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Police Use Licensing Laws to Do End-Run Around Constitution

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Across the country, police agencies have discovered a loophole that enables them to ignore Constitutional protections. It is a loophole large enough to drive a SWAT team through, and coincidentally, of course, the targets of these actions tend to be the same minorities subjected to harassment by the thin blue line for decades: African-Americans and gays.

Kevon Gordon has been barbering at his Hair Shack in Moreno Valley, CA, for more than two decades. He was just finishing a customer when, "all of a sudden nine people ran in. There were police in body armor." Along with five armed policemen there were two city code officers and three inspectors from the California State Board of Barbering and Cosmetology. Inspectors for "health and safety" purposes don't need warrants and police have learned that by inviting fellow government officials to join them, they can conduct armed, warrantless searches under the guise of routine "health and safety" inspections.

That same day, police used the inspectors as cover to target four other barbershops in the town. The only thing they had in common was that they catered to the African-American community.

There were no serious charges filed against anyone, just minor infractions such as "failure to show an independent contractor's business license" and "failure to label supply cabinets and towel drawer" offenses. Hardly "crimes" that justify armed SWAT teams descending on the public.

In Orange County, Florida law enforcement had agents of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation accompany them on warrantless raids on nine barbershops. None of the shops had white customers. As many as 14 armed officers were involved in these raids, conducted without either probable cause or judicial oversight.

Police arrested 37 people that day. One charge of owning a firearm without a permit and two minor charges for possession of marijuana were the most heinous crimes that the strong-arm tactics managed to uncover. The Orlando Sentinel found that in the previous 10 years there were only 38 people booked into jail state-wide for barbering without a license, and 34 of them were from these raids.

At the Strictly Skillz shop barbers were handcuffed for an hour while police searched the premises. All of them had valid licenses on display in full view of the police.

In Fort Worth, Texas, local police teamed with agents from the Texas Alcoholic Beverages Commission to "inspect" a newly opened gay bar. Multiple witnesses later testified the police came into the bar in full force, yelled anti-gay slurs and started pushing around customers.

One customer, Chad Gibson, was slammed against a wall. When he fell to the floor an officer jumped on him and slammed his head into the floor. Gibson was hospitalized in Intensive Care for six days as a result. The initial police response was that Gibson accidentally fell and the police were helping him.

In Atlanta, a SWAT team numbering at least 21 officers swooped into the Eagle bar, a gay establishment, without a warrant. They claimed male go-go dancers needed "entertainment" licenses. Police Chief Richard Pennington said the dancers "must have a license" and "if the dancers accept money for dancing that also requires a permit."

While "licensing" regulations were the pretext for the raid, all 62 patrons in the club were subjected to body searches, as well as verbal harassment. The Atlanta Citizen Review Board uncovered anti-gay comments by the raiding police. One gay man, who asked about his rights, was told "you are a fag and you have no rights." Another officer was heard saying "raiding a fag bar" was fun and suggesting that they do it every week. A third officer said, "this is more fun than raiding niggers with crack." The Review Board upheld the charges of abusive language. It was also discovered that after the raid, police systematically began destroying evidence of their misconduct.

The reality is that law enforcement in this country is still riddled with bigots. These individuals find it easy to use the web of licensing laws and regulations to harass members of groups they dislike. With the co-operation of other departments, which are seen as outside the policing powers of government, thus not needing a search warrant, police are able to do an end-run around the Fourth Amendment.

While there is little evidence these regulations do much to actually protect consumers, the regulations are popular. Various professions demand the laws to cartelize their industry and reduce competition, thus increasing their bottom line. Politicians see licensing and regulation as a means of increasing state revenue while appearing "concerned" about the health and safety of the public. But these laws are easily turned to other, darker agendas. And when that happens, it is minorities who often suffer the most.