Posted by Brad @ 11:26 am on April 2nd 2009

That Ron Paul TSA Detention and Creeping Police Statism

Interesting stuff. Long story short, in Missouri—which released and then pulled back that report linking Ron Paul support to domestic terrorism—a Campaign for Liberty worker named Steve Bierfeldt was detained in an airport by police because he was carrying $4700 in cash—a legal amount to travel with and not declare—and, at least if you buy that guy’s story, a lot of Campaign for Liberty and Ron Paul schwag. The TSA or whoever started asking him questions—what do you do for a living, what is this money for—and he didn’t want to play ball, so they detained him.

My guess would be, of course, that the guy did come off as suspicious initially—he was probably asked a question in line and made a point of refusing, which snowballed into the events described. My guess would be he could have avoided the situation if he wanted to, but that’s not really the point. If not answering a question you’re not legally required to answer is grounds for detention and harassment….well, then you sort of become legally required to answer them. It essentially becomes a matter of the more by-the-book you play things, the more suspicious that makes you.

I certainly understand the argument that he was just being difficult for the sake of it and he shouldn’t be surprised with what he got, but still. Listen all the way through to the clip they play here.

The protections against unreasonable search and seizure and the proscriptions about what your rights are and what you’re legally required to respond to (or not) are there for the protection of the citizenry. It’s all kind of pointless when calling in those protections, for whatever reason, becomes in and of itself grounds for reprisal. The cops didn’t do anything illegal either, for the record, but what it amounts to is basically a form of extortion—you are going to cede your rights to me or I’m going to make things very very difficult for you. Keep listening through in that clip—you can tell that, after not very long at all, the cops are fairly well convinced he’s not a terrorist, just a smartass. That makes them more angry. It ceases to become about suspicion and becomes about the cops taking it personally and wishing to exact reprisal. By the time they say “you’re going down the station”, even the process of asking if they’re legally detaining him or just asking him to come down to the station engenders a barely-veiled threat that, by having the gumption to dare ask that question, they might use force. It becomes confused as to whether the cops are asking or telling, and they seem very very annoyed when the kid (perfectly reasonably) asks them to make clear that distinction. The kid (almost certainly wisely) shuts up when it becomes equally clear that, either way, it might not matter. By virtue of asking about his rights, he opens himself up to the charge of resisting, which then will trigger a violent response. Whether or not they’re initially asking, it’s unclear to me if he’s allowed to say “no” without, by virtue of that answer and that answer alone, then permitting them to tell. As the cops make clear with their behavior, the distinction, in practice, might not matter.

What’s also sort of ironic about the whole thing is they’re asking him questions he’s not legally required to answer, and get pissed that he’s not answering. He, meanwhile, is asking them questions that they are legally required to answer, and they’re getting pissed at that too.

Now look, it’s pretty clear to me that both parties are within the letter of the law. This is one of those things that exists in the gray area where totalitarianism lives (and I hate to use that word, but that’s the right word to use in the most generalized sense of it). The “sure, you don’t have to cede your rights, but if you don’t, we’ll make your life miserable”. There are a lot of gradations of that, but there is a point in criminal law where, if a private citizen does it, charges of extortion would begin applying (even if the means are technically legal and the threat is only implied and no other laws are broken). That’s more germane, not less, when it’s done by somebody that does indeed have a degree of legitimate authority and thus there is a power relationship involved too (indeed, think of, say, sexual harassment in the workplace to a degree that might be criminal even if no other laws are being broken).

The bottom line though is there are different spheres of rights and different shades of authority. This could have played out all the way and I’d be pretty sure the kid would have been legally vindicated. I doubt he would have been charged with anything in the final analysis, nor do I think his treatment would have gone so far to where he would have had grounds for a harassment or wrongful detention suit (though maybe). But he would have been treated markedly and qualitatively differently by virtue of him not assenting to extra-legal authority, to an extent that, for 99.9% of people, their legal rights and their personal rights don’t match up 1:1—an environment is created wherein every factor possible is brought to bear to make you waive your legal rights, at which point the question of how “voluntarily” you’re doing so is quite salient. Is that criminal? I dunno. Should it be? I dunno. But it certainly smacks me as being wrong.

2 Comments »

  1. It also still remains unclear to me if refusing to answer questions is, in and of itself, suspicious behavior creating just cause. I’m pretty sure that legally it’s not but I’m also pretty sure that it’s often used/ruled to be.

    I know, for instance, that when a cop asks to search your car (i.e. asking for your voluntary consent) and you say no, that’s often taken as de facto suspicious behavior and thus its own just cause. I think the law technically forbids that but I don’t have any confidence that it’s applied as such in most cases. Sort of the inherent problem with something as opaque as “suspicious behavior”.

    Where’s Kip Esquire when you need him?

    Comment by Brad — 4/2/2009 @ 12:23 pm

  2. Hard to listen to that clip. Bravo to the CFL kid for not knuckling under; I don’t know if I’d have had the same guts.

    It seems to me that the kid handled this the way we all ought to handle it: provide no more information than legally required, and above all, do not reverse course when being bullied. To provide the information these people are seeking only encourages further harrassment along the same lines.

    This approach does not constitute civil disobedience. Civil disobedience requires one to break the law. Rather, it requires us to assert our legal rights in order to remind law enforcement of the limits of its power, and to reassert the necessity of civil relationships between the public and those who protect and serve it.

    Comment by Rojas — 4/2/2009 @ 12:45 pm

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