The Rights Stuff

Column by Tim Hartnett.

Exclusive to STR

One of the few laughs in Michael Shaara’s book, The Killer Angels, comes when a Confederate prisoner tells captors his side was not fighting for slavery. They were defending their “rats.” The dumbfounded Yankees eventually figure out he really meant “rights.” But that still didn’t leave the Union troops much better off understanding the Southern position.

Soldiers in wars are always fighting for rights. Afterward, when lots of them are dead, maimed and psychologically torn up, subjecting those claims to careful examination is touchy business. Gushing sentimentally about the buffet of rights we’re all feasting on supposedly honors dead veterans. When the war is going on right here in the homeland, that fantasy doesn’t fly so smoothly.

In the case of Cliven Bundy vs. the Bureau of Land Management, it’s not rats at stake in the war but turtles. The BLM told Bundy 20 years ago his cows had to clear off the open range there to make way for the endangered desert tortoise. Bundy has refused, citing a preemptive family claim after about 140 years there. The controversy has been called a “range war” between the last cattle rancher in Clark County, Nevada and the federal government.

For all practical purposes, soldiers were deployed on the US side in this beef. There were about 200 of them up against the cowboy and his wife. The army of rustlers, roughly at company strength in military terms, were armed, teched up to the teeth and taking his herd at one point. If those turtles can’t share 150 square miles of scrub with less than 1,000 head of cattle, it doesn’t sound like they had much of a chance to begin with.

In any case, as bets go, it’s a shoo-in that your government would be fighting for rats long before ever stooping to defend your rights. Bundy’s son was arrested for filming the action outside a designated “free-speech zone.” The government insisted people must be fenced off in the middle of the Mojave Desert before they could safely express themselves. Ask them, not Webster, the definition of “abridging speech.” The original plan must have been to control any images going public in the showdown. When that proved impossible, they decided to back off. The ruling class has no qualms about facing down peasants with pitchforks. The truth is another matter.

Discretion is the better part of valor, and 99% of public relations. Fortunately, the joint anti-American task force deployed at Bunkerville never ended up gunning anyone down; their bosses’ bosses had to worry about future elections.

There’s a lot of talk about rights going on in this country, but where’s the evidence they actually exist? We get court rulings defining 4th Amendment rights all the time. But what do they really mean? If a man can be forced to the ground in NYC, get cuffed, rifled and subjected to lengthy, hostile, intrusive inquiry without any evidence of a crime, where are his rights? This is nothing less than assault and battery with a bit of abduction thrown in. Anyone doing it, badged or otherwise, belongs in a prison or dead on the spot. At five grand a pop in damages, what do you think NYC would be liable for under a legitimate regime?

Likewise, if police can use the testimony of subjects who otherwise would be under indictment themselves to bust down the doors of a sleeping family, shackle them, shoot their pets, or even themselves in the slightest defensive posture, destroy their property and depart empty-handed without fear of grave reprisal, who’s got rights?

You can sue, but why should that be necessary in a country that’s already the most litigious in the world? And it’s not like the culprits pay anyway; the public does in the rare cases that the judge calls an honest game. Stand up to ‘em and you are likely dead. Take ‘em to court instead and you prolong the ordeal.

The Mitchells of Henderson, Nevada had two separate family residences commandeered on July 10, 2011 by police without any warrant. Supposedly, the houses were required for a “tactical advantage” against a neighbor who wouldn’t let them in. Michael and James Mitchell were charged and held for hours for “obstructing police” at their own front doors. The neighbor they were after, Phillip White, was charged with domestic battery and coercion, both dismissed November of 2011. Meanwhile, no developments have been reported on the Mitchells' lawsuit against the home invaders three years later.

Where does the constabulary of a supposedly free country get the idea they’ll get away with treating people like this? From the courts that have overwhelming ruled that government employees may physically attack you in almost any circumstance. Occasionally, we see examples of redress, but these are few and far between, and as far as the press is concerned, seem to be low priorities.

In one case that received national attention, Angel and Ashley Dobbs were pulled over for discarding a cigarette butt July 13, 2012. The aunt and niece were then subjected to body cavity searches from Texas State trooper Kelley Hellerson after supposedly smelling marijuana. Surprisingly, the trooper was discharged and indicted, but here it is nearly two years later and she has yet to go to trial. Contraband’s scent should have been suppressed as a legal pretext for roadside searches years ago. It is impossible to disprove what anyone claims to have smelled, and the litany of abuses in such circumstances could easily fill volumes.

Hellerson might have kept her job if she had resorted to a forced catheterization or a formal medical procedure rather than a manual search. What does this mean to you? What is the power of a policeman’s sense of smell or expert assessment of what constitutes “acting funny”? It could be the deciding factor in whether or not tubes get forcibly shoved into private parts in some states. If some national emergency has reduced us to require this kind of depravity, it must be above Top Secret. Snowden doesn’t even know. We never even heard of the KGB trying that kind of stuff back in the days of the Evil Empire.

