Statement of Nkechi Taifa, ACLU Legislative Counsel
May 2, 1995
WASHINGTON -- With crime still high on the public's list of what is
wrong with America, Congress can be expected to steamroll toward
passage of a harsh, but ineffective, omnibus crime bill in the next
100 days. As in past years, current proposals tread heavily on
fundamental civil liberties without increasing public safety. By
eliminating the Exclusionary Rule and Habeas Corpus, and severely
restricting the ability of prisoners to challenge illegal conditions
of confinement, Congress is seeking to usurp the traditional power of
the federal courts to remedy serious constitutional violations.
Abolition of the Exclusionary Rule
In 1914, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the Exclusionary Rule
-- which requires judges to exclude evidence obtained in violation of
the Fourth Amendment -- was the only practical, effective means of
ensuring that law enforcement agents abide by the Constitution. In
1961, the Court applied the Exclusionary Rule to state and local
police as well. Today the Rule is in danger of being extinguished.
The consequences of doing away with the Exclusionary Rule can be
clearly seen in the events of September 5, 1991, when sixty armed
federal law enforcement agents staged an early morning drug raid on
the rural New Mexico homes of Sina Brush and two of her neighbors.
Ms. Brush and her daughter, clad only in their underwear, were
handcuffed and forced at gunpoint to kneel on the floor while their
home was searched. Absolutely no evidence of drugs was found
anywhere on the premises.
If the Exclusionary Rule is abolished or seriously weakened, law
enforcement agents will no longer have an incentive to observe the
warrant and probable cause requirements of the Fourth Amendment, and
what befell Sina Brush and her daughter will happen to countless
other innocent Americans.
The House has already passed a "good faith" exception to the
Exclusionary Rule which would allow illegally seized evidence to be
admitted at trial if prosecutors can show that the police officer
believed that he or she were in compliance with the Fourth Amendment
when executing the search.
The Senate proposal goes even further by abolishing the Exclusionary
Rule altogether and substituting a very limited civil remedy for
constitutional violations. This proposal is clearly unconstitutional;
the Supreme Court has ruled that in some situations, the suppression
of illegally seized evidence is constitutionally required.
Repeal of Federal Habeas Corpus
The Writ of Habeas Corpus, handed down to us by English Common Law,
is often the only way in which prisoners can have their convictions
and sentences reviewed by a federal court. The Writ has been
especially important in death penalty cases; it is the only viable
way to protect against tragic miscarriages of justice.
A House-passed bill and Senate proposal virtually repeal the Writ of
Habeas Corpus. They prohibit federal courts from reviewing
constitutional challenges to most sentences handed down by state
courts, even when the sentencing decisions were clearly erroneous.
Nor may federal courts hear new facts, even those that demonstrate
egregious constitutional misconduct, unless the prisoner meets the
almost impossible burden of showing that he or she is innocent.
Ban on Challenges to Unconstitutional Prison Conditions
A House-passed bill dubbed the "Stop Turning Out Prisoners Act," or
STOP, makes class action challenges against cruel and unusual prison
conditions virtually impossible, even in cases in which prison
authorities themselves want reform.
Shutting prisoners rights advocates out of court will lead to the
perpetuation of clearly unconstitutional practices; practices like
those that existed at Pelican Bay State Prison in California. In
response to a legal challenge, a judge found that prison guards
engaged in a pattern of unprovoked and sadistic assaults on
prisoners. While restrained by guards or in handcuffs and shackles,
prisoners had their heads bashed into walls and floors, their bodies
repeatedly kicked and hit with batons, their teeth knocked out, their
jaws fractured, their limbs broken, and their bodies burned with
scalding water. The court ordered the Pelican Bay prison officials to
develop and implement a plan to stop the brutality. If the STOP bill
passes, however, the court order will go out of effect in two years,
even if the abuses are ongoing. Similar legislation to the House-
passed STOP legislation awaits action in the Senate.
The ACLU will continue to urge both Houses of Congress not to enact
anti-crime legislation that includes the provisions discussed above.
The American people deserve real solutions to the problems of crime
and violence in our society, not worn out non-solutions that endanger
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