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An American law worthy of Stalin

It is astonishing that a potential law could even reach the stage of being voted on in the USA that says if you witness or ‘become aware’ that neighbours or friends have broken the law with narcotics (which presumes you are a competent judge of that), you will be compelled by law to denounce them to the police. Failure to do so means prosecution and the threat of a two year sentence yourself if convicted of simply minding your own business. Even if you disagree with the drug laws, you will be threatened with prison if you do not actively help enforce them against other people.

I have met Congressman Sensenbrenner and I am shocked that he could have come up with such a profoundly authoritarian and illiberal law like this. He explained his support for the ghastly Patriot Act was purely a temporary emergency measure, pointing to the sunset clause as proof of that. Well if this* is his idea of reasonable legislation then I fear that I see all his motivations in a dramatically different light.

Turning neighbour against neighbour like this was how communist states maintained power in the Eastern bloc and anyone putting their name to such a law should be seen for the enemy of civil society that they are, turning people who just wish to be left alone into coerced informers for the state. Truly disgraceful.

*= to see details, enter HR1528 in the search box, then check the enter bill number button, then press search

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44 comments to An American law worthy of Stalin

  • Back when I began practicing law, I could state pretty confidently that a citizen had no obligation to report crime or suspicious activity to the police, and incurred no liability by not doing so.

    That is no longer the case in many jurisdictions. This merely federalizes the issue, with some particularly odious and onerous language about “becoming aware” that will be a prosecutor’s dream.

    Sadly, the experience of holding power in Washington for nearly a decade has brought out the inner authoritarian in many formerly decent Republicans.

  • Next logical step: The Bill of Rights will no longer apply to drug offenders (or for that matter their families, friends, neighbors, milkman etc, etc if they fail to inform on them).

  • JuliaM

    I suspect the passage of this bill is being keenly stidied in Whitehall. If it should pass, how long before something like it is mooted here?

  • Jaime Raúl Molina

    The Orwellian Thought Police is here.

  • R.C. Dean writes:

    Sadly, the experience of holding power in Washington for nearly a decade has brought out the inner authoritarian in many formerly decent Republicans.

    What a surprise. Just because radical Republicans have spent years flaunting their true colors, and announcing loud and proud what they’ve intended to do–who could possibly have imagined they’d actually follow through? Just because these same radical Republicans and their fellow travelers are flaunting their true colors along with even uglier plans–who could possibly imagine they actually intend to follow through?

    Throw the bums out.

    (Link)

  • ‘Radical’ Republicans? Radical in what sense exactly? Seems to me that Sensenbrenner is actually pretty mainstream and that is what I find so damn depressing.

    In reality these sort of civil liberties issues are just as likely to spring from either party as in reality the Republicans and Democrats agree on about 85% of everything, if not more. One only has to look at the share of GDP eaten by the state under Rep and Dem administrations to see the truth of that. Neither The Republicans nor Democrats can be depended on to defend civil liberty, they both what to fuck you, just in different places and with different excuses.

  • Sensenbrenner also was a main driver of the Real ID Act which will force the states to create federally-approved drivers’ licenses. Without them, you will not be able to travel on an airplane, get a job or collect Social Security. Sensenbrenner is an authoritarian through and through.

  • Perry asks:

    ‘Radical’ Republicans? Radical in what sense exactly? Seems to me that Sensenbrenner is actually pretty mainstream and that is what I find so damn depressing.

    It is disheartening. But I’d advise you not to gobble up everything the radical Republican PR machine wants to feed you. These people are out of the mainstream. And as you no doubt realize, what they actually are fighting is the future. I wish they’d go be quixotic on someone else’s dime. Meanwhile, it is comforting to know that there’s a special place reserved for them in the dustbin of history.

    Perry continues:

    Neither The Republicans nor Democrats can be depended on to defend civil liberty, they both what to fuck you, just in different places and with different excuses.

    Just so. And I hate to be the one to break the news, but even the patron saints of true libertarianism would end up trekking down the same dreary road if given a chance.

    And it just makes me wild when people express shock, dismay, and horror when the radical Republicans do precisely what they’ve promised to do.

  • Fred Boness

    So, what are you to do when you witness a crime?

  • Hope that no one saw you witness it.

  • Jacob

    “So, what are you to do when you witness a crime?”

