On 19 May, 2016, a member of the ATF, or at least someone driving one of their vehicles at a time that it was supposed to be in service, may have engaged in abusive behavior on the Glenn Highway in Alaska. From ktuu.com . . .
Police say that at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, a driver on the Glenn Highway said he pulled over for an unmarked white Ford SUV. The SUV flashed red and blue interior dash lights.
When the motorist stopped, police wrote that the driver, “sped past him, laughed, and flipped him the middle finger.”
The man called 911, and told police that he watched as the SUV did the same thing three other times with other drivers.
At the time that the incident was reported, the police checked the license plate of the vehicle, but could not find a match. Four days later, investigation revealed that the vehicle was an unmarked vehicle registered with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, (ATF).
The vehicle was not in the Department of Motor Vehicles data base. It was an unmarked ATF vehicle whose official existence is shielded from ordinary police view. This was discovered by a computer search though thousands of police reports. It happened that the ATF vehicle was at the scene of another investigation, and an investigating officer had noted the vehicle plate number in their report.
The person in the ATF vehicle had good reason to believe that they were immune from accountability in this case. A few years ago, they would have escaped without consequences. From adn.com:
Police contacted the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives, a U.S. Justice Department agency, which confirmed that the SUV was theirs, Castro said.
The person driving the ATF owned Ford SUV has not been identified. Initial reports describe the driver as a white male in their 30s with short hair. ATF has a policy not to “comment on personnel matters”.
This is not a mere “personnel matter.” If the allegations are true, this is an abuse of authority. It is a blatant violation of law. It is a deprivation of rights under color of law. If it occured as alleged, it should be easy to ascertain the truth, and the ATF official should not be allowed to be shielded by the agency.
Using police lights to pull someone over without cause is depriving them of their constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment. It is hard to believe, given the description of events, that the person in the vehicle had a legitimate reason to pull the vehicles over. The abusive finger salute adds to the impression that this was a simple abuse of authority under the color of law.
It was a minor abuse. Damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 would likely be small. It is roughly the equivalent of the abuse of police officers using lights and sirens to go on a pizza run; or using their police identification to push to the head of a line for personal reasons. But it is exactly these sort of abuses that are very damaging to the rule of law. Citizens see the abuses. They see that nothing is done to correct them, and they conclude that officers consider themselves a special class, above the ordinary rules of society and the law.
Such abuses make the allegations in more serious cases, such a the Fast and Furious gun running case, all the more believable. In that case, it is alleged that the Department of Justice conspired with the ATF to facilitate the illegal transfer of firearms to Mexican drug cartels, for the purpose of pushing the Obama Administration’s policies on gun control.
Digital recording devices make these abuses of authority under color of law much easier to prove. At least two appellate courts have ruled that it is a First Amendment right to video/audio record public officials in the course of the public execution of their duties. A U.S. District Court in Pennsylvania has refused to recognize recording as a First Amendment right, when there is no intention of criticising the police; that case is being appealed to the Third Circuit.
The case would not apply to those who record police with an intention to criticise their actions.
Criticism of police is at an all time high under the Obama administration. Many of the criticisms have not been justified by later investigations, such as in the Trevon Martin case or the Ferguson shooting case of Michael Brown.
That does not mean that abuses do not occur. It makes the case that recordings of altercations can help to absolve the innocent as well as convict the guilty. The ubiquity of digital recording devises is helping to make all authorities more accountable for their actions.
©2016 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice and link are included.
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