Friday, June 23, 2006

Good for her

In an example of why we have warrant requirements, there's this story:

Library Director Michele Reutty is under fire for refusing to give police library circulation records without a subpoena.

Reutty says she was only doing her job and maintaining the privacy of library patrons. But the mayor called it "a blatant disregard for the Police Department," which needed her help to identify a man who allegedly threatened a child.

If you read the piece, you'll note that the only thing the librarian did was uphold the law by requiring the police to have proper authorization before they accessed private records. Once the police did that, she helped them out and they found the guy they were looking for.

Now she's being condemned and faces possible disciplinary action for doing her job:

Borough labor lawyer Ellen Horn, who also represented the library trustees, said Reutty was "more interested in protecting" her library than helping the police.

"It was an absolute misjudgment of the seriousness of the matter," Horn said at Tuesday's meeting.

What's more serious: a slight delay in identifying a subject, or a complete disregard for the Fourth Amendment, thus creating an environment where the police have the right to demand access to any records they want, without having to give a reason?

And anyway, what if Reuty had simply acquiesced?

The whole episode is "shocking," Reutty said Wednesday. "I followed the law. And because I followed the law, at the end of the day, the policemen's case is going to hold strong. Nobody is going to sue the library and nobody is going to sue the municipality of Hasbrouck Heights because information was given out illegally."

Precisely. By insisting that police follow the law, she ensured that a crucial piece of evidence will not be challenged by defense lawyers and thrown out of court. And she ensured that neither the borough nor the police will be sued.

I don't actively fear my government; I think government in general tries to do a good job. But things like the Fourth Amendment are one reason I feel that way.

For instance, Britain doesn't have an equivalent of the Bill of Rights. Which leads to things like this:

The police have launched a crackdown on English soccer hooligans to prevent them from reaching Germany for the World Cup, officials said Wednesday.

Intelligence officers were stationed at ports across the country, said Commander Bob Broadhurst, who leads the Metropolitan Police operation against soccer violence.

Broadhurst said about 3,500 troublemakers had been ordered to hand in their passports before the tournament begins.

Think about that. The government prevents perfectly legal private travel by temporarily revoking the passports of 3,500 people they think might cause trouble at the World Cup. It's an arbitrary exercise of government power. A good idea, perhaps. But nothing stops the government from exercising that power for bad reasons.

The United States can revoke a citizen's passport, too, but only on very narrow grounds: they are a criminal defendant who poses a flight risk, or a condition of parole requires them to stay in the country -- that sort of thing.

Britain's not a bad place to live. But in many ways British citizens rely on tradition and the good graces of their government to protect them from abuse. They have laws protecting privacy, but they are not rights; they can be revoked as easily as they were granted.

Rights are important. Yes, they protect the bad as well as the good. But since the founding of this country we've considered that a good trade-off. We should not let security fears goad us into surrendering those rights.

Update: Reutty resigned in October 2006 after six months of battling the library board, and took a job as head of the Oakland, N.J., Public Library.

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