The creeping encroachment of police-state tactics

Grandmothers being groped in airport security may make headlines, but many people take invasive tactics for granted as a tradeoff for safety.

They shouldn't. We are increasingly living in a police state whose scope and technological complexity is redefining the meaning of Big Brother, while systematically violating Americans' right to due process under the law.

Take the report last week in The Los Angeles Times on the widespread use of drones by local law enforcement agencies around the country. The Times article describes how officers in a small North Dakota town used an unmanned device designed for the military to figure out whether a family was armed. They successfully raided the family's property, returning six cows worth $6,000 to their rightful owners. Police had a warrant in this case, but it is unclear whether police must obtain them prior to drone use.

Historically, drones have been used for helping overseas troops locate and kill enemy fighters. They have also been used to patrol the U.S. border. In Britain, where you can't go to the grocery store without appearing on government surveillance video, they are used to track bad drivers, protesters and who knows what else. It is not hard to imagine Maryland, one of the states most enamored of speed cameras, adding this tool in the name of boosting profit — aka "public safety."

Also last week, The Daily, the iPad-only newspaper published by News Corp., reported that the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) gave out $500 million worth of used military equipment to police forces around the country in 2011 through its "1033 program." Police departments just had to pay for shipping of materials that included helicopters, robots, grenade launchers, assault rifles and armored vehicles, according to the article. The amount shipped has more than doubled since 2010, even as U.S. crime rates have fallen to decades-long lows.

The Baltimore City police department does not use drones. It has received goggles, vests and other training material through the DOD 1033 program, but not weapons, said spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. He could not immediately give an estimate of how much the city's DOD equipment is worth or provide an inventory list.

While it is comforting to know city police are not adopting tactics and equipment designed to kill foreign enemies, officers may be using technology to violate the 14th Amendment's guarantee of due process.

Mr. Guglielmi would not comment on whether the department uses GPS tracking devices without a warrant, "since it could compromise investigative abilities." That practice is the subject of a case before the Supreme Court as a result of a 2005 investigation in which police put a GPS on a car owned by a suspected drug dealer in a public parking lot in Maryland.

The General Assembly rejected legislation (HB 599) last year that would have required a search warrant to use tracking devices, as is required to tap phones.

Democrats went berserk when the ACLU proved that state police during the Ehrlich administration were tracking peace activists and putting their names on a terrorist watch list without evidence of criminal activity. So where is the outrage here — especially in a one-party state with a staggering level of corruption and abuse of power? (For vivid examples of this, see the recent trials of Sen. Ulysses Currie and Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson, as well as the culture of financial fraud revealed in audits of state agencies.)

We haven't even touched on the National Defense Authorization Act, passed by Congress last week. It would allow U.S. citizens to be detained indefinitely if the government labels them terrorists.

Taken together, Americans and Marylanders have many reasons to be scared of their government. When even Qatar-owned Al-Jazeera looks at the newly passed federal defense bill and asks, "How did we get here," something is seriously wrong.

Marta H. Mossburg is a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute. Her column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. Her email is

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