By Lena Williams, Guild-CWA :: Picture this: you’re walking across the Capitol grounds in Washington, D.C., some 290-acres of public property surrounding the U.S. Capitol, soaking up the sights, taking selfies, having lunch, minding your own business.
Suddenly, from out of nowhere, a member of the Capitol Police approaches you and says he needs to conduct a search of your personal belongings. You haven’t done anything wrong, weren’t acting in a suspicious manner. But you’re ordered, against your Constitutional rights, to turn over your backpack or purse or suitcase so the Capitol Police can rummage through it searching for “prohibited items.”
Well, under a policy proposed by the Capitol Police Board on July 15, at the direction of their chief of police, Capitol Police officers “may search packages, bags, and other containers in the immediate possession of individuals who enter and are within the United States Capitol Grounds for the purpose of prohibited items.”
Under current law, Capitol police need probable cause to conduct searches when they encounter suspicious individuals on the sprawling campus grounds.
The new policy would give the police enhanced authority under a section of code banning firearms, dangerous weapons and explosive devices, to stop and search anyone they randomly choose.
Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Frank Larkin told CQ Roll Call Newspaper that police would only conduct extensive searches if there’s “high-confidence intelligence’ about a threat or if the Capitol was being attacked. Having the authority would provide extra safety for the grounds, Larkin said.
The proposal would have to be reviewed by the House Oversight Committee before a final decision is made, then printed in one of the Washington area’s daily newspapers 10 days before it takes effect.
Civil liberties advocates see it as a Constitutional infringement of Americans’ Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizures.
Arthur B. Spitzer, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, told Roll Call that the proposed policy would create a “Fourth-Amendment Free Zone.”
“We’ve all gotten pretty much used to the idea that you have to do that when you’re entering any of the buildings of the Capitol, you go through a metal detector,” said Spitzer. “Same at a court house or city hall. That’s a different thing than just somebody who’s minding his own business, walking across the Capitol grounds. The Capitol grounds are open to the public.”
And they stretch several blocks from the Capitol to the plaza in front of Union Train Station, the Post Office Museum, along Independence Avenue and D Streets and into the city’s Southeast and Southwest quadrants to the Ford Building. The tree-lined streets and grassy knolls are magnets for lunchtime office workers. The Capitol grounds are so enormous and intangible, people could be walking on Capitol property and not know it.
And what happens to individuals who refuse to be searched? Are they to be arrested? Escorted off the grounds? Ticketed for carrying prohibited items on Capitol property? District of Columbia law does permit people to carry licensed concealed weapons.
“If you decline to be searched, you’re going to have to leave and that’s not going to be feasible in these outdoor spaces,” Tim Lynch, an attorney at the Cato Institute, told Roll Call.
The Capitol Police Board’s decision to broaden its policy on individual searches appears to have been motivated by a spate of recent terrorist acts committed by “lone wolves,” individuals acting on their own. On April 11, a 22-year-old man, allegedly carrying a backpack, suitcase and a gun in his pocket, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on the Lower West Terrace of the Capitol. Several law enforcement agencies responded to the scene and the Capitol and Capitol Visitor Center were placed on a lockdown while Capitol Police’s bomb squad searched the man’s belongings.
No dangerous or hazardous materials were found in the man’s bag but the incident, understandably so, heightened tensions on the Hill and across the nation’s capital.
But that incident alone does not justify a policy that would give Capitol Police the right to treat any and every ordinary citizen as a suspected terrorist bent on harming the government.
The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution provides “the right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
The proposed policy suggests that safety is a greater good than liberty and that Americans should sacrifice certain personal freedoms in the interest of national security.
Government should not, simply because it can, impose its will upon the people. That’s not how democracy works. It’s up to the people, to us, to oppose this policy. The safety and security of the Capitol grounds can be achieved without government overreach, intrusions on personal privacy and abridging the rights of American citizens.