With all the latest reports detailing the use of excessive force and other even less savory misuses of authority, I want to remind folks that there is (supposed to be) official remedy for the public to use to confront such abuses and attempt to hold perpetrators responsible: the FBI:
U.S. law enforcement officers and other officials like judges, prosecutors, and security guards have been given tremendous power by local, state, and federal government agencies—authority they must have to enforce the law and ensure justice in our country. These powers include the authority to detain and arrest suspects, to search and seize property, to bring criminal charges, to make rulings in court, and to use deadly force in certain situations.Don't laugh - I'm serious. And yes, I am aware that there are multiple instances where the FBI itself has come under scrutiny & criticism for actions, policies and probes taken and not taken.
Preventing abuse of this authority, however, is equally necessary to the health of our nation’s democracy. That’s why it’s a federal crime for anyone acting under “color of law” willfully to deprive or conspire to deprive a person of a right protected by the Constitution or U.S. law. “Color of law” simply means that the person is using authority given to him or her by a local, state, or federal government agency.
The FBI is the lead federal agency for investigating color of law abuses, which include acts carried out by government officials operating both within and beyond the limits of their lawful authority. Off-duty conduct may be covered if the perpetrator asserted his or her official status in some way.
But the agency is charged with the investigation of such abuses and the responsibility to discharge those duties faithfully. Focusing attention on, and referring incidents of such abuse to, the FBI can help ensure that this task is not only carried out, but discharged faithfully. A reinforcement of attention by the public on cases that come to light helps counter elements within the system that may act to undermine the quality of such investigations or to shield perpetrators - sometimes under the too readily available and (IMO) oft-abused claim to avoiding the setting of "dangerous precedent."1,2,3
Note: The footnotes cited do not specific criminal case-related examples, which would have been better illustrations, but anyone may supply such references in comments to help improve the quality of the references provided.
The FBI is not perfect. It is, in fact, often guilty of abuse of power and authority itself. It's civil rights record is also quite battered, dented, and stained. But the agency, and agents, often also find themselves trying to try to do the right thing. As with any agency (and specifically the example cited), there are times when the governing powers and authorities above them in the chain of command have interceded to the detriment of justice. And the agency's own civil rights war under J. Edgar Hoover isn't so much "awe inspiring" as it is horrifying, but the agency exists to help keep abuses by those in positions of authority in check.
Let's reinforce that.
Don't take my positive statement as encouragement to overlook any questionable actions, behaviors or abuses - double-down on demanding explanations and accountability, for sure. But be certain to also reinforce positive feedback when the FBI earns the trust and respect of citizens & civilians, when they take on the hard cases and actually do it right.
When we have agencies in place that we can use to the advantage of the people, bolster the good. Remind them that we're paying attention, and holding them - as well as those who seek to dissuade or negatively influence them - accountable.
With regard to the Ferguson abuses as well as other actions by states and law enforcement that explicitly and singularly point to abuse of authority against minorities, people of color, LGBT, immigrants, or people who follow different religions, make it a habit to note the details and then pass 'em along to the local FBI office.4 Send a copy of the message to the Justice Department, and to your local newspaper.
And post it online here. (Maybe even drop a line to The Justice Files...heh.)
1 The use of precedent in courts has a long history; to those not fluent in legal matters (like myself), it can be quite complex. (I think it's also at time fairly complex for those who are fluent in legalese). And it's application (whether via can be a two-edged sword. It exists in more than one form - stare decisis and - for civil cases - jurisprudence constante. There are complexities whereby courts can build on precedent, and even overturn precedent. And the concept isn't only applied in legal cases - it's also used to describes precedent set by official actions (or lack thereof). Viable examples might be the actions of a sitting U.S. President: Example 1: George Washington or Example 2: Executive Privilege (Wikipedia)
The setting of a precedent - and any further qualification or it, or overturning of same - can have a potent impact on future law, law enforcement, civil rights, government authority, treaties, and international relations.
But precedents can be set which may - must? - be revisited as their use and application begin to undermine the very rights, laws, and societies they were intended to protect and guide.
A definition (via Wikipedia):
In extraordinary circumstances a higher court may overturn or overrule mandatory precedent, but will often attempt to distinguish the precedent before overturning it, thereby limiting the scope of the precedent.2 Legal or not, drone strikes set a dangerous precedent, by David Pilling, Financial Times. October 23, 2013 5:16 pm
Under the U.S. legal system, courts are set up in a hierarchy. At the top of the federal or national system is the Supreme Court, and underneath are lower federal courts. The state court systems have hierarchy structures similar to that of the federal system.
The U.S. Supreme Court has final authority on questions about the meaning of federal law, including the U.S. Constitution. For example, when the Supreme Court says that the First Amendment applies in a specific way to suits for slander, then every court is bound by that precedent in its interpretation of the First Amendment as it applies to suits for slander. If a lower court judge disagrees with a higher court precedent on what the First Amendment should mean, the lower court judge must rule according to the binding precedent. Until the higher court changes the ruling (or the law itself is changed), the binding precedent is authoritative on the meaning of the law.
Although state courts are not part of the federal system, they are also bound by U.S. Supreme Court rulings on federal law. State courts are not generally bound by Federal District courts or Circuit courts, however. A federal court interpreting state law is bound by prior decisions of the state supreme court.
Lower courts are bound by the precedent set by higher courts within their region. Thus, a federal district court that falls within the geographic boundaries of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals is bound by rulings of the Third Circuit Court, but not by rulings in the Ninth Circuit, since the Circuit Courts of Appeals have jurisdiction defined by geography. The Circuit Courts of Appeals can interpret the law how they want, so long as there is no binding Supreme Court precedent. One of the common reasons the Supreme Court grants certiorari (that is, they agree to hear a case) is if there is a conflict among the circuit courts as to the meaning of a federal law.
3 Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius: Crafting a Dangerous Precedent, by Julia Mirabella and Sandhya Bathija | Center for American Progress, October 1, 2013.
4 For contacting the FBI to report color of law or civil rights abuses, via the FBI's Color of Law page:
To file a color of law complaint, contact your local FBI office by telephone, in writing, or in person. The following information should be provided:and
- All identifying information for the victim(s);
- As much identifying information as possible for the subject(s), including position, rank, and agency employed;
- Date and time of incident;
- Location of incident;
- Names, addresses, and telephone numbers of any witness(es);
- A complete chronology of events; and
- Any report numbers and charges with respect to the incident.
You may also contact the United States Attorney’s Office in your district or send a written complaint to:
Assistant Attorney General
Civil Rights Division
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest
Washington, DC 20530
Report Civil Rights ViolationsResources