As our viewers are likely aware, several of our recent blogs (mainly my own) regarding the Eric Frein manhunt have resulted in some controversy. Prince Law Offices has always stood by the rule of law and the Constitution. It is in that spirit that the blog articles at the heart of this controversy, and this response, were written.
At Prince Law Offices, we believe that our legal system, of which the Constitution is the heart, exists both to prosecute those who commit crimes and to protect the civil and natural rights of the citizens. Sometimes, those two goals come into conflict with one another, as they have here. The Pennsylvania State Police are operating to catch and prosecute the suspect of a capital crime. They should fully utilize the resources provided them under the law to pursue and arrest the suspect, who will then be afforded an opportunity to defend himself before a judge and jury. Let us not forget that, as of now, he is a suspect and no matter what evidence has been presented by the media or the police, the foundation of our criminal justice system is that everyone receives the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. It is for precisely situations such as this that the protections of the Constitution exist, and Prince Law Offices proudly stands by its dedication and commitment to protecting the Constitutional rights of all citizens.
While the State Police are clearly working to execute their mandate to enforce the criminal laws of the Commonwealth, our concern is they are neglecting the other side of the equation – the protection of all citizens’ Constitutional and natural rights. As one of the 13 colonies that would become the United States, Pennsylvanians have already lived in a society that authorized Writs of Assistance – that is, warrants that informed citizens what the government could look for, but authorized searches anywhere it would be possible for that person or item to be. These Writs of Assistance required no element of the probability of finding the particular item or person – it merely needed to be possible that the person or item sought could be in the location searched.
The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently held that broad-based searches, based on nothing more than the possibility of recovering the suspect or evidence of a crime, is not constitutional. In the 1920’s, for example, when organized crime was rising due to Prohibition and violent gangsters like Al Capone were routinely avoiding jail time, the Supreme Court still held that “[i]t would be intolerable and unreasonable if a [police officer] were authorized to stop every automobile on the chance of finding liquor, and thus subject all persons lawfully using the highways to the inconvenience and indignity of such a search.” Later in that case – Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 153-54 (1925) – the Court stated that “those lawfully . . . entitled to use the public highways, have a right to free passage without interruption or search unless there is . . . probable cause for believing that their vehicles are carrying contraband[.]” Id., at 154.
It must be noted that the Court was concerned not only with inconveniences, but with the dignity of the individual citizen. While many commentators have pointed out that the residents of Monroe and Pike County are only encountering inconveniences, we feel that the greater issue concerns the dignity of the citizen. In America, we all have the right to be free from suspicion until probable cause arises to cast that light upon us. Allowing indiscriminate searches of citizens casts the shadow of suspicion upon us all and elevates the power of the government over the citizen. The State Police actions in their search for Eric Frein are by no means the only example of this, but it is our duty as citizens – and particularly attorneys – to ensure that the civil dignity of the individual citizen is preserved.
Many people have commented that this is an exigent circumstance, requiring such measures as roadblocks, random searches, curfews, etc. The law, however, says otherwise. An exigent circumstance is one in which the police do not have time to get a warrant. Thus, the U.S. Supreme Court held in 1978 that “a warrantless search must be strictly circumscribed by the exigencies which justify its initiation.” Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385, 393 (1978). A search cannot occur based on efficiency and convenience alone, for as the Supreme Court rightly held, “[t]he investigation of crime would always be simplified if warrants were unnecessary.” Id. The Court held that a “four-day search . . . can hardly be rationalized in terms of the legitimate concerns that justify an emergency search,” even when the investigation is for a homicide. Id., at 393-94.
The State Police have been searching this area for two weeks. And while we applaud the fact that many recent searches have been conducted pursuant to valid warrants, that fact does not excuse the warrantless searches without probable cause of individual cars and homes. The police do not have the authority to follow the law when it is convenient and to skirt it when inconvenient. Perhaps this hampers the investigation; but if so, this is how our legal system was designed. If we are to protect our rights and dignity as citizens, we must demand that all citizens respect the Constitution. It cannot be forgotten that the Constitution expressly limits the ability of the government to act and that the State Police is the agency of the government tasked with executing that action.
The urge can be great to say: “This is different. This is an emergency and the public safety is at risk.” We can certainly understand the fear with which people in the affected area are experiencing, and our intentions are not to interfere with a police investigation. Nor are they in any way supportive of Eric Frein, who, if it is determined by a court that he was responsible for the shooting, should be punished accordingly. Our intention is to ensure that while the police attempt to uphold one aspect of the law – finding and prosecuting a murder suspect – that they respect the other goal of the legal system – the protection of civil rights.
