John Whitehead's Commentary
‘We the Prisoners’: The Demise of the Fourth Amendment
“Our carceral state banishes American citizens to a gray wasteland far beyond the promises and protections the government grants its other citizens… When the doors finally close and one finds oneself facing banishment to the carceral state—the years, the walls, the rules, the guards, the inmates—reactions vary. Some experience an intense sickening feeling. Others, a strong desire to sleep. Visions of suicide. A deep shame. A rage directed toward guards and other inmates. Utter disbelief. The incarcerated attempt to hold on to family and old social ties through phone calls and visitations. At first, friends and family do their best to keep up. But phone calls to prison are expensive, and many prisons are located far from one’s hometown… As the visits and phone calls diminish, the incarcerated begins to adjust to the fact that he or she is, indeed, a prisoner. New social ties are cultivated. New rules must be understood.”—Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic
In a carceral state—a.k.a. a prison state or a police state—there is no Fourth Amendment to protect you from the overreaches, abuses, searches and probing eyes of government overlords.
In a carceral state, there is no difference between the treatment meted out to a law-abiding citizen and a convicted felon: both are equally suspect and treated as criminals, without any of the special rights and privileges reserved for the governing elite.
In a carceral state, there are only two kinds of people: the prisoners and the prison guards.
With every new law enacted by federal and state legislatures, every new ruling handed down by government courts, and every new military weapon, invasive tactic and egregious protocol employed by government agents, “we the people”—the prisoners of the American police state—are being pushed that much further into a corner, our backs against the prison wall.
This concept of a carceral state in which we possess no rights except for that which the government grants on an as-needed basis is the only way I can begin to comprehend, let alone articulate, the irrational, surreal, topsy-turvy, through-the-looking-glass state of affairs that is being imposed upon us in America today.
As I point out in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, we who pretend we are free are no different from those who spend their lives behind bars.
Indeed, we are experiencing much the same phenomenon that journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates ascribes to those who are banished to a “gray wasteland far beyond the promises and protections the government grants its other citizens” : a sickening feeling, a desire to sleep, hopelessness, shame, rage, disbelief, clinginess to the past and that which is familiar, and then eventually resignation and acceptance of our new “normal.”
All that we are experiencing—the sense of dread at what is coming down the pike, the desperation, the apathy about government corruption, the deeply divided partisanship, the carnivalesque political spectacles, the public displays of violence, the nostalgia for the past—are part of the dying refrain of an America that is fading fast.
No longer must the government obey the law.
Likewise, “we the people” are no longer shielded by the rule of law.
While the First Amendment—which gives us a voice—is being muzzled, the Fourth Amendment—which protects us from being bullied, badgered, beaten, broken and spied on by government agents—is being disemboweled.
For instance, in a recent 5-3 ruling in Utah v. Strieff, the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door for police to stop, arrest and search citizens without reasonable suspicion or probable cause, effectively giving police a green light to embark on a fishing expedition of one’s person and property, rendering Americans completely vulnerable to the whims of any cop on the beat.
In a blistering dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor blasted the court for holding “that the discovery of a warrant for an unpaid parking ticket will forgive a police officer’s violation of your Fourth Amendment rights.” Sotomayor continued:
This Court has allowed an officer to stop you for whatever reason he wants—so long as he can point to a pretextual justification after the fact. That justification must provide specific reasons why the officer suspected you were breaking the law, but it may factor in your ethnicity, where you live, what you were wearing, and how you behaved. The officer does not even need to know which law you might have broken so long as he can later point to any possible infraction—even one that is minor, unrelated, or ambiguous.
The indignity of the stop is not limited to an officer telling you that you look like a criminal. The officer may next ask for your “consent” to inspect your bag or purse without telling you that you can decline. Regardless of your answer, he may order you to stand “helpless, perhaps facing a wall with [your] hands raised.” If the officer thinks you might be dangerous, he may then “frisk” you for weapons. This involves more than just a pat down. As onlookers pass by, the officer may “‘feel with sensitive fingers every portion of [your] body. A thorough search [may] be made of [your] arms and armpits, waistline and back, the groin and area about the testicles, and entire surface of the legs down to the feet.’”
If you still can’t read the writing on the wall, Sotomayor breaks it down further: “This case allows the police to stop you on the street, demand your identification, and check it for outstanding traffic warrants—even if you are doing nothing wrong… So long as the target is one of the many millions of people in this country with an outstanding arrest warrant, anything the officer finds in a search is fair game for use in a criminal prosecution. The officer’s incentive to violate the Constitution thus increases...”
Just consider some of the many other ways in which the Fourth Amendment—which ensures that the government can’t harass you, let alone even investigate you, without probable cause—has been weakened and undermined by the courts, the legislatures and various government agencies and operatives.
Breath tests, blood draws: Americans have no protection against mandatory breathalyzer tests at a police checkpoint, although mandatory blood draws violate the Fourth Amendment (Birchfield v. North Dakota).
Ignorance of the law is defensible if you work for the government: Police officers who violate the law can be granted qualified immunity if they claim ignorance of the law (Heien v. North Carolina). That rationale was also applied to police who clearly used excessive force when they repeatedly tasered a pregnant woman during a routine traffic stop and were granted immunity from prosecution (Brooks v. City of Seattle).
High-speed car chases: Police officers can use lethal force in car chases without fear of lawsuits (Plumhoff v. Rickard).
No-knock raids: Police can perform a “no-knock” as long as they have a reasonable suspicion that knocking and announcing their presence, under the particular circumstances, would be dangerous or futile or give occupants a chance to destroy evidence of a crime (Richards v. Wisconsin). Legal ownership of a firearm is also enough to justify a no-knock raid by police (Quinn v. Texas).
