On April 15, seven police officers in Peoria, Illinois raided the home of Jon Daniel and his roommates. They took various electronics, and kept several residents of the house cuffed for hours. The reason for this raid? Any good student of the current state of American policing might have guesses – was it drug trafficking? Immigration issues? Terrorism?
No. Nothing as disturbingly expected as all that. This particular raid was over a parody Twitter account made by Jon Daniel that mocked Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis, portraying him as a Rob Ford-esque party animal and user of recreational substances. Though Daniel eventually marked the account as fake, and then Twitter suspended the damn thing anyway, that wasn’t enough for Ardis, who filed a complaint with the police department. And three different judges signed off on the search warrant that permitted seizing electronics, computer equipment, and mysteriously, "cocaine, heroin, [or] drug paraphernalia."
Police came in, searched, seized, and interrogated for hours, then, unfortunately arrested Daniel’s roommate Jakob Elliot for felony pot possession. Daniel, the criminal mastermind behind the fake mayor, had "impersonating a public official" dangling over his head for a time, but Illinois state attorney Jerry Brady on Wednesday declined to press charges. Perhaps the cascade of mocking and outrage suddenly directed at Peoria helped that decision. It might just be that impersonating has to be in person according his reading of the Illinois statute.
(This is also good news for the makers of the multiple fake Jim Ardis accounts that took to Twitter in the last week. Not all of them are clearly marked parody either!)
The war on drugs was militarized under Ronald Reagan – but now the war on terror is an additional excuse, and the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security are additional sources of funding. By the time the average American began to get an inkling of how bad the drug war was, police had mission crept right into other areas where the Fourth Amendment should prevent their tread. But there are so many people and places being searched so often, it’s hard to know where to begin your objections. Even those of us well aware that something is horribly wrong become exhausted with cataloging the endless cascade of privacy violations perpetrated by police and federal law enforcement.
One new game is police clad like they’re going after a dangerous criminal while doing regulatory compliance checks. In March, a San Diego strip club was subjected to an hours-long search by police with guns and bulletproof vests. Officers reportedly made the dancers stand and be photographed for hours. Other strip clubs and dodgy massage parlors have had armed police banditos come in to make sure things were correct. Bars and any place with gambling may also get a regulatory check done by officers decked out in ass-kicking commando gear.
Federal law enforcement handles other excesses, including environmental issues such as killing baby deer currently living at wildlife refuges or scaring miners in Alaska; health, safety, and security ones such as stopping the sale of raw milk or counterfeit Super Bowl gear, or scooping up everyone’s data just to make sure no terrorism is happening. These agencies seem to have their own agenda and own rules, and nobody seems to ever consider just shutting them down.
It seems as if police excess is a popular focus of outrage today, thanks to the ease of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube sharing of footage of brutality. And yet, what ever changes? Every once in a while, a police officer goes to prison for something they have done. If a department is particularly awful, sometimes the Department of Justice will institute certain standards. The New York Police Department finally shut down their alarmingly broad spying program which affected Muslim communities in the city and in New Jersey – it only took more than a decade. The NYPD’s Stop and Frisk program which harassed thousands of youths, around 90 percent of whom hadn’t committed a crime, is now under the watchful eye of the DOJ, so that is at least an eye. But we still live in a world in which a mayor isn’t laughed out of office – in which a judge isn’t laughed off the bench – for sending police to someone’s home over a parody Twitter account; where the mayor can defend himself at a town meeting and refuse to admit the dystopian absurdity of his actions.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court decided in Navarette v. California that an anonymous 911 call that accused a driver of running the caller off the road was enough to uphold a vehicle search that ended up discovering marijuana. Justice Anton Scalia wrote a passionate dissent, saying "The Court’s opinion serves up a freedom-destroying cocktail." Perhaps. But myriad other decisions of the past several decades have done the same, all resulting in a withering away of Fourth Amendment protections, often based on an assumption of "good faith" on the part of police. And we let prosecutors and judges have their own long leashes for allowing searches of our homes, our cars, our businesses, and our persons. Instead of the last resort for the most dangerous criminals, these searches are commonplace. Nobody was hurt during the Peoria PD raid, so in some ways, what is Daniel complaining about? He got off easy. The charges are now dropped. Carry on with your lives, everyone.
But these violations must end, or this country will choke to death on its own law and order. Perhaps after the slow, slow, death of the war on drugs – which comes too late to save a few hundred thousand casualties – something will change. But maybe it won’t. Maybe it will just keep on going, and elected officials can keep standing up and saying, yeah, I filed a complaint. I had police search that house, and take those laptops and iPhones, and cuff those people for hours because my feelings were hurt – what are you going to do about it?
What are we going to do about it?
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.