Keeping Government Bureaucrats Off the Backs of the Citizenry: The Supreme Court Responds

06/23/2015 10:11 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

"No man in the wrong can stand up against a fellow that's in the right and keeps on a-comin'."--Texas Rangers

In one swoop, on June 22, 2015, a divided U.S. Supreme Court handed down three consecutive rulings affirming the right of raisin farmers, hotel owners and prison inmates. However, this push back against government abuse, government snooping and government theft only came about because some determined citizens stood up and took a stand against tyranny.

The three cases respectively deal with the government's confiscation of agricultural crops without any guarantee or promise of payment (Horne v. U.S. Department of Agriculture); the practice of police gaining unfettered access to motel and hotel guest registries (City of Los Angeles v. Patel); and the use of tasers and excessive force by prison officials (Kingsley v. Hendrickson).

Whether these three rulings will amount to much in the long run remains to be seen. In the meantime, they sound a cautiously optimistic note at a time when police state forces continue to use advancing technologies, surveillance and militarization to weaken, sidestep and flout the Constitution at almost every turn.

In the first case, Horne v. U.S. Department of Agriculture, a 5-4 Supreme Court declared that raisin farmer Marvin Horne deserves to be compensated for the official seizure of one-third of his personal property by the government.

The case arose after independent raisin farmers in California were fined almost $700,000 for refusing to surrender about 40% of the raisins they produced to the government as part of a Depression-era program purportedly aimed at maintaining a stable market for commodities. Marvin and Laura Horne, independent farmers who have been growing raisins for almost half a century, challenged the fine, arguing that the requirement that they surrender, on pain of monetary penalty, a percentage of their property without any guarantee of compensation violated the command of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that private property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation.

The bigger picture: Whether you're talking about raisins confiscated by the USDA, homes expropriated by government agencies under the rubric of eminent domain, or cars and cash seized by asset forfeiture-driven highway police, these various takings all add up to the same thing: government theft sanctioned by an endless assortment of arcane laws. Unfortunately, as I point out in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, the lines between private and public property have been so blurred that private property is reduced to little more than something the government can use to control, manipulate and harass the citizenry to suit its own purposes, while 'we the people' have been reduced to little more than tenants or serfs in bondage to an overbearing landlord. This is feudalism revisited.

In the second case handed down on June 22 (City of Los Angeles v. Patel), a 5-4 Supreme Court struck down a Los Angeles ordinance that permits the police to check guest registries at motels and hotels at any hour of the day or night without a warrant or other judicial review.

Section 41.49 of the City of Los Angeles Municipal Code requires all hotel owners to maintain a registry that collects information about persons staying at the hotel, including their names, addresses, vehicle information, arrival and departure dates, room prices, and payment methods. The law also requires that hotels make these records available to any officer of the Los Angeles Police Department for inspection on demand, thereby allowing law enforcement officers to inspect this information at any time regardless of whether there is consent to the inspection or a warrant allowing it. Additionally, police need not have any measure of suspicion in order to review hotel registries under the ordinance and there need not be any history of criminal activity at the hotel. A hotel operator is guilty of a crime if he or she refuses to allow inspection.

The bigger picture: The practice of giving police officers unfettered, warrantless access to Americans' hotel records is no different from the government's use of National Security Letters to force banks, phone companies, casinos and other businesses to secretly provide the FBI with customer information such as telephone records, subscriber information, credit reports, employment information, and email records and not disclose the demands. Both ploys are merely different facets of the government's campaign to circumvent, by hook or by crook, the clear procedural safeguards of the Fourth Amendment and force business owners to act as extensions of the police state.

In the last case, a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Kingsley v. Hendrickson that a lower court used an improper test to determine whether guards used excessive force against a pretrial detainee.

The case involves a Wisconsin man who alleged that he was subjected to unreasonable and excessive force in reckless disregard for his safety when prison guards forcibly removed him from his jail cell, allegedly smashed his head into a concrete bunk and subdued him with a stun gun. The incident occurred in 2010 while Michael Kingsley was in jail, awaiting a court appearance.

The bigger picture: In a police state, there is no need for judges, juries or courts of law, because the police act as judge, jury and law, and their version of justice is one-sided, delivered at the end of a gun, taser or riot stick. Unless the courts and legislatures act soon to change this climate of government-sanctioned police brutality, we may find that there is no real difference between those who are innocent, those accused of committing crimes and those found guilty, because we will all suffer the same at the hands of government agents.

Taken individually, these three cases may appear to be little more than small, procedural slaps on the wrist to government agencies that are so bloated, out-of-control and unaccountable as to scarcely register the slaps. However, taken together they serve as a potent reminder of what happens when a determined citizenry takes a collective stand against government abuse.

That said, if "we the people" don't keep pushing back, standing up, and holding government officials accountable to the rule of law, these victories will do little to keep government bureaucrats off the backs of the American citizenry.