    That’s a very good question. Let’s leave drugs out for a moment. Suppose a libertarian witnesses a murder. What is he supposed to do ? Does he or doesn’t he have an obligation to report it and give testimony ? Of course – any decent person should report a murder.
    Refraining from reporting makes him an accomplice in the crime. On the other hand – punisihing him for not reporting is maybe too draconian.
    So what’s the answer ?
    What about lesser crimes ? What if you see a burglar breaking into your neighbour’s home ?

  • Anthony

    What if two people witness someone smoking pot. And one of them reports it.

    Then the person who is smoking pot is a criminal, the person who doesn’t report it is a criminal, and the person who does report it is a criminal for not reporting the fact that the second witness didn’t report it.

    Why don’t they go the whole hog and just say “nothing is illegal, but we’ll punish anyone we see fit” like in 1984…

  • Wild Pegasus

    Anyone surprised by whatever new hell Congress is cooking up has not been paying attention.

    – Josh

  • Nick Timms

    Any decent citizen wants to do their civic duty and help the police to uphold the law. The law should be there to prevent people from harm by others and penalise the perpetrators.

    An adult buying drugs and using them is exercising a personal choice. Anything that harms oneself should not be illegal. The problem is the plethora of laws that forbid adults from making personal choices because a section of society seems to think that it is a good idea to protect us from ourselves.

    We need to take personal responsibility for our lives, it is what makes life worthwhile and gives us pride in ourselves. What the nannies will not accept is that everyone makes mistakes and some of them are lethal. The law should only penalise us where the victim of our mistakes is not ourselves but innocent parties.

    The unscrupulous harm others because there is a profit to be made. Revoke the laws against these activities and the profit disappears. No society has ever succeeded in getting rid of drugs, prostitution or the use of guns in crimes. Banning these things makes them attractive to gangsters.

    Only the insane harm people for pleasure. There are secure hospitals where they should be held and treated so they are prevented from harming people again.

  • Josh says:

    Anyone surprised by whatever new hell Congress is cooking up has not been paying attention.

    Oh, people have paid attention, all right. Unfortunately they’ve paid attention to The Great Oz, and haven’t bothered to check behind the curtain. Nothing new or surprising about that, either.

    Cynically yours,

  • Dale Amon

    Perry, glad you picked that one up. My customer here in DC had a major upstream outage this morning and we were rather occupied trying to get his customers on to althernative connections.

    One simple answer to the question someone above asked about obeying the law is that one must simply ignore it. Laws have meaning only if they have respect. If sufficient numbers opt out, the law fails. The downside is, if you truly believe in freedom, you will have to be prepared to be one of those few Statist victims singled out ‘pour encourager les autres’.

    Whether you agree with Nelson Mandela or not, you cannot but respect the harm he did the ancien racist regime in South Africa by refusing to acknowledge its power. Despite years of imprisonment. He remained unbowed and unbroken.

    Revolutions can be non-violent but they still require courage and committment of the highers order.

    How many of you have the guts of a Mandela? Can you or will you stand up and give the State the finger if it actually puts you in jeopardy? Do you really mean it when you say “Live Free or Die”? Those are questions for each of you to ask yourselves and those around you.

  • Orville

    I suppose it isn’t really worth thinking about that the law states you have to report it “within 24 hours.” So if you notice your future daughter-in-law has weed in her purse but get into a car accident on the way to the police station to rat her out, and spend a night in the hospital, she can get a mean lawyer who can show that you knew about this more than 24 hours, and that’s a mandatory two years for you.

  • rosignol

    Hm.

    Exactly when was the 5th Amendment repealed?

    If being a witness to a crime and not reporting it makes you an accomplice, wouldn’t you be protected from being compelled to incriminate yourself by the 5th Amendment?

  • Paul Rattner

    I don’t think this law will actually pass. It is an obviously wicked law, and I still have enough faith in the rest of congress not to allow this.

    If it does pass, then maybe I need to adjust my world view. But dumb stuff like this crops up all the time, and then goes away. Mostly.

    I do recognize that many elements of liberty have been eroding over time, and this is just anothing milestone on the road, but I think it is too large a step to be accepted at this time.

  • John Steele

    Paul Rattner:

    I distinctly remember saying that McCain-Feingold would never pass and if it did pass it would be vetoed and if it wasn’t vetoed it would not stand up in court and even if it did stand up it would never get by the Supreme Court.

    Remember: “Every time the Congress makes a law its a joke; and every time they make a joke its a law.”

    Hmmmm 🙂

  • Fred Boness

    So, what do you do if you witness the murder of Kitty Genovese?