Suppose you’re the guy, fully apprised of his “rights,” who gets pulled over on a lightly traveled road inexplicably by an officer bent on searching your person and automobile. How far would you go if he insisted? How far would you get pursuing the matter if the cop proceeded in an extra-legal manner? How long would it take to decide it wasn’t worth the expense to the rest of your life? If our society is to maintain any level of decency, all members of it need to fear legal strictures equally. If an illegal search is truly illegal, the searchers must be cuffed, printed, arraigned, tried and imprisoned.

It turned out to be a delusion that progress was being made when “60 Minutes” did its “You’re Under Arrest” segment over 20 years ago. Nadine Strossen had to testify before Congress on the still rampant practice of asset forfeiture only five years later. Forbes posted this article in March after this one a year earlier on the same subject. Sarah Stillman’s New Yorker piece, “Taken,” should make anyone calling himself American sick to the stomach. In the meantime, newspapers, e-zines and print media have been awash with reports of the highway robbery perpetrated by the government itself.

And yet it continues. Who, other than the ones getting a cut of the take, supports this? Funny that legislators and judges that could put a stop to the shakedown never get subjected to it. If one of the benefits of a free press is supposed to be embarrassing, shaming or intimidating the government into righteous behavior, it isn’t working.

How can a country that calls itself free allow gendarmes, which is what they have become, to run rampant like this? Descriptions of Third World authorities stalking the general population at will used to be remote horror stories. They often concluded with “thank God for the good ole USA.” Cops who think nothing is awry languidly remind everyone of our wonderful courts. The lowly American citizen should be happy to humbly ply a judge after waiting a few months to get his car or his money back. Courts are hardly remedies if the strong arm theft is undone by a judge but the bad guy is turned loose to try it again on someone else.

Some cases even make you wonder if we weren’t better off under the British judiciary. Before the days of police, the military was the primary physical authority. But the law once applied to them as well as anyone else.

On the morning of April 22nd, 1769, the British frigate Rose sent a boarding party onto the colonial cargo vessel Pitt Packet. Lt. Panton of the Royal Navy cornered four sailors, Michael Corbet, Pierce Fenning, John Ryan and William Conner. The Brits were always short of able-bodied seamen at the time and were in the habit of plucking them off commercial vessels. Once taken, they might not see home again for years, if ever. The four crewmen armed themselves with fishing equipment and a musket. Corbet used a handful of salt to mark off a border declaring:

“If you step over that line, I shall consider it as proof that you are determined to impress me, and by the eternal God of Heaven, you are a dead man.”

Panton, who thought the sailors were bluffing, took a pinch of snuff and went ahead. Corbet plunged a harpoon into the lieutenant’s neck and he bled out quickly.

John Adams defended the sailors before British Governor Francis Bernard and the Tory Lt. Governor Thomas Hutchinson at a naval tribunal. Hutchinson was later an infamous traitor to the Revolutionary cause. Unlike Marion County Circuit Court Judge Michael Eubanks, who sentenced the undoubtedly innocent Corrie Maye to death for protecting his personal space and 18 month old daughter, the Royal appointee and notorious American turncoat ruled that the commonality retains a right to defense even from an imperial government. Their verdict set the sailors free.

Police in the greatest country in the world aren’t afraid of anyone drawing lines in front of them now. Those perfidious limey judges are long gone. American citizens who shoot first under unjustifiable attack from their government can expect a fair trial before the hanging. Sure, we can blog about it for the time being, but if Cass Sunstein and friends get their way, the sun will be setting on that, too. American rights are a theory; no scientific measuring device can prove their existence.

Nineteenth century NYC police inspector Alexander Williams famously ruled about 100 years after the Revolution: “There is more law in a policeman’s nightstick than a decision of the Supreme Court.”

For all practical purposes, Clubber Williams, as he was affectionately known, has a majority of the nine.

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Tim Hartnett's picture
Columns on STR: 20


Paul's picture

"Contraband’s scent should have been suppressed as a legal pretext for roadside searches years ago. It is impossible to disprove what anyone claims to have smelled, and the litany of abuses in such circumstances could easily fill volumes."

Much worse, being arrested by a dog. And don't forget "Clever Hans":
The dogs get their cues from their handlers, never mind the scent. It's amazing what sorts of things we permit the minions to do to us, and the justifications we are able to swallow for it. As a Colonel House once wrote, "What was done to those who permitted it is almost beyond belief."

"If our society is to maintain any level of decency, all members of it need to fear legal strictures equally. If an illegal search is truly illegal, the searchers must be cuffed, printed, arraigned, tried and imprisoned."

Not gonna happen. The rulers are not going to let their enforcers be tied up in legal strictures. The only strictures left are informal, generally illegal ones, applied on the spot by the victims. That, or bend over and grab your ankles.

After a while one gets the notion that this meme of "rights", far from stopping state abuse, is actually necessary for its continuance. People without such fantasies in their heads would not be looking for the rulers to set things right for themselves, and would take things into their own hands. Then it would stop, because we far outnumber them. They would run out of thugs.