrant before a search and seizure of private property?

We are not defending underage drinking. We are not defending using fisticuffs or foul language to turn away police. Some have said, “What if these kids got loose on the roads and drove drunk and killed someone?” We cannot deal in speculation. One could speculate a great number of things that didn’t actually occur. We must deal in the facts as presented by the police. We are not entitled to our own facts, or to speculate what might have or could have occurred. The statement of charges, taken at face value is all we have at this point and all we can evaluate.

Taking those charges as facts we find the activity, again, reprehensible.

A homeowner told police not to enter her home.

Without a warrant and apparently before asking for identification, police seized property and began to arrest people on private property based entirely on the observation of the presence of alcohol and the assumption some of the people drinking were under age.

Take drinking out of the equation. Make it a different law that was apparently being violated.

What if a police officer, after a tip from a delivery man, saw through the window a man with a gun? What if he saw someone with a needle? What if a police officer observed someone breaking an anti-sodomy law? In any case would the mere observation of such events give the police officers the right to begin seizing property and initiating arrests?

What if the man with the gun had a permit and was in fact another police officer or a security officer preparing to go to work? What if the man using a needle wasn’t a heroin addict but a doctor or a diabetic?

It is a slippery slope down which we tumble when we make assumptions based on mere observation and allow the violation of privacy rights without a disinterested third party – a local judge assessing the observations of the police officer.

Far from inhibiting police work, the judge can ask the salient questions to see if the officer’s work passes muster and is worthy of a warrant. It is part of due process. In most cases then and only then are people arrested and property searched and seized.

There is a long tradition, older than The Constitution but codified in its Bill of Rights, supporting the idea police officers must have not only probable cause, but clear evidence to proceed in searching and seizing property from private citizens on their homestead.

That is the cold, hard logic and we still believe it to be reprehensible to circumvent this in pursuit of alleged lawbreakers.

The emotion from both sides in this argument obfuscates the hard logic and makes serious debate of the issue nearly impossible.

Many of us have seen the stories, or know of people who’ve been drinking and driving and the serious, fatal results that can and do occur. The worst case scenario didn’t occur in this case and some will argue it is because of the action taken by police. We will never know if, left to their own devices, the family in Damascus and their guest would’ve merely drank happily and gone to bed that night without harming anyone.

They deserved the right to do so. That is the other insidious issue lurking under the surface. Police are not our parents. They are flawed human beings as we all are.

I respect the job the police do but discretion is the better part of valor. We’re all better served when that is the case. Be discreet. Next time get a warrant first. You can’t argue with a warrant.

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