On August 24th, The Free Thought Project posted an article with the headline “Congress Quietly Passed a Bill Allowing Warrantless Searches of Homes—Only 1% Opposed It”. It was further shared by the site Zero Hedge as well as countless terrified members of the social media community. The story has approximately 50k shares from The Free Thought Project and an additional 26k shares from Zero Hedge.
With such incendiary headlines, sites like these are often able to get away with lies by stoking the fire of distrust people have towards their government. While that distrust generally can and should manifest itself in more healthy ways, promoting borderline conspiratorial misinformation should not be the basis of those ideas. With such a huge audience, these sites need to be checked, so we dug into the issue a bit and hope to clear some of this up.
There was a bill passed recently which contained language that a few Representatives considered to be too broad and potentially a violation of the Fourth Amendment (search and seizure). Rep. Justin Amash claims that the language contained in one part especially is poorly written:
“In carrying out its purposes, the Commission, through its Board or designated employees or agents, shall, consistent with federal law:… enter upon the WMATA Rail System and, upon reasonable notice and a finding by the chief executive officer that a need exists, upon any lands, waters, and premises adjacent to the WMATA Rail System, including, without limitation, property owned or occupied by the federal government, for the purpose of making inspections, investigations, examinations, and testing as the Commission may deem necessary to carry out the purposes of this MSC Compact, and such entry shall not be deemed a trespass. The Commission shall make reasonable reimbursement for any actual damage resulting to any such adjacent lands, waters, and premises as a result of such activities”
Upon reading this without further analysis, it might be easy to see why so many people would think that this language could result in some undetermined abuse of power by the police. One note I’d like to make, though, is that the bill only refers to the DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia) area of the country. WMATA is the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority and does not control things outside of the DMV and is strictly limited to the public transportation sector, so the claim of it being nationwide is simply untrue.
Also, it’s important to note that the government can’t simply pass a law that violates the Constitution. Orin Kerr is a criminal law professor at George Washington University in DC. In response to Rep. Amash’s initial sentiment, he says:
“I don’t think the language tries to do that, and if it does that, it’s unconstitutional and can’t be given effect. Some of the language is admittedly vague: It says that WMATA officers can enter ‘premises adjacent to the WMATA Rail System,’ without saying what counts as ‘premises’. The fear is that maybe this allows the WMATA to enter private homes and other spaces. But the text doesn’t directly say that, or say anything about warrants, and I suspect a court would say that ‘premises’ doesn’t mean spaces protected by the 4th Amendment because that would render the law unconstitutional.”
So I guess while the language is a bit vague, the bill is simply meant to allow WMATA officers to check and repair the facilities owned by and/or affecting the WMATA transit system. Simply drafting legislation like this cannot replace or violate the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment is the trump card in this case and that wording, at least, is clear.
But, most importantly, this is by no means a far-reaching bill allowing police officers across the country to enter any home they please and conduct a search without a warrant.
So relax, don’t trust everything you read and make a conscious effort to dig deeper into issues like this. It is important to understand the issues, to be quick in response to government policy, and to be informed enough to put pressure on your government to achieve the change you want. Just try not to get caught up incendiary headlines and fear-mongering articles in the meantime.