A Fun Quiz on Military-Style Police Tactics

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Today’s Quiz:

You should find this one more difficult than the previous quiz.

Police did not carry out an aggressive, military-style raid to accomplish which of the following purposes?

    (a) To find the source of a parody Twitter feed

    (b) To check a bar for underage drinkers

    (c) To recover a large number of overdue library books

    (d) To enforce copyright law against a DJ

    (e) To check whether barbers had valid barbering licenses

    (f) To apprehend Tibetan monks who overstayed their visas

    (g) They did that in all these cases

I think it is worth considering this one for a moment, so I’m going to put the answer and further discussion after the jump below.

If you find it slightly terrifying that they did this (and by “this,” I mean used a SWAT team or a gang of officers using similar tactics) for any of those purposes, congratulations, you are sane. The answer is (c): to my knowledge, a SWAT team has never been used to recover overdue library books, but I think that example is no less ridiculous than the others. And in every one of those other cases, police aggressively stormed the premises with guns drawn, wearing body armor and even masks, though they had no reason to think there would be any danger.

The Tibetan monks were here on a peace mission, for Christ’s sake.

Well, not for Christ’s sake, but you know what I mean.

The monk raid went down in 2006, and some of the other examples are also not that recent. Some were mentioned in this article by Radley Balko almost three years ago, for example, along with others involving such diabolical activities as unlicensed poker games and stealing fish from a botanical garden. As Balko’s new book details, this trend has been getting worse and worse.

Developments over the past month provide some good news and some bad news.


Not a great idea

The good news is that the Eleventh Circuit held on September 16 that it does in fact violate the Fourth Amendment to conduct an aggressive, warrantless raid on a barbershop to make sure everybody had valid barbering licenses. This one did not involve an actual SWAT team, but it did involve the storming of a barbershop by at least 10 officers, some of whom wore masks and bulletproof vests. They ordered all the customers out, handcuffed the barbers, and proceeded to … check their licenses. They also searched the whole place just in case there was any “contraband” present. Results? Nothing. Not even an unlicensed barber.

After the barbers sued, the officers argued that they had “qualified immunity.” That’s a doctrine that protects an officer from liability unless the court finds the officer violated a “clearly established” right of which he or she should have known. The idea is to cut down on second-guessing officers who have made a tough decision in dangerous circumstances. Should it protect officers who held people at gunpoint to check their barbering licenses? Nope.

There is an exception to the warrant requirement for “administrative inspections” of regulated industries. (A similar justification is asserted by the TSA.) Plaintiffs conceded that this exception applied. But a warrantless search still has to be reasonable. See, e.g., U.S. Const. amend. IV (1791). This one wasn’t. In the court’s view, an armed raid of this kind “bears no resemblance to a routine inspection for barbering licenses,” a conclusion that seems pretty solid.

The bad news is that, as the court pointed out, it has ruled the same way in similar cases at least three times during the past 20 years. “We hope that the third time will be the charm,” it wrote. Yeah, us too.

Further bad news: the same week, an Illinois judge saw no problem with police raiding a home in Peoria in search of whoever was making fun of the mayor on TwitterTwo judges, in fact. First, one issued a warrant in this case, having been convinced there was probable cause to believe that someone at that address was committing “false personation of a public official,” namely Mayor Jim Ardis.

That dastardly crime is a misdemeanor even when it isn’t a parody protected by the First Amendment, which this likely was. And yet police detained five people, searched the home, and took every internet-capable device they could find. “They said there had been an internet crime that occurred at this address,” said one of the detainees. An internet crime! Well, that’s a perfectly good reason to go in hot, as long as you only bring internet guns. Also, note the past tense—the Twitter account had been shut down for weeks by the time this happened.

Ultimately, its creator wasn’t charged because the prosecutor decided “false personation” can only be committed in person, not on the internet. (Why this decision was made only after the raid is an excellent question.)  But they did find some pot, so they’re prosecuting one of his friends for that because war on drugs. The ruling linked above rejected that guy’s argument that the charge should be dismissed because the raid was illegal. The Twitter user is now suing the city, with the ACLU’s help, so there will be at least one more ruling on this case.

So far the only good news to come out of that incident is that the number of Twitter parody accounts mocking Jim Ardis has gone from one to eighteen.