  • Unmitigated douchebaggery. I cannot say “unbelievable” because it is all too. Predictable, even.

    Such a shame, that the Democrats are as awful as they are; bailing out on the mess we made in Iraq was not an option I could conscience whilst in the voting booth last November, nor was Kerry in general. But good LORD am I sick of BushCo. The truth is that both “sides” suck out loud, and they can count on an apathetic—and pathetically self-absorbed—populace to neither notice nor care until it’s far far too late…

  • Johnathan

    Good post, Perry. Of course in the UK, anyone who works in financial services, like my other half, will already be required by law to report any financial transactions they deem suspicious to the authorities, and failure to do so is a serious crime. The state has already made bank employees snitches. It is only a matter of time before this applies to other issues.

    I am disappointed in Sensenbrenner. I have met him a couple of times and thought he was relatively okay but his performances of late (Terri Schiavo, Patriot Act, and this) have been lamentable.

  • guy herbert

    Isn’t Congressman Sensenbrenner associated too with the REAL-ID Act, which he boosted on an anti-immigration ticket? Not exactly a poster boy for the libertarian interest.

    It’s not just financial services, Jonathan, lawyers and accountants, too. Any profession that might handle someone’s financial affairs in essence. Better yet, Folks, it is a serious criminal offense to tell the person concerned that you have reported them to the authorities. (I have enormous difficulties explaining to US studio lawyers how analogous provisions in RIP and the Enterprise Act mean there’s no possibiltity of a protective order for their confidential information if the UK authorities want it.)

  • guy herbert

    The other glory of our regulatory framework for commerce in the UK is the number of government inspectors who have the power to compel evidence. Not through torture–yet–but by failing to answer or produce documents on demand being crimes.

  • Jacob:

    “Suppose a libertarian witnesses a murder. What is he supposed to do ?”

    Under common law people are under no positive obligation to help others. That is as it should be. The moment the law requires X to help Y, you start on the road to tyranny.

  • toolkien

    What a predicament many people will be in. People know the house next door is a crack house, but if they say anything, their ass is grass. But if they don’t, their government can put them behind bars for two years.

    I hate to be cynical, but I would doubt that they would use this law (at the beginning) against the little old lady next door who keeps silent out of fear, but will use it as needed against satellite people against whom they don’t have a case of using or selling drugs, but can slap with this law that they ‘knew’ something was up (members of the ‘posse’, girlfriends etc etc). It seems to be one in a continuing line of laws, while broadly written, will only be used as additional strong arm tactics against the gray periphery to nail the black center.

    Again, that will be only the start, and it may well pass because they have a specific use in mind, which is how bad law usually gets passed in the first place. The legislators feel confident that it will be carefully and judicioulsy applied by the executives and judiciary so it passes. But time will go by, and the law will be there, and it will be more broadly applied as needs be. And it will expand to include other crimes, and on and on…

  • Did anybody notice that where the witness is the parent or guardian of the offender, then the minimum sentence goes up from 2 years to 3 years.

    In other words, if you find a joint in your teenage son’s bedroom and you fail to report him to the police, you get a minimum 3 year prison sentence if you are found out.

  • Tom Paine

    Jesus, this is beyond belief. It also pisses me off that it is not all over the newspapers and news here in the US and I have to learn about this shit from our friends in the UK. We need to be throwing rocks on the frigging streets over this. Damn this makes me angry.

  • John Steele

    In fairness, it should be noted that the provision in question has to do specifically with drug trafficing involving, or in the presence of, minor children:
    “`FAILURE TO PROTECT CHILDREN FROM DRUG TRAFFICKING ACTIVITIES

    `SEC. 425. (a) It shall be unlawful for any person who witnesses or learns of a violation of sections 416(b)(2), 417, 418, 419, 420, 424, or 426 to fail to report the offense to law enforcement officials within 24 hours of witnessing or learning of the violation and thereafter provide full assistance in the investigation, apprehension, and prosecution of the person violating paragraph (a)…”

  • In fairness, it should be noted that the provision in question has to do specifically with drug trafficing involving, or in the presence of, minor children

    Oh right, I see, IT IS FOR THE CHILDREN! And this makes it better because… ????

    Yes I read the Bill.

  • Jeffersonian

    I suppose the constitutional authority for this Must-Rat law is the same that authorized the War on Drugs to begin with, i.e. none. They do it because they can and they have the guns.

