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Prosecutors threaten our freedom

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Casey Anthony. The name and the trial spark emotion. But there is a far deeper issue lurking beneath, a monster of much greater importance.

Recent years have borne witness to the rampant rise of prosecutorial zeal in the courts. While no responsible citizen wants crime unpunished, prosecutors, in all their forms, have been growing in power and influence.

When prosecutorial power teams up with political ambition or a high-reaching career path, we must watch carefully the potential threat to individual liberty.

In the last ten years, this country has seen an unprecedented expansion in the reach of prosecutors. Everybody’s getting in on the act. While some zeal is justified, there are abuses in the extreme.

The rise of Eliot Spitzer, and his prosecutions by press release, are the prime example.
This was a very dangerous man, a huge hypocrisy of a man who used hindsight to criminalize decisions of senior executives by imposing duties after the fact. A man who sought to punish business as a class, who hurled nasty accusations through exaggerated news leaks to an abetting media.

There are dozens of other examples, long queues of men like Andrew Cuomo and Richard Blumenthal making careers out of violating prosecutorial discretion. Like District Attorney Mike Nifong who recklessly prosecuted three Duke lacrosse players falsely in a rape case. Or West Virginia’s top prosecutor Darrell McGraw, who specializes in “the art of turning settlement proceeds into political patronage”, as the Wall Street Journal put it. And Janet Reno, who became famous for child-abuse “prosecutions she would win on entirely concocted testimony”. Or the miscarriage of justice for the Amirault family in Boston.

Some governments have learned they can collect revenue by seizing money or property that is possibly connected with crimes- in some cases seizing it long before those accused have their day in court. The Feds throw hundreds of laws on the books – such as the Dodd-Frank “consumer protection act”- so government regulators and prosecutors can continue the lucrative practice of extracting ever larger fines against businesses and individuals.

The point is that putting people in jail is serious business. This is a “power of the state” issue. Uncurbed prosecutorial ardor is a fearsome threat to liberty, especially if used to gain political power. Some hold that law enforcement’s biggest problem is not cops who mistakenly shoot innocent people. Rather, the most dangerous people are prosecutors who trample procedures, ignore acquittal evidence, and look for scapegoats. When that happens, when behavior that is merely a mistake is criminalized, the wheels of justice steer astray.

Lest my words be misinterpreted, I do not believe that our local State Attorney, Michael McAuliffe, fits into the mold of the prosecutors described here.

The scary part: government is a monopoly, some would say a coercive monopoly, with nearly unlimited power to spend money and to outlast in court all but the very wealthiest of citizens.

Yes, we need government to uphold our laws and put away the bad guys. But we must also protect individuals, companies, and industries that come under unwarranted attack. Enthusiasm for justice does not give a license to bogus theories of criminality by crusading prosecutors.

John R. Smith


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