Keeping Government Bureaucrats Off the Backs of the Citizenry: The Supreme Court Responds

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Published on: June 25, 2015

“No man in the wrong can stand up against a fellow that’s in the right and keeps on a-comin’.”—Texas Rangers

In one swoop, on June 22, 2015, a divided U.S. Supreme Court handed down three consecutive rulings affirming the right of raisin farmers, hotel owners and prison inmates. However, this push back against government abuse, government snooping and government theft only came about because some determined citizens stood up and took a stand against tyranny.

The three cases respectively deal with the government’s confiscation of agricultural crops without any guarantee or promise of payment (Horne v. U.S. Department of Agriculture); the practice of police gaining unfettered access to motel and hotel guest registries (City of Los Angeles v. Patel); and the use of tasers and excessive force by prison officials (Kingsley v. Hendrickson).

Whether these three rulings will amount to much in the long run remains to be seen. In the meantime, they sound a cautiously optimistic note at a time when police state forces continue to use advancing technologies, surveillance and militarization to weaken, sidestep and flout the Constitution at almost every turn.

In the first case, Horne v. U.S. Department of Agriculture, a 5-4 Supreme Court declared that raisin farmer Marvin Horne deserves to be compensated for the official seizure of one-third of his personal property by the government.

The case arose after independent raisin farmers in California were fined almost $700,000 for refusing to surrender about 40% of the raisins they produced to the government as part of a program purportedly aimed at maintaining a stable market for commodities.

Marvin and Laura Horne are independent farmers in California and have been growing raisins for almost half a century. During that time, the Hornes were subject to a Depression-era law promulgated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that aims to create “orderly” market conditions for raisins by regulating their supply. Supply is regulated by requiring that raisin producers surrender a certain percentage of their raisins (a so-called “reserve tonnage”) each year to an administrative committee.

In 2002-2003, the reserve tonnage was set at 47% of the crop. The reserve tonnage may be sold by the government with the government paying itself first for administrative costs, and then providing pro rata payments to participating farmers. However, in 2002-2003, raisin farmers received payments that did not cover the expenses of production and in 2003-2004, no payments whatsoever were made for reserve tonnage raisins.

Although the Hornes attempted to arrange their operation to avoid having to give up part of their crop, the USDA assessed a monetary penalty of $695,226 against the Hornes for having failed to surrender raisins they produced between 2002 and 2004. The Hornes appealed this order, arguing that the requirement that they surrender, on pain of monetary penalty, a percentage of their property without any guarantee of compensation violated the command of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that private property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit determined that the Fifth Amendment affords less protection to personal property than real property (land), and upheld the penalties. The Hornes subsequently appealed that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition on government confiscation of property applies not only to the appropriation of land but with full and equal force to personal property such as agricultural crops.

The bigger picture: Whether you’re talking about raisins confiscated by the USDA, homes expropriated by government agencies under the rubric of eminent domain, or cars and cash seized by asset forfeiture-driven highway police, these various takings all add up to the same thing: government theft sanctioned by an endless assortment of arcane laws. Unfortunately, as I point out in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, the lines between private and public property have been so blurred that private property is reduced to little more than something the government can use to control, manipulate and harass the citizenry to suit its own purposes, while ‘we the people’ have been reduced to little more than tenants or serfs in bondage to an overbearing landlord. This is feudalism revisited.

In the second case handed down on June 22 (City of Los Angeles v. Patel), a 5-4 Supreme Court struck down a Los Angeles ordinance that permits the police to check guest registries at motels and hotels at any hour of the day or night without a warrant or other judicial review.

Section 41.49 of the City of Los Angeles Municipal Code requires all hotel owners to maintain a registry that collects information about persons staying at the hotel, including their names, addresses, vehicle information, arrival and departure dates, room prices, and payment methods.

Under this law, it is a crime for a guest to provide false or misleading information in registering at the hotel. The law also requires that hotels make these records available to any officer of the Los Angeles Police Department for inspection on demand, thereby allowing law enforcement officers to inspect this information at any time regardless of whether there is consent to the inspection or a warrant allowing it. Additionally, police need not have any measure of suspicion in order to review hotel registries under the ordinance and there need not be any history of criminal activity at the hotel. A hotel operator is guilty of a crime if he or she refuses to allow inspection.

