What part of the Fourth Amendment do the Vermont State Police not understand?
We ask this question after reading an Associated Press story that appeared in Monday's Reformer about a librarian in Randolph who seems to know a little bit more about the law than the state police.
On June 26, five Vermont State Police detectives showed up at the Kimball Public Library. Acting on a tip that 12-year-old Brooke Bennett sometimes used library's public access computers, the detectives wanted to seize them.
The librarian on duty at the time, Judith Flint, asked whether the detectives had a search warrant.
"The lead detective said to me that they need to take the public computers and I said 'OK, show me your warrant and that will be that,'" Flint told the AP. "He did say he didn't need any paper. I said 'You do.' He said 'I'm just trying to save a 12-year-old girl,' and I told him 'Show me the paper.'"
The detectives eventually got their warrant and the computers a few hours later, but an important point was made by Flint. The police can't just storm into a library, or anywhere else for that matter, without probable cause and a court warrant.
Col. James Baker, director of the Vermont State Police, more or less defended his men. "We had to balance out the fact that we had information that we thought was true that Brooke Bennett used those computers to communicate on her MySpace account," Baker told the AP.
"We had to balance that out with protecting the civil liberties of everybody else, and this was not an easy decision to make."
We disagree. It's an easy decision to make. Follow the law.
Unfortunately, the Vermont State Police seem to have a problem with that concept. Last December, we learned that the state police went into several pharmacies around Vermont and demanded a list of customers seeking painkillers.
Again, no warrants were presented to pharmacists. While an obscure 1967 law gives state police the right to request and search through pharmacy databases, it had been general protocol to only use this authority for specific criminal investigations. Many were outraged that the state police would abuse this power to go on a fishing expedition.
The same argument to justify the Randolph incident -- that public safety concerns trump privacy rights and civil liberties -- was used to justify this abuse of power.
The idea that we must sacrifice our rights in the name of security has become popular ever since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. We believe this is a false argument.
The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is clear on this: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and 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."
Since 9/11, the official view on the Fourth Amendment at every level of government and law enforcement has been this: We'll do whatever we want and you'll shut up about it, if you know what's good for you.
It takes guts to stand up to five detectives and tell them that they need to brush up on their constitutional law. That's why we have the highest admiration for Judith Flint and her boss, library director Amy Grasmick. It is people like this who are the real upholders of law and order.
© 2008 Reformer