Have you ever read the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics? It’s fascinating and worth your time to read it. I think the opening paragraph is my favorite:
“As a law enforcement officer, my fundamental duty is to serve the community; to safeguard lives and property; to protect the innocent against deception, the weak against oppression or intimidation and the peaceful against violence or disorder; and to respect the constitutional rights of all to liberty, equality, and justice.”
There are two purposes in writing this article. One, to explain why we should resist placing law enforcement on a pedestal of perfection. And two, to illustrate why it’s not anti-law enforcement to support legislation that puts safeguards in place when it comes to those with badges carrying out their duties.
To help illustrate these points, let’s briefly consider two bills from the 2019 Legislative Session that have resulted in accusations of some people being anti-law enforcement. The first is House Bill 1286, whose primary sponsor is Rep. Rick Becker (R – District 7). The second is House Bill 1290, whose primary sponsor was Luke Simons (R – District 36).
HB 1286 is also known as “Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform“. In case you’re not familiar with Civil Asset Forfeiture, it’s the legal process that enables a government to seize property and other assets belonging to persons suspected of committing a crime. These are sometimes kept without the person being convicted.
Recognizing the problematic aspects of North Dakota’s Civil Asset Forefeiture, Rep. Becker has attempted to reform it legislatively. His effort was defeated by the Senate in 2017— without a single vote in favor of it. He renewed the effort in the 2019 Legislative Session with HB 1286. And he very seriously threatened to take this issue to the ballot box through initiated measure, if needed. His colleagues must have taken him seriously, because not only did it pass the House, but it passed the Senate just two days ago. Of course, it was amended in both chambers, but it passed nonetheless. The amount of law enforcement lobbying against the original version of the bill was staggering.
HB 1290 sought to deal with the fact that law enforcement doesn’t need a warrant to come on your property and search areas outside your “curtilage”. In a nutshell, this means that if you live in the country, your out buildings are treated very differently than your home. Simons wanted to clarify this so that law enforcement could only come on private property under the following conditions:
- If they had permission.
- With probable cause.
- With a search warrant.
- In response to an emergency, accident, or threat to public safety.
Unfortunately, HB 1290 met with push back in the Senate. As a result, the bill was illogically amended to a study — often referred to as “death by study” — and it was defeated the same day Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform was passed.
Whether it’s comments on social media, floor debate in the legislature, etc., it’s not uncommon to hear those who opposed these pieces of legislation to put law enforcement on a pedestal— almost to the point of being portrayed as incapable of doing any wrong. And while I completely understand the tendency to do that, I don’t think it’s necessary. In fact, I think it’s unwise. I realize those last two sentences might leave some folks uncomfortable. So, I’ll explain.
There’s little question that law enforcement is held to the highest of standards— and rightfully so. That’s clearly illustrated in their Code of Ethics that I referenced in the opening paragraph to this article. And yes, it’s true that they sometimes put their lives on the line. They deal with things that most of us want nothing to do with. These are highly trained individuals who are there to protect and serve. But in recognizing all of this, are we to believe that all of them are angels? Are they beyond reproach? To both of these questions, I say, “No.”
A simple Google search will prove my point. Look at these examples of current or former law enforcement officers in North Dakota who have had run-ins with the law themselves:
A West Fargo police officer arrested for DUI.
A former Williston police officer convicted of corruption and solicitation of a minor.
A former Sheriff’s Deputy in multiple county’s arrested and accused of having sex acts with a minor.
A Mandan police officer arrested for burglary.
A Cass County Deputy arrested for DUI.
A University of North Dakota Cop convicted of possessing child pornography.
A former Deputy U.S. Marshal convicted of child pornography.
A former Burleigh County Deputy convicted of stealing drugs from the state crime lab.
I think you get my point. On the whole, I think that our law enforcement officers are wonderful, hard working, and honest people. I think they carry out their duties each day with the best of intentions. But let’s not pretend that they’re all perfect. As is the case with all professions, there’s always the bad apples. And I’d dare say that even the good ones might make a dumb decision once in a while.
Is it really too much to ask that we have safeguards in place to ensure that the fundamental rights of the people are protected? I don’t believe that it is. Furthermore, we should remember that such laws protect all of us— including law enforcement. That’s the blessing when we have “a government of laws, and not of men”, as John Adams once said. These facts are actually pointed out in another version of the Code of Ethics:
“A police officer acts as an official representative of government who is required and trusted to work within the law. The officer’s powers and duties are conferred by statute. The fundamental duties of a police officer include serving the community; safeguarding lives and property; protecting the innocent; keeping the peace; and ensuring the rights of all to liberty, equality and justice.”
As you can see, it’s NOT anti-law enforcement — at all — to demand due process and private property protections.
It’s one thing to hold our law enforcement to high standards of conduct. That’s something we should do. But it’s entirely different to place them on such a pedestal that we think it’s unnecessary to place legal protections in our statutes. And to suggest people are anti-law enforcement simply because they believe there should be legal protections is not only inaccurate, but illogical.
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