I bet you didn't know that federal law enforcement officers representing the Department of Education (DOE) can break down your front door if you are suspected of violating the law.
I was not aware of this until I heard what happened to Kenneth Wright of Stockton, Calif. On June 7, at 6 a.m., Wright was awakened by a knock on his door. According to his account, he came downstairs in his boxer shorts, but before he could reach the door, federal police officers stormed in. They were looking for his estranged wife, who was not in the house. Wright has no criminal record.
Wright told a local TV station he was grabbed by the neck and taken outside to his front lawn. He said officers then awakened his children, ages 3, 7 and 11, and put them in a Stockton patrol car while his house was searched. "They put me in handcuffs in that hot patrol car for six hours, traumatizing my kids," he said.
DOE spokesman Justin Hamilton told the TV station that federal agents with the Office of Inspector General (OIG) served the search warrant. Hamilton would not say why the raid took place, but he said it was not because someone had defaulted on student loans, as some local media initially reported.
A statement from the OIG said, "The reasons for our search warrant are currently under seal by the court and cannot be discussed publicly." The statement added, "OIG . . . is responsible for the detection and prevention of waste, fraud, abuse and criminal activity involving Department of Education funds, programs and operations." If they were consistent, they'd be breaking down the doors of many failing public schools that are wasting taxpayer funds and allow especially poor and minority children out so they can choose better schools and have a brighter future.
Constitutional attorney John Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute in Charlottesville, Va., said the Stockton incident is one of a growing number of examples threatening the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures. . . ."
Whitehead said the passage of the U.S. Patriot Act "opened the door to other kinds of invasions" beyond the search for terrorist suspects. Worse, the courts are increasingly approving this cozy association between government and the police. "The problems inherent in these situations," he said, "are further compounded by the fact that SWAT teams are granted 'no-knock' warrants at high rates, such that the warrants themselves are rendered practically meaningless."
Two recent cases demonstrate the threat. In an 8-1 Supreme Court ruling last month (Kentucky v. King), Whitehead said the court "effectively decimated the Fourth Amendment by giving police more leeway to break into homes or apartments without a warrant when in search of illegal drugs which they suspect might be destroyed if notice were given."
In the other ruling, the Indiana Supreme Court (Barnes v. State) said people do not have the right to resist police officers entering their homes illegally. Resistance, noted Whitehead, can be as simple as saying, "Wait, this is my home. What's this about?"
If governments are permitted to slowly erode the Fourth Amendment and the public won't resist, then not only that amendment, but also others protecting speech, religion, the right to keep and bear arms, and who knows what else could be in jeopardy.
Incidents like the one in Stockton should cause conservatives and liberals to be more vigilant about the encroaching power of government. If a gang of cops, acting on behalf of the Department of Education, can break down your door in possible violation of the Fourth Amendment, then none of us is safe.
The New York Times reported that the FBI's approximately 14,000 agents are being given "significant new powers" that will allow them more freedom to search databases, examine your trash, and use surveillance teams to scrutinize the lives of people who attract their attention.
© 2011 Tribune Media Services Inc.