It would be appropriate to include here that police officers are not, contrary to many people’s expectations, required to protect any individual. The U.S. Supreme Court, in DeShaney v. Winnebago County Dep’t of Social Services, 489 U.S. 189, 195 (1989) held that the government is under absolutely no obligation to protect any individual citizen: “[N]othing in the Due Process Clause itself requires the State to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens against invasion by private actors.” Thus, there is “no affirmative right to governmental aid, even where such aid may be necessary to secure life, liberty, or property . . .” Id., at 196.
The end here (finding a murder suspect) is important. But the means must be within the boundaries of the law. For what is the purpose or strength of a legal system which allows the breaking of one law in order to enforce another? Who becomes the arbiter of what law may be broken in support of another? And when is that decision made? Are we to grant the individual police officers that power? The Chief of Police? The Governor? And, just as concerning, what does that say about the overall rule of law? If those in charge of upholding the law may decide the utility of any law in a given situation, then what strength does the law really have?
This brings us to the issue of the State Police’s authorization for troopers to kill the suspect if he refuses surrender. (Reported in The Morning Call Sept. 23). The language is important: the order is not “shoot Frein if he presents a danger to police or anyone else.” The order states that the only exception to the authorization of deadly force is if he is “actively surrendering.” This is not legal semantics at play – this is the difference between a legal system and a police state. Of course the police may use deadly force to protect against a deadly threat – so may any individual. But authorizing the police to shoot a suspect on sight, without any need to justify that by an imminent threat to officer safety, is truly frightening and justifies our concerns with the way this investigation and search is being handled.
From the larger perspective, this is perhaps the most concerning of all the developments. Eric Frein is believed to have murdered a police officer and seriously wounded another. Since then, there have been no allegations that he has injured anyone else. There is evidence, as reported by the UK Daily Mail, that Frein believed his sister-in-law was having an affair with the wounded trooper. The State Police has stated that an investigation turned up no evidence of the affair, but the important part is that Frein may very well have believed it to be the case. This is not to excuse, in any way, Frein’s alleged actions. This information is extremely important, however, in determining whether he is a threat to the community and the Police in particular. If he targeted an individual for personal revenge, then he is no more dangerous than any other wanted murderer, the search for whom entire communities are not cordoned off and randomly searched.
It is hard not to conclude that the State Police are conducting such an extensive search primarily because the murder victim was a fellow officer. Lehigh Valley Live admitted as much: “[I]t’s undeniable that state police and FBI wouldn’t be casting such an intrusive dragnet for a civilian wanted for murdering another civilian.” We can sympathize with the human desire to defend one’s family, and police officers certainly form a familial bond. But what is unique and exceptional about our Constitution and legal system is precisely that we do not place government authorities above other “civilians.” We are all citizens. Donning a uniform – while granting certain temporary powers prescribed by law – does not transform an individual into more than a civilian. The law applies to us all equally. The fact that the State Police feel a greater need to pursue a suspected murderer who killed a fellow officer than a suspected murderer who killed a mere “civilian” obliterates the objectivity with which much of the respect and authority of the police is based upon. Establishing respect for the law starts with those tasked with upholding it. Making exceptions because of one’s status as a police officer can only harm respect for the law.
Finally, I would like to address the allegations that our attorneys are only interested in exploiting a situation to make money. This is some distance from the truth. For example, I recently successfully represented the Sheriff of Perry County in a lawsuit brought by county auditors who sought confidential information. In addition, I provide pro-bono law enforcement firearms law seminars, so that law enforcement officers are informed of the firearms law in the Commonwealth, so to ensure that they do not end up a Defendant in a civil rights lawsuit. Every winter, the firm hosts an all-day event within the community to provide food and warmth to the indigent.
Indeed, if Prince Law was concerned primarily with financial gain, civil rights litigation would not be a primary focus. Rather, Prince Law is concerned with the protection of our Constitutional rights. This is why our attorneys conduct seminars on firearms and civil rights – frequently several hours long, on the weekend – without any form of compensation. Finally, the contention that Prince Law is only trying to “make a buck” necessarily implies that there are civil rights abuses occurring in Monroe and Pike County; for if Prince Law were to “greedily” work on a contingent basis, the firm would only make money by winning a claim. And Prince Law would only win the case if there were merit to the belief that the State Police have not followed the Constitution.