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Holding “Public Servants” Accountable

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Most would agree that if we must suffer the impositions of government, it would be wise to subordinate it to the rule of law. As Thomas Jefferson said, “In questions of power then, let no more be heard of confidence in man but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.” This is what the Founding Fathers bequeathed to posterity when they wrote the Constitution. But the ink had barely dried on the supposedly revered document before the politicians began maneuvering to get around its strictures.

Since 1789, government power has expanded almost unimpeded. From the federal level on down to the state and local levels, government in America has become more and more despotic. Why?

Well, there is no simple answer to that question. America’s descent into despotism has been a complex process involving the interplay of various cultural, political, and economic developments over the course of two centuries.

I submit, however, that one major factor in the erosion of the rule of law and the rise of despotic government in this country has been the failure of the American people to hold their so-called public servants in government accountable, particularly those in law enforcement.

Consider the case of Brandon Raub.

Last August, Brandon Raub, a 26-year-old former marine, was involuntarily committed to a mental hospital by federal and Virginia-state authorities for remarks he posted on Facebook.

What was the content of those remarks?

Raub wrote, “The idea that men can govern themselves is the basis for every just form of government.”

He also wrote, “The Bill of Rights is being systematically dismantled.”

Then he added,

You elected an aristocracy. They are beholden to special interests. They were brainwashed through the Council on Foreign Relations. Your leaders are planning to merge the United States into a one world banking system. They want to put computer chips in you.

I suppose what really got these government agents to move against Raub was this seditious remark: “but we must take our Republic back.”

For the offense of expressing his opinion online, Brandon Raub was arrested and incarcerated. Fortunately for Raub and his family, he was eventually released. But this was only after the story went viral on the Internet, and after the Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit legal organization dedicated to civil liberties, agreed to represent Raub pro bono — and then vigorously pressed their client’s case in court.

The irony, of course, is that by arresting Raub, the government gave credence to his “extremist” views. Clearly, when a man can be dragged off and incarcerated for merely expressing his opinion, the Bill of Rights has indeed been “dismantled.”

Now, this incident was an egregious violation of Mr. Raub’s constitutional rights, yet none of the law-enforcement officers who executed this illegal arrest have been held to account, and I doubt they ever will. You see, police and other law-enforcement functionaries in this country enjoy “qualified immunity” when on duty. What this means in practical terms is that cops are rarely held accountable for their misconduct. It also means that individuals who are abused by government agents acting under the color of law have very limited recourse in seeking redress for the harm done to them.

Some will say that in this case the system worked, because Raub was eventually released and is now free to seek redress through civil litigation. But if and when Raub is awarded compensation for his pain and suffering, it will no doubt come at the public’s expense. Why should the taxpayers, who are already forced to pay for the salaries and benefits of the government goons who deprived Raub of his civil liberties, be gouged further to pay for a financial settlement?

The answer is the aforementioned concept of qualified immunity. Since the individuals who committed the offense were agents of the state, not private citizens, their liability is passed onto the state — which means the taxpayers. This is hardly a policy that encourages responsible behavior.

But what if all the law-enforcement functionaries involved in the Brandon Raub abduction, and it was indeed an abduction, were held personally responsible rather than allowed to pass their liability on to the taxpayer? What if these government agents lost their jobs, were forced to compensate Mr. Raub, and were criminally prosecuted?

Such a chastening would send a clear message to other law-enforcement agents that they had better act in accordance with the Constitution and think twice before executing an illegal order. I submit that pretty soon we would have more cops on the streets behaving like constitutional peace officers and not like myrmidons of a rogue and lawless state.

Now some will say that we should not blame individual law-enforcement officers for merely following orders. That, of course, is the infamous Nuremberg Defense, the infirmities of which should be self-evident. Having a badge does not relieve one of personal responsibility for one’s actions, nor should it be considered a license to violate the law.

Law enforcement always contains a potential threat to liberty, because it involves giving some human beings power over others. The prudent thing to do is make sure that those entrusted with police powers are held strictly accountable for their actions. It seems pretty obvious to me that if you have a system where law-enforcement agents are seldom held accountable for their “mistakes,” abuses will occur with much greater frequency and severity.

One organization that is trying to re-orient law enforcement back toward the rule of law and thereby ward off the encroaching police state is Oath Keepers. It describes itself as “a non-partisan association of currently serving military, veterans, peace officers, and firefighters who will fulfill the oath we swore to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

As Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes says,

The bigger idea is to get police and soldiers to at least start thinking about the Constitution, and that their first loyalty is to the Constitution and the rights of American citizens. Their first loyalty shouldn’t be to their commanding officer. It isn’t really about me coming down from the mountain with tablets inscribed with what orders you should and shouldn’t obey.

We’re often told that cops are mostly decent people dedicated to protecting and serving the public. I submit that the reality of the current situation is somewhat less heartening. However, one way to move closer to that ideal is to hold those law-enforcement officers who break the law accountable for their actions.

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    Tim Kelly is a columnist and policy advisor at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Virginia, a correspondent for Radio America’s Special Investigator, and a political cartoonist.