Police shouldn't be above law in using electronic surveillance

One of the inherent dangers of the digital revolution is the ability of unscrupulous people to use electronic equipment to gather information about others without their knowledge or consent.

Though there are no explicit guarantees of privacy in the U.S. Constitution, the doctrine of personal privacy has been well developed over the years through an extensive body of case law. In one of the most famous Supreme Court rulings on this subject, Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1928, "the right to be left alone" is the right "most valued by civilized men."

That is why Nevada, like most other states, has adopted strong protections against wiretaps and other forms of electronic surveillance. Lawmakers have rightly concluded that Nevadans expect to live their lives without having to worry about people surreptitiously recording their phone conversations or watching their every move with hidden cameras.

For some reason, many police officers seem to think they are above the law when it comes to using electronic surveillance for their own purposes. At the national level, President Bush conducted warrantless wiretaps of suspected "terrorists" in the name of "national security" before he was reined in by the Supreme Court, which concluded the practice violated the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Closer to home, the Nevada Sheriffs and Chiefs Association is pushing the Legislature to adopt a law, Senate Bill 61, which would allow municipalities to set up cameras at intersections to photograph people who run red lights. The idea is to let the camera do the police work automatically by taking a picture authorities can later use to send the owner of the vehicle a citation in the mail. This intrusion, they say, is necessary to catch the thousands of people who threaten public safety each year by running red lights.

Fortunately, Nevada's legislators have rejected previous attempts to pass such legislation and would be well advised to do so again.

This measure looks like another misguided attempt by people in law enforcement to subordinate individual freedom to government control. What's next? Monitors at every street corner? Surveillance cameras in people's living rooms? Police-monitored GPS systems in private vehicles?

We fail to see how policing communities with robots, wiretaps, camcorders and other electronic gizmos - on the sly - advances the conditions favorable to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness envisioned by our founding fathers. It looks more like a step toward the kind of totalitarian state ruled by the fictional character Big Brother in George Orwell's famous novel "1984" ... or the old Soviet Union.

We're all for giving police officers the tools they need to do their jobs within the parameters of reasonableness and fair play. However, these tools must never be used to strip citizens of their inalienable rights.

- This editorial appeared in the Lahontan Valley News


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