Montana Viewpoint

June 27, 2005

“The officers of Congress may come upon you now, fortified with all the terrors of paramount federal authority….They may…go into your cellars and rooms and search, ransack, and measure everything you eat drink, and wear. They ought to be restrained within proper bounds.”
Patrick Henry, 1788
This Fourth of July, 229 years after freeing ourselves from the tyranny of the English monarchy, is an appropriate time to review one of the major reasons that caused that separation which, ironically enough, we are once again facing, but this time from our own government.
Before 1776, English colonial government officials in America were armed with a document called a Writ of Assistance which allowed them to enter homes and businesses on mere suspicion and search for goods on which taxes had not been paid. A Writ of Assistance was also known as a General Warrant. It gave broad powers to the person holding it; instead of needing “probable cause” to search, they could search “just ’cause.”

This practice persists in Canada, where even today members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are supplied with Writs of Assistance. Thanks to Patrick Henry and others, America has remained free of that kind of tyranny because of the Due Process clause in the United States Constitution—the 4th Amendment.
If you remember your high school history, the inclusion of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution—the first ten amendments—was insisted upon by the individual colonies before they would ratify the Constitution as the Law of the Land. The Bill of Rights basically does two things: limits the power of the Federal government and enumerates the rights of individual Americans.

In 2001, in reaction to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the USA PATRIOT Act was passed by Congress. It was an extraordinary measure in reaction to an extraordinary event, and like many such actions taken in a time of high emotion, contained some things that should never have been passed into law. In this case, it was granting temporary, but broad, powers to the Federal authorities that were purposefully and specifically denied them by the Framers of the Constitution.

In brief, those powers now allow the Federal government to secretly gather information on American citizens, and forbid the providers of that information from telling those being investigated. A partial list includes library records, airline travel, credit card use, Internet and telephone communication, financial records, medical records, and church attendance. It also allows the search of private residences and the seizure of personal records and effects without requiring probable cause.

If there is a bright side to this, it is that the measures were intended to be only temporary, expiring at the end of this year. But every silver lining also has a cloud, and here it is the insistence of the Federal government that these provisions be renewed, and there is great pressure from the President to do so.
If this is not exactly what you envision when you picture freedom, there is a golden opportunity to do something about it. Montana’s Senators and Congressman are back in Montana these next few days. When they return to Washington, they will be debating the renewal of these provisions.
Call them: seek them out at public events and voice your opinion on the USA PATRIOT Act. You will have plenty of company.
The Montana Legislature overwhelmingly supported a Resolution (SJ 19) asking that Senator Burns, Senator Baucus, and Congressman Rehberg to oppose their renewal. Millions of Americans, represented by organizations of such diverse philosophies as the Eagle Forum, the Cato Institute, the ACLU, and Gun Owners of America, oppose these provisions, and want to see them expire.
You could quote Patrick Henry to them: “…general warrants by which an officer may search suspected places, without evidence of the commission of a fact, or seize any person without evidence of his crime, ought to be prohibited….[if they are not] Every thing the most sacred may be searched and ransacked by the strong hand of power.”
It was true then, and it’s true now.
[Patrick Henry’s speech is taken from The Complete Bill of Rights, edited by Neil H. Cogan, Oxford University Press 1997. I recommend it highly.]

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620