In 2005, the Los Angeles Lodging Association and various owners and operators of hotels and motels in the city filed a lawsuit challenging the requirement of the ordinance that they grant unfettered access to their guest registries, arguing that the ordinance is a patent violation of the Fourth Amendment’s protection of persons’ houses, papers and effects against “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

In December 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the hotel owners’ claims, ruling that the inspection of hotel registries by police is clearly a search for purposes of the Fourth Amendment. The Ninth Circuit also rejected the claim that hotels are a “closely regulated” industry that should expect government inspections, thereby holding that police are not excused from the general search warrant requirement.

Citing a fundamental right to privacy, travel and association, civil liberties advocates argued that the ordinance, which is similar to laws on the books in cities across the nation, flies in the face of historical protections affording hotel guests privacy in regards to their identities and comings-and-goings and burdens the fundamental rights of travel and association. Moreover, police should not be given carte blanche to rummage through records containing highly personal information because this could chill the exercise of other constitutional rights, such as the right to travel and the right of association.

The bigger picture: The practice of giving police officers unfettered, warrantless access to Americans’ hotel records is no different from the government’s use of National Security Letters to force banks, phone companies, casinos and other businesses to secretly provide the FBI with customer information such as telephone records, subscriber information, credit reports, employment information, and email records and not disclose the demands. Both ploys are merely different facets of the government’s campaign to circumvent, by hook or by crook, the clear procedural safeguards of the Fourth Amendment and force business owners to act as extensions of the police state.

In the last case, a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Kingsley v. Hendrickson that a lower court used an improper test to determine whether guards used excessive force against a pretrial detainee.

The case involves a Wisconsin man who alleged that he was subjected to unreasonable and excessive force in reckless disregard for his safety when prison guards forcibly removed him from his jail cell and subdued him with a stun gun.

In 2010, Michael Kingsley was arrested and booked into the jail in Sparta, Wisconsin, and detained there pending his court appearances on the charges against him. About a month into his detention, guards noticed that a sheet of yellow paper was covering the light above Kingsley’s bed, which was a common practice among detainees in order to dim the brightness of the facilities lights. The guards ordered Kingsley to remove the paper, but he refused, pointing out that he had not put the paper over the light.

The next morning, Kingsley was again ordered to remove the paper and again he refused. The jail administrator was then called, who told Kingsley he would be transferred to another cell. Five officers then came to the cell and ordered Kingsley to stand up. Kingsley protested that he had done nothing wrong, but was told to follow the order or he would be tasered.

Kingsley continued to lie face down on his bunk but put his hands behind his back and was handcuffed. The officers pulled Kingsley off the bunk, which allegedly caused injuries to his knees and feet and inflicted pain so severe Kingsley could not stand or walk. The officers then carried him to a receiving cell, placed him face down on a bunk and attempted to remove the handcuffs.

Although Kingsley denied that he resisted, the officers allegedly smashed his head into the concrete bunk and placed a knee into his back. When Kingsley told the officer to get off him, one of the officers tasered Kingsley for five seconds. As a result of this incident, Kingsley sued several officers involved, alleging that they used excessive force against him and that this violated his constitutional right to due process. A jury ruled against Kingsley, who subsequently lost his appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Weighing in on the case, civil liberties advocates asked the Supreme Court to remove restrictions some courts have imposed on civil rights lawsuits for excessive force by inmates against jail personnel, thereby discouraging the use of excessive force by prison officials.

The bigger picture: In a police state, there is no need for judges, juries or courts of law, because the police act as judge, jury and law, and their version of justice is one-sided, delivered at the end of a gun, taser or riot stick. Unless the courts and legislatures act soon to change this climate of government-sanctioned police brutality, we may find that there is no real difference between those who are innocent, those accused of committing crimes and those found guilty, because we will all suffer the same at the hands of government agents.

Taken individually, these three cases may appear to be little more than small, procedural slaps on the wrist to government agencies that are so bloated, out-of-control and unaccountable as to scarcely register the slaps. However, taken together they serve as a potent reminder of what happens when a determined citizenry takes a collective stand against government abuse. That said, if “we the people” don’t keep pushing back, standing up, and holding government officials accountable to the rule of law, these victories will do little to keep government bureaucrats off the backs of the American citizenry.

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