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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 fundamental rights.
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