Warrantless searches by police: Police can carry out warrantless searches on our homes based on a “reasonable” concern by police that a suspect (or occupant) might be attempting to destroy evidence, fleeing or hurt, even if it’s the wrong house (Kentucky v. King). Police can also, without a warrant, search anyone who has been lawfully arrested (United States v. Robinson) as well as their property post-arrest (Colorado v. Bertine) and their vehicle (New York v. Belton), search a car they suspect might contain evidence of a crime (Chambers v. Maroney), and search a home when the arrest is made on its premises (Maryland v. Buie).
Forced DNA extractions: Police can forcibly take your DNA, whether or not you’ve been convicted of a crime. Innocent or not, your DNA will then be stored in the national FBI database (Maryland v. King).
Strip searches: Police can subject Americans to virtual strip searches, no matter the “offense” (Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington). This “license to probe” is now being extended to roadside stops, as police officers throughout the country have begun performing roadside strip searches—some involving anal and vaginal probes—without any evidence of wrongdoing and without a warrant.
Seizures: For all intents and purposes, you’re “seized” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment from the moment an officer stops you (Brendlin v. California).
Search warrants on a leash: Police have free reign to use drug-sniffing dogs as “search warrants on leashes,” justifying any and all police searches of vehicles stopped on the roadside (Florida v. Harris), but the use of a K-9 unit after a reasonable amount of time has passed during a stop does violate the Fourth Amendment (Rodriguez v. United States).
Police and DUI Checkpoints: Police can conduct sobriety and “information-seeking” checkpoints (Illinois v. Lidster and Mich. Dep't of State Police v. Sitz).
Interrogating public transit passengers: Police officers are free to board a bus, question passengers, and ask for consent to search without notifying them of their right to refuse (U.S v. Drayton).
Warrantless arrests for minor criminal offenses: Police can arrest you for minor criminal offenses, such as a misdemeanor seatbelt violation, punishable only by a fine (Atwater v. City of Lago Vista).
Stop and identify: Refusing to answer when a policeman asks “What’s your name?” can rightfully be considered a crime. No longer do Americans, even those not charged with any crime, have the right to remain altogether silent when stopped and questioned by a police officer (Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court of the State of Nevada).
Traffic stops: As long as police have reasonable cause to believe that a traffic violation occurred, they may stop any vehicle (Whren v. U.S.). If probable cause justifies a vehicle search, then every part of the vehicle can be searched (U.S. v. Ross). A vehicle can be stopped even if the driver has not committed a traffic offense (U.S. v. Cortez).
Anonymous tips, careful driving, rigid posture and acne: Police officers can stop cars based only on “anonymous” tips (Navarette v. California). Police can also pull you over if you are driving too carefully, with a rigid posture, taking a scenic route, and have acne (U.S. v. Westhoven).
What many Americans fail to understand is the devastating amount of damage that can be done to one’s freedoms long before a case ever makes its way to court by government agents who are violating the Fourth Amendment at every turn. This is how freedoms, long undermined, can give way to tyranny through constant erosion and become part of the fabric of the police state through constant use.
Phone and email surveillance, databases for dissidents, threat assessments, terror watch lists, militarized police, SWAT team raids, security checkpoints, lockdowns, roadside strip searches: there was a time when any one of these encroachments on our Fourth Amendment rights would have roused the public to outrage. Today, such violations are shrugged off matter-of-factly by Americans who have been assiduously groomed to accept the intrusions of the police state into their private lives.
So when you hear about the FBI hacking into Americans’ computers without a warrant with the blessing of the courts, or states assembling and making public terror watch lists containing the names of those who are merely deemed suspicious, or the police knocking on the doors of activists in advance of political gatherings to ascertain their plans for future protests, or administrative government agencies (such as the FDA, Small Business Administration, Smithsonian, Social Security, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Mint, and Department of Education) spending millions on guns and ammunition, don’t just matter-of-factly file it away in that part of your brain reserved for things you may not like but over which you have no control.
It’s true that there may be little the average person can do to push back against the police state on a national level, but there remains some hope at the local level as long as we retain a speck of our independence and individuality—as long as we can resist the defeatist sense of double-consciousness (a phrase coined by W. E. B. Du Bois in which we view ourselves as inferior through the prism of our oppressors)—as long as we continue to cry out for justice for ourselves and those around us—as long as we refuse to be shackled and made prisoners—and as long as we continue to recognize that the only way the police state can truly acquire and retain power is if we relinquish it through our negligence, complacence and ignorance.
Unfortunately, we have been utterly brainwashed into believing the government’s propaganda and lies. Americans actually celebrate with perfect sincerity the anniversary of our independence from Great Britain without ever owning up to the fact that we are as oppressed now—more so, perhaps, thanks to advances in technology—than we ever were when Redcoats stormed through doorways and subjected colonists to the vagaries of a police state.
You see, by gradually whittling away at our freedoms—free speech, assembly, due process, privacy, etc.—the government has, in effect, liberated itself from its contractual agreement to respect our constitutional rights while resetting the calendar back to a time when we had no Bill of Rights to protect us from the long arm of the government.
Aided and abetted by the legislatures, the courts and Corporate America, the government has been busily rewriting the contract (a.k.a. the Constitution) that establishes the citizenry as the masters and agents of the government as the servants. We are now only as good as we are useful, and our usefulness is calculated on an economic scale by how much we are worth—in terms of profit and resale value—to our “owners.”
Under the new terms of this one-sided agreement, the government and its many operatives have all the privileges and rights and “we the prisoners” have none.
As Sotomayor concluded in her ringing dissent in Utah v. Strieff:
By legitimizing the conduct that produces this double consciousness, this case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time. It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged. We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are “isolated.” They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere. They are the ones who recognize that unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives. Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but.