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'We the Prisoners': The Demise of the Fourth Amendment

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"Our carceral state banishes American citizens to a gray wasteland far beyond the promises and protections the government grants its other citizens" When the doors finally close and one finds oneself facing banishment to the carceral state--the years, the walls, the rules, the guards, the inmates"the incarcerated begins to adjust to the fact that he or she is, indeed, a prisoner. New social ties are cultivated. New rules must be understood."--Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic

In a carceral state--a.k.a. a prison state or a police state--there is no Fourth Amendment to protect you from the overreaches, abuses, searches and probing eyes of government overlords.

In a carceral state, there is no difference between the treatment meted out to a law-abiding citizen and a convicted felon: both are equally suspect and treated as criminals, without any of the special rights and privileges reserved for the governing elite.

In a carceral state, there are only two kinds of people: the prisoners and the prison guards.

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With every new law enacted by federal and state legislatures, every new ruling handed down by government courts, and every new military weapon, invasive tactic and egregious protocol employed by government agents, "we the people"--the prisoners of the American police state--are being pushed that much further into a corner, our backs against the prison wall.

This concept of a carceral state in which we possess no rights except for that which the government grants on an as-needed basis is the only way I can begin to comprehend, let alone articulate, the irrational, surreal, topsy-turvy, through-the-looking-glass state of affairs that is being imposed upon us in America today.

As I point out in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, we who pretend we are free are no different from those who spend their lives behind bars.

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Indeed, we are experiencing much the same phenomenon that journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates ascribes to those who are banished to a "gray wasteland far beyond the promises and protections the government grants its other citizens" : a sickening feeling, a desire to sleep, hopelessness, shame, rage, disbelief, clinginess to the past and that which is familiar, and then eventually resignation and acceptance of our new "normal."

All that we are experiencing--the sense of dread at what is coming down the pike, the desperation, the apathy about government corruption, the deeply divided partisanship, the carnivalesque political spectacles, the public displays of violence, the nostalgia for the past--are part of the dying refrain of an America that is fading fast.

No longer must the government obey the law.

Likewise, "we the people" are no longer shielded by the rule of law.

While the First Amendment--which gives us a voice--is being muzzled, the Fourth Amendment--which protects us from being bullied, badgered, beaten, broken and spied on by government agents--is being disemboweled.

For instance, in a recent 5-3 ruling in Utah v. Strieff, the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door for police to stop, arrest and search citizens without reasonable suspicion or probable cause, effectively giving police a green light to embark on a fishing expedition of one's person and property, rendering Americans completely vulnerable to the whims of any cop on the beat.

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In a blistering dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor blasted the court: "This case allows the police to stop you on the street, demand your identification, and check it for outstanding traffic warrants--even if you are doing nothing wrong" So long as the target is one of the many millions of people in this country with an outstanding arrest warrant, anything the officer finds in a search is fair game for use in a criminal prosecution. The officer's incentive to violate the Constitution thus increases..."

Just consider some of the many other ways in which the Fourth Amendment--which ensures that the government can't harass you, let alone even investigate you, without probable cause--has been weakened and undermined by the courts, the legislatures and various government agencies and operatives.

Americans have no protection against mandatory breathalyzer tests at a police checkpoint, although mandatory blood draws violate the Fourth Amendment.

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John W. Whitehead is an attorney and author who has written, debated and practiced widely in the area of constitutional law and human rights. Whitehead's aggressive, pioneering approach to civil liberties has earned him numerous accolades and (more...)
 

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