Central Data Banks and American Justice

April 5, 2002

By Tom DeWeese

I have warned many times about the dangers of ever-growing government data banks and how they can be used to destroy the lives of Americans who become victims of inept bureaucracies and overzealous law enforcement.

Case in point, a New Hampshire woman who was arrested, handcuffed, and had her car impounded for not returning a late rental video. This sad saga of American injustice began when Jessie Cohen of Portsmouth, New Hampshire was stopped by police for having a broken taillight on her car. During the routine license check through the police cruiser’s computer which is connected to a central government data bank, police discovered an outstanding warrant for Cohen, dating back to 1997, for allegedly not returning a rented copy of the 1996 movie, “Sleepers.” She had rented it from an Epsom, New Hampshire video store.

Cohen was charged with misdemeanor unauthorized use of rental property, was handcuffed, had her 1987 Cadillac impounded, and was taken to jail and fingerprinted. She faces a fine of up to $1,200.

Cohen said she had no memory of renting the video, and said she had never received any notice from the store that the video was overdue.

If innocent, Ms Cohen is a victim of imperfect government data banks that target the wrong citizen for crimes they didn’t commit. This is the very serious, and growing danger every American will face as the government begins to enforce the use of National I.D. cards that are tied to massive government data banks. Currently, 30% of all of the information in government data banks is incorrect. As the size and the power of the data banks grow—so will the inaccurate information. Life in such a world will be a nightmare.

If guilty, Ms. Cohen is a victim of “mission creep” of good laws going bad. For example, the law against unauthorized use of rental property was written to protect car rental companies from people who rent a car but never return it. That’s a legitimate law designed to protect companies against costly rental fraud or theft. But once in place, government can vastly expand the original intent, eventually leading to the scene of a woman being thrown in jail for failure to return a $10 video tape. That’s law enforcement out of control. It has no place in a free society. Common sense is replaced by a police state.

“Unfortunately, this is not the only example of a law that has expanded far beyond its original means,” says George Getz, press secretary of the Libertarian Party. “Take asset forfeiture laws: Originally designed to target illegal profits from drug kingpins, they have been expanded to allow the government to seize property in cases of suspected prostitution, illegal gambling, or failure to pay sales taxes.” Getz points out, “Federal agents can now seize property under 200 different statutes. And RICO laws, originally designed to target Mafia crime bosses, are now used against stores that allegedly sell obscene videos, against the tobacco companies, and against investment companies for skirting tax laws.” In other words, these laws go way beyond their original intent and are now being used to build the power and reach of law enforcement. That’s how regular citizens like Jessie Cohen suddenly find themselves being fingerprinted and tossed in the slammer.

Government at all levels passes too many laws in its ever-growing desire to rule and regulate every aspect of our lives. Incredibly, as Americans grumble and gripe while standing in endless government lines, facing rude and unhelpful government bureaucrats, we continue to support the enactment of more of the same.

We seem unable to make the connection between our unending desire to be completely cared for and the all powerful, inept government enforcement designed to take us there. Perhaps there ought to be a law against saying “there ought to be a law!”

Tom DeWeese
[email protected]

Tom DeWeese is President of the American Policy Center and National Grassroots Coordinator for CFACT (Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow) working to help local activists organize into Freedom Pods (www.CFACT.org). He is also the author of three books, including Now Tell Me I Was Wrong, ERASE, and Sustainable: the WAR on Free Enterprise, Private Property, and Individuals.