    This law, as bad as it is, is just a symptom of a much deeper problem in America. Our federal government has slipped its constitutional leash and is now fouling any and every yard it enters. We can try to build fences around every piece of liberty we value, or we can tether the cur.

    I vote for the latter.

  • Sylvain Galineau

    Like that could be enforced or even enforceable. Somehow, I doubt this passes constitutional muster.

  • Jim is a friend of mine and he is far more libertarian than many in his party (or for that matter most Democrats). I am fairly certain that if he were a mainstream libertarian he would have no prayer in hell of being elected in the state he represents. Mid-Westerners are not known for the libertarian tendencies and he would not be considered too authoritarian in that part of the the US. So why the big shock?

  • Bernie

    I did a double take on reading this post and then looked up the links. This is not a joke. As someone else commented I can see NuLabour watching how this one pans out with glee.

  • Nomennovum

    I haven’t read all the comments here, but it seems to be many of you are exagerating matters a bit. As I understand it, there is no requirement under this proposed law that you “spy” on your neighbors to see if their breaking the law and, if they are, report them to the police. The proposal is that, if you witness a certain “drug” crime, you are legally obigated to report it. This is not what was (or is) done in totalitarian societies, where neighbor did spy on neighbor and reported what he saw to the authorities.

    Now, I think the proposed law *is* bad: It is an example of the nanny state expanding its reach and represents another traducement of federalism. That said, I would, as a general matter, report any *serious* illegal activity by my neigbor to the police — for the simple reason that illegal actions by my neigbor threaten me and my family, and because, like a broken window in an abandoned building, if not repaired, will lead to further decay of *my* quality of life. For example, I have nothing against prostitution, but I don’t want a whore plying her trade in the apartment next door to me. And this says nothing of my moral obligations to my other neighbors’ safety. Finally, at some point, does not your lack of interest in reporting the illegal activities of others represent criminal negligence and utter disregard for the safety of others? A crack dealer next door to you threatens not only you, but anyone else who happens to be in the area also.

    Read the quote in the link provided in Perry’s post:

    “If you “witness” certain drug offenses taking place or “learn” that they took place you would have to report the offense to law enforcement within 24 hours and provide “full assistance” in the investigation, apprehension, and prosecution of the people involved. Failure to do so would be a crime punishable by a mandatory two year prison sentence.”

    The website then goes on to give extreme examples of what “certain drug offenses are.” Well, until I read the bill or someone shows me that the bill’s definition of “certain drug offenses” includes the passing of a joint from any one person to any other, permit me to remain a little skeptical. In any event, it would be impossible to police anyone’s failure to report such activities. It would not be impossible (though extremely difficult) to police the neighbor’s ignoring the blatent crack house next door.

    Congressman Sensenbrenner would truly deserve the name Insensenbrenner if he thought that a law which requires me to report my brother or friend to the police for smoking a joint is a reasonable law and would work.

    Sorry, but my BS detector tolling quite loudly.

  • rob

    jeffersonian – why not shoot the bitch? 😉

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Andrew Ian Dodge, what you say about J. Sensenbrenner may be true, but if so, it surely demonstates what a terrible state of affairs the GOP is now in if he is regarded as libertarian. What must the authortarians be like?

  • Nomennovum: if you feel threatened by some activity which is against the law, sure, no one is suggesting you should not call the cops. That is not the issue and maybe you need to re-read the bill.

    It shall be unlawful for any person who witnesses or learns of a violation of sections 416(b)(2), 417, 418, 419, 420, 424, or 426 to fail to report the offense to law enforcement officials within 24 hours of witnessing or learning of the violation and thereafter provide full assistance in the investigation, apprehension, and prosecution of the person violating paragraph

    You are going to be required to get involved and that is really quite a significent difference to you yourself deciding if you want to get involved. “…Learns of a violation…” is a weasel phrase if ever I have heard one. Perhaps your BS detector needs adjusting because it is there in black and white.

  • Jon P: There are large parts of the US on the right who find libertarians as objectionable, if not more, as the left. The Republican party in the House & the Senate is made up of members who reflect the Republican viewpoint in their state. As someone who was a YR Chairman for Maine; I can tell you that attitudes towards quite a few things vary greatly from state to state. Sometime one wonders how the Democrats and Republicans retain their party’s considering just how big their “tents” are. The Conservative Party in this country is far less diverse than the Republicans.

  • Rick

    What’s up at Thomas
    “No records found with HR1528”

  • Nomennovum

    Perry,

    Thanks for the response.

