Time for Cameras to Look Back at the 40 Federal Agencies’ Undercover Police and Courts
Expanded use of body cameras can both protect police from false allegations of unnecessary violence and protect citizens from unnecessary police violence. Federal legislation has been proposed to mandate body camera be used by state and local police. But what is good for the goose is good for the gander.
The U.S. federal government has dozens of federal agencies with police powers. The New York Times article, “More Federal Agencies Are Using Undercover Operations,” reports on the expanding undercover operations of “at least 40 agencies”:
The federal government has significantly expanded undercover operations in recent years, with officers from at least 40 agencies posing as business people, welfare recipients, political protesters and even doctors or ministers to ferret out wrongdoing, records and interviews show.
At the Internal Revenue Service, dozens of undercover agents chase suspected tax evaders worldwide, by posing as tax preparers, accountants drug dealers or yacht buyers and more, court records show. …
[O]utside public view, changes in policies and tactics over the last decade have resulted in undercover teams run by agencies in virtually every corner of the federal government, according to officials, former agents and documents. [NYT source article]
As valuable as these operations may be in enforcing federal regulations, electronic surveillance technologies could play a major role in protecting people from federal overreach and abuse of legislative authority. Cameras could record undercover operations to be later reviewed by Congress and the Courts.
In the 2013 Washington Post article “The rise of the fourth branch of government,” Jonathan Turley explains that federal government power over the last century has not only expanded dramatically, but has shifted in form and function:
For much of our nation’s history, the federal government was quite small. In 1790, it had just 1,000 nonmilitary workers. In 1962, there were 2,515,000 federal employees. Today, we have 2,840,000 federal workers in 15 departments, 69 agencies and 383 nonmilitary sub-agencies.
This exponential growth has led to increasing power and independence for agencies. The shift of authority has been staggering. The fourth branch now has a larger practical impact on the lives of citizens than all the other branches combined.
The rise of the fourth branch has been at the expense of Congress’s lawmaking authority. In fact, the vast majority of “laws” governing the United States are not passed by Congress but are issued as regulations, crafted largely by thousands of unnamed, unreachable bureaucrats. One study found that in 2007, Congress enacted 138 public laws, while federal agencies finalized 2,926 rules, including 61 major regulations.
In addition, this expanding array of federal agencies operate their own courts systems for those accused of violating regulations. Consider that federal regulatory agencies each year conduct “more than 939,000” adjudications:
The judiciary, too, has seen its authority diminished by the rise of the fourth branch. Under Article III of the Constitution, citizens facing charges and fines are entitled to due process in our court system. As the number of federal regulations increased, however, Congress decided to relieve the judiciary of most regulatory cases and create administrative courts tied to individual agencies. The result is that a citizen is 10 times more likely to be tried by an agency than by an actual court. In a given year, federal judges conduct roughly 95,000 adjudicatory proceedings, including trials, while federal agencies complete more than 939,000.
These agency proceedings are often mockeries of due process, with one-sided presumptions and procedural rules favoring the agency. …
Expanding electronic surveillance to federal regulatory police conducting raids, to undercover operations, and also to federal regulatory court proceedings would provide a form a “looking back to power.” Electronic records would enable citizens as well as the Constitution’s judicial branch of government to review regulatory agency “judicial processes.”
Consider the police operations of the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Environmental Protection Agency ( EPA). Federal EPA regulations are a source of new regulations with criminal penalties. EPA has apparently created 1,900 new regulations during the current administration (no new legislation needed!).
Do we really need a militarized Fish and Wildlife Service? Well, I guess it depends on the fish and wildlife in question. Stopping a charging rhino or Supercroc might call for armed and armoured FWS officers.
However FWS is generally after people rather than predatory wildlife. Deroy Murdock writes on the militarization of police and federal agencies:
[A]rmed officers, if not Special Weapons and Tactics crews, populate these federal agencies: the National Park Service; the Postal Inspection Service; the Departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Labor, and Veterans Affairs; the Bureaus of Land Management and Indian Affairs; the Environmental Protection Agency; and the Fish and Wildlife Service. (Source)
In addition, U.S. businessmen can be found guilty of violating regulations of other countries, and those violations can send them to prison in the U.S. So a seafood importer is sentenced to jail for importing lobsters in the wrong container, in violation of Honduran regulations. (Video and story from Heritage blog post.)
Had there been federal electronic surveillance cameras turned on during this raid reported in The Economist, the story would have been more widely known:
THREE pickup trucks pulled up outside George Norris’s home in Spring, Texas. Six armed police in flak jackets jumped out. Thinking they must have come to the wrong place, Mr Norris opened his front door, and was startled to be shoved against a wall and frisked for weapons. He was forced into a chair for four hours while officers ransacked his house. They pulled out drawers, rifled through papers, dumped things on the floor and eventually loaded 37 boxes of Mr Norris’s possessions onto their pickups. They refused to tell him what he had done wrong. “It wasn’t fun, I can tell you that,” he recalls.
Mr Norris was 65 years old at the time, and a collector of orchids. He eventually discovered that he was suspected of smuggling the flowers into America, an offence under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. This came as a shock. He did indeed import flowers and sell them to other orchid-lovers. And it was true that his suppliers in Latin America were sometimes sloppy about their paperwork. In a shipment of many similar-looking plants, it was rare for each permit to match each orchid precisely.
This EPA overreach and miscarriage of justice is featured in a Stossel in the Classroom video on this page.
Again, for the federal electronic surveillance topic, had surveillance cameras been mandatory for the federal EPA swat team conducting the raid of George Norris’s home and orchids, agents would likely have treated him better. And had footage from the raid been available to the legislative and judicial branches on the U.S. government as well as civil and economic liberties organizations, news of the raid would likely have led to reforms to curb EPA police and court actions in the future.