Privacy Issues: DC Fourth Amendment Free Zone

DC DC unreasonable searches and seizures update…

‘Privacy’ doesn’t matter to those seeking to control you
Taylor Armerding
March 08, 2009
The right to privacy is a very big deal in this country.
Well, at least when it comes to abortion. In other areas, not so much. Call it the selective right to privacy.
Privacy was the primary justification cited by the U.S. Supreme Court to make abortion legal. The court couldn’t find in the actual Constitution any “right to privacy” that would extend to abortion, so it had to imagine that it existed in a “penumbra” of the document.
This was, of course, long ago — way back in 1972. But, the decision stands. Privacy is still the holy grail, regarding abortion, for the party that now controls the White House, both houses of Congress and soon the Supreme Court, since President Obama has made it clear he will not nominate a justice to the high court who does not first and forever pledge allegiance to abortion. You know, because personal privacy is so, so important.
All of which makes me wonder why it is that the advocates for privacy concerning the bedroom and the inevitable results of the bedroom aren’t expressing similar outrage over the erosion of privacy in other areas. In fact, it is not that they are simply silent about it — some of the most liberal states in the country are promoting that erosion.
It goes well beyond the cameras that are already taking video of us every time we drive through a toll booth, eat at a restaurant, buy gas, shop at the mall or even walk down the street. That is disturbing, but you can make a credible argument that if you are on public property or somebody else’s property, you can’t have the expectation of privacy.
It is also is much different from government invading your private space, as is in the works with the so-called “enhanced driver’s license” that Janet Napolitano, new head of Homeland Security, favors. It would put a radio chip in your license. Whenever you were carrying your license, you could be tracked anywhere and everywhere.
Closer to home, New Hampshire is considering a bill proposing that it join a half-dozen other states, including liberal Maine and Vermont, in banning smoking in cars where children are present.
State Rep. Mary Griffin, R-Windham, is one of the sponsors. She says it is not aimed at fining drivers, but simply at protecting the children. Interesting how a law that is not “aimed” at fining drivers will, in fact, fine drivers.
But, of course it is about “the children.” The children have for decades been the most convenient, most compelling catch-all justification for the erosion of liberty and privacy that is available. Which is ironic, since right up to the day that “the children” are born, they are legally as disposable as a tumor if they are not wanted.
They provide an automatic, thought-free guilt trip: If you oppose this invasion of your privacy, you want children to DIE!!
So, in an increasing number of states, it is not about how you drive. It is about what you are doing when you drive.
And I wonder, how big a step is it from your car to your home? So what if you don’t smoke in the car? If you smoke when you get home, your kids are breathing second-hand smoke. Don’t they need protection from that? Do you want more children to die?
How big a step is it from cigarettes to food? Newburyport has already banned parents from putting candy in their kids’ lunchboxes. Why shouldn’t the school department step into the home and control what they eat there, too? You know, “it takes a village …” and all that.
I’m all for protecting children. I tried my best to protect my own and am thankful they all made it to adulthood. I never smoked, in the car, at home or anywhere else. I agree that smoking is not good for you or your children, although Rep. Griffin takes it too far when she asserts that a child who lives with a smoker is, “not going to live to be old.” The risk goes up, but it is not an automatic death sentence. I’ve known chain smokers who made it into their 90s.
But when government reaches into your private space to punish you for using a legal product, it has crossed a line that even “the children” cannot justify. If elected officials don’t want people smoking in cars, they should outlaw tobacco outright. They won’t do that, of course, because tobacco brings in so much money, and money is much more important than the children or the right to privacy.
Maybe none of this sounds like a big deal. But little deals, collectively, become very big deals. If the Democrats now in power are serious about privacy, they should demonstrate it in areas other than abortion.
Taylor Armerding is associate editorial page editor of The Eagle-Tribune. He may be reached at 978-946-2213 or at Read him daily at The Soapbox, the Eagle-Tribune blog at

Washington, D.C. Is a Fourth Amendment-Free Zone

October 29, 2008
Charles Pe?a

While the Fourth Amendment guarantees “the right of the people to be secure in their persons … and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures,” the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) made it clear earlier this week that the Constitution does not apply in D.C. According to Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn, “Inspections could take place at any Metrorail station or Metrobus stop. They will be random, unannounced and focused on explosive detection.” While the justification supplied for ignoring the Constitution was one of deterring terrorists, the unfortunate reality is that this gross violation of rights is likely to be completely ineffective.

Comprising 86 Metrorail stations (many with more than one entrance) and over 12,000 bus stops, the WMATA operates the second-largest rail transit system and fifth-largest bus network in the United States. Given that there aren’t enough officers (WMATA or D.C. police) to conduct searches at all those stations and stops, a would-be terrorist only has to find a location without a checkpoint. Also, searches aren’t likely to be conducted 24 hours a day, which creates another easy way to exploit the program.

Moreover, because the searches will be random, the odds of catching anyone are low. Let’s assume that 700,000 people ride Metrorail on any given day and that ridership is evenly distributed between all 86 stations. Let’s also assume that searches are being conducted at half the stations. That means 350,000 people would be subject to search. If 1 in 10 persons are searched, only 35,000 out of 700,000 total riders (about 5 percent) will be searched. If there are 10 possible terrorists amongst 700,000 riders (an almost infinitesimally small percentage of the population), the probability of catching even a single terrorist as a result of a random search is near zero. In other words, it amounts to a finding-a-needle-in-the-haystack operation with odds that are only slightly better than winning a million dollars in D.C.’s Powerball lottery.

And it’s worth pointing out that by planning to conduct thousands of random bag searches, the WMATA assumes that terrorists would be too dim to adapt by, say, strapping bombs to their bodies. Yet adaptive behavior is almost second nature to a terrorist. If bombs are the threat the WMATA is worried about, a better idea is to have bomb-sniffing dogs at Metrorail stations and bus stops—but even then they can’t be everywhere at once.

Random searches reflect the post-9/11 preoccupation with trying to prevent the unpreventable. We would do well to remember what the IRA once said after a failed attempt on the life of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: “Today we were unlucky, but remember, we only have to be lucky once—you will have to be lucky always.” And it’s telling that British authorities chose not to institute random searches on the London tube system after the July 2005 bombings, recognizing that doing so would be ineffective and cripple their transportation system. Instead of trying to be lucky always, we would be better off adopting an approach based on resiliency—“the ability to recover readily from misfortune”—which accepts the cruel reality that terrorist attacks can happen.
So rather than playing the lottery with random searches with dubious effectiveness in preventing terrorist attacks, we would be better off ensuring that we have the capability to quickly recover from an attack while keeping the Metrorail and buses running (rather than having to shut down the entire system, which was the response on 9/11). This is exactly the approach the Israeli government has taken in response to the threat of suicide bombers on buses.

Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” The WMATA’s random searches will guarantee that we have neither.

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