The Mind of James Donahue

Names On Demand

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More Stripping Of Personal Freedom


By James Donahue


Everybody who watches television or movies about police stories knows about the Miranda warning. Because of a 1966 Supreme Court ruling, police officers have been required to read a list of personal civil liberties as a part of police arrest and questioning.


The very first line of that document reads: "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you . . ."


Well, we can toss that particular line out the window. The U. S. Supreme Court by a split 5-4 ruling has just reversed that original decision. The new 2004 ruling upholds laws in 21 states that give police the right to ask people their name and jail anyone that fails to cooperate.


In other words, police now can turn our silence into a criminal offense.


Privacy rights advocates argue that the ruling forces anybody, even innocent people questioned randomly on the street, to give authorities information that can be used in broad data searches.


A name opens the door to police computer searches that produce driver's license numbers, social security numbers, credit card numbers, past arrest and conviction statistics, debt information, bank records, and even medical records.


The court decision hinged on a case brought by Nevada rancher Larry Hiibel, charged with a misdemeanor because he refused to give a deputy his name and show identification. Hiibel claimed it was a violation of his civil rights.


The Fifth Amendment protects people from giving testimony against themselves in criminal proceedings. That usually applies to court testimony but it might be expanded to include the right of free citizens from being required to randomly turn over information to police officers without due process of law.


The Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable search and seizure of property.  


The court narrowly ruled, however, that forcing someone to give police their name does not violate their Fourth Amendment from unreasonable searches, and that name requests do not violate Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.


Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority, stated that "one's identity is, by definition, unique; yet it is, in another sense, a universal characteristic. Answering a request to disclose a name is likely to be so insignificant in the scheme of things as to be incriminating only in unusual circumstances."


On the dissenting side, Justice Paul Stevens wrote that forcing people to divulge their name goes too far. "A name can provide the key to a broad array of information about the person, particularly in the hands of a police officer with access to a range of law enforcement databases."


At the heart of the decision was the nation's paranoid-based war on terrorism. Lawyers for the justice groups argued that a decision in favor of the rancher would have protected terrorists and encouraged people to refuse to cooperate with police.


Chalk up another victory for the black booted thugs that patrol our streets, playing the harassment game with average Joe Citizen. I know how that game is played. During my years as a police, court and crime reporter, I rode in police cars, watched and listened to the mind-set of cops, and understand the games they play, sometimes out of sheer boredom.


And after being on the inside, I moved into new territory where police didn't know me on a personal basis. Then I felt the sting of the law from the eyes of the average guy on the street.


It is not pleasant to be pulled over on the side of the road, on a dark country road, by armed officers and forced to stand in the glare of a bank of flashing and ultra-bright lights, showing my papers, just because I looked suspicious or was driving a few miles over the limit.


I once had an officer pull a gun on me because he thought I matched the description of a fleeing bank robber in a nearby town.


That old concept among police that reads "to protect and serve" is long forgotten. Police are no longer peace keepers. Rather, they are enforcers. For all practical purposes, we now live in a police state. There is a distinct feeling among the American people that when it comes to police there is a "them and us" way of thinking.


This court ruling is only going to make that barrier worse.

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