    First, as far as my comment regarding calling the cops when I witness a crime goes, well, that was an issue discussed here in the comments section, I believe, and it seemed to me that some thought they would *not* call the police.

    Second, I believe you missed the main point of my comment, which was this law is being exaggerated to a large extent. You also seemed to miss the part where I said it was a bad bill. It is bad because (1) it represents creeping “nanny-ism” that won’t work anyway and (2) it violates the principles of federalism. Those two things are enough, in my opinion, to trash the whole project. Don’t you agree?

    But the point that others, including you, are making is that this is “a law worthy of Stalin” that will require you to “spy on all your neighbors.” This is gross exaggeration to the point deception. You quoted the proposed law yourself:

    “It shall be unlawful for any person who witnesses or learns of a violation of sections 416(b)(2), 417, 418, 419, 420, 424, or 426 to fail to report the offense to law enforcement officials within 24 hours of witnessing or learning of the violation and thereafter provide full assistance in the investigation, apprehension, and prosecution of the person violating paragraph.”

    A citizen is *not* being required under penalty of law to spy on neighbors to see if they are breaking the law. A citizen is *not* being “require[d] to get involved” to *determine* whether a law is being broken. A citizen is being required to *report* a particular illegal activity he knows has occurred. That is not the same his being required to know whether his neighbor is engaging in illegal activities. (That he would also be required to report a crime that he “learns” about, rather that simply witnessed, is one of the issues with this proposal that makes it laughably impractical – no, impossible – to enforce. “Learns” appears to mean that he acquires indirect knowledge that a covered crime has been committed. This is too much like hearsay and the police could never prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you heard of a covered crime being committed that you should have reported.) It is important to see here that this clearly is not a spying requirement. To my eyes, that is the plain reading of the text: Report a covered crime *of which you are aware has been committed*. You are not impelled to take the initiative and investigate whether crimes are, in fact, taking place.

    Third, with regard to my other point about the dubiousness of families having to inform of other family members’ smoking joints, etc., well, someone will have to tell me what the violations of sections 416(b)(2), 417, 418, 419, 420, 424, and 426 are. I have neither the time or inclination to find out now, but the fact that neither the web site you linked to nor anyone else here appears to provide any support for such accusations leads me to be quite skeptical that such trivial violations will be covered by this law. I will grant you, though, that I may be quite wrong in this regard, and am prepared to eat crow – even if it turns out that one or more of these referenced sections are (as one could be forgiven for presuming) somewhat ambiguous. Maybe someone will be so kind to do some research for us.

    My overall point is that we are all ill-served by fling wild calumnies at silly laws (or bills) such as these. This proposal, though wrong-headed, is not Stalinesque. It is not totalitarian. It does not represent evidence of creeping fascism in the U.S. What it is, is stupid, ill-conceived, evidence of out-of-touch empty-suited lawmakers, and, I believe, unconstitutional. If any one or a number of states of the United States made such a proposal, all the descriptions in the previous sentence would apply but for the last. Call it all that, Perry, but please spare me the Amnesty International cant.

    I am aware that I often come across as overaggressive in my writings. Please be aware that that is not my intent.

    Respectfully,

    Nomennovum

  • I know a guy who came of age behind the Iron Curtain in the 50s. Highly educated and probably brilliant under a remarkably dense layer of BS, he emigrated to the U.S. as a young man and has made himself a multimillionaire. He cannot talk enough trash about “hard-line Communism,” although he will allow that what has made the Chinese so successful is tight governmental controls over education, the economy, etc. To his (conscious) mind, America truly is the land of the free and the home of the brave.

    He does a good deal of blustering about the sainted Republicans, most particularly those running the U.S. now, and it’s comically easy to set him off on a rant about “the liberal Democrats.” I mentioned this proposed law to him today, suggesting coyly that he might find it vaguely familiar somehow. Within seconds he was off and running about what a terrific idea it is, how he hates drugs, he’s all for law and order, blah blah blah.

    Power corrupts. (Forget the “tends to” part. Power corrupts. Period.) Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Apparently power also corrupts bystanders and those who really should know better.

  • Deacon

    Sensenbrenner and his ilk seem intent on making the phrase “You papers please” part of the American Dream Turned Nightmare.

    Once a fascist, always a fascist.

    You best kick their sorry asses out of power at the first possible opportunity (that is assuming that the Fascits..erm Republicans don’t rig a third straight election).