What If You Were Mistakenly Put on a Watchlist?
Innocent until the government makes a mistake.
In the 1985 dystopian science fiction movie Brazil the plot centers on the authorities' apprehension of an innocent man named Archibald Buttle. He was mistaken for the outlaw, Archibald Tuttle, after a