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Erosion of the rights of Everyman

By Nancy A. Knox
Arizona Daily Wildcat
April 15, 1999
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Arizona Daily Wildcat

Nancy A. Knox

The face of civil liberties for average, moderately law-abiding folks has changed so that we can hardly recognize them.

Fifteen years ago, my contemporaries and myself would have never dreamt we would urinate into Dixie cups to get a job. We could always count on the "wingspan rule" for search and seizure making the area around our extended arms off limits for search. Now you can be detained 17 hours or more in a traffic stop and once-inadmissible evidence is acceptable.

The last 20 years has seen a continuing attack on personal liberties. The conservative Supreme Court, Congress and their allies du jour are attempting to denigrate personal freedoms and eradicate the Constitution. (Parts, of course, would be kept, like keeping guns and such). The attack is incremental, but its denouement is an erosion of civil liberties and personal autonomy.

When was the last time the Supreme Court enunciated a new right rather than barred us from enjoying another?

The attacks have been met with complacency, an ugly mindset. Stirrings of conscious thought concerning injustice may be present, but soon are forgotten. Outrage fades quickly. Indeed, most appear oblivious to the amazing decrease in individual rights over the last 20 years. Reaction may depend on actual proximity to an issue - that is, each may find himself asking silently, "Will I ever be a passenger in a car and not want to be searched?"

If the immediate answer is no, a certain reconciliation ensues. Legislation against civil rights apply to criminals. We are not criminals. The Supreme Court, and in particular Justice Antonin Scalia, feels that there should be no liberty in the presence of criminal activity.

What we forget, however, is that those being trampled are not hardened criminals involved in a life of crime. They are smokers of joints, not interstate hijackers. They are issuers of fake parking permits and people who fail to keep their dogs on leashes. They are not mass murderers.

Crime does not spring up naturally like bad pollen. Statutes make crime, not nature. If more behaviors are criminal, then crime rates increase. And criminal statutes now are intruding into what should be considered private behavior.

What started this slippery slope of eroding civil rights is the so-called "War on Drugs," signed into law by George Bush. Police budgets and workforce have increased tenfold since the "War on Drugs" was declared. The rationale: We need to be saved from the ravages of drugs. Forget that the war on drugs began after a significant period of actual decline in drug use. Forget that after 20 years we have not significantly altered the drug use rates in this country. Forget that someone is arrested every 20 seconds on a drug charge. Forget that we have had to build hundreds of new jails and prisons to hold all the criminals we created by legislation.

We now live in a country where police can bust into a home and do serious property damage based on wrong address information and suffer no repercussions. There is still a thing known as habeas corpus, but many people will not be reminded of that fact once they are no longer read their rights via Miranda warnings upon arrest.

The media painted us a horrific image of crack-crazed crime, and legislators took full advantage while the fear frenzy was in bloom. As long as it is not us getting our belongings searched or our car confiscated, why should we care?

Once-legal activities are now classified as criminal. With every restrictive piece of legislation comes the implied right of police to delve more deeply into our lives.

Meanwhile, legislation is creating more crime to save us from. But, we have civil rights and liberty! Yes, we have rights. Those very rights we are giving away. We are losing our most important privileges as citizens. Our rights are our check on abuses. Government is not supposed to operate unfettered. It is supposed to be stopped when it becomes too far removed from the people.

Our prisons have been filled. Our civil rights have been stripped away, layer by layer, like some rotted onion. We have irrational, draconian laws, applied with no sense of justice or fairness. We have federal mandatory drug sentencing laws that stick people caught in possession of drugs with a minimum five-year sentence with no chance of parole on their second conviction. We have the most massive penal system in the world, with the highest criminal rate of incarceration. We have tens of thousands of police merely to combat drugs. We have used the military in drug operations against our own citizenry.

Isn't this how the Nazi regime got started? Hitler did come to power legally. He also legislated all of his methods and abuses. People stopped paying attention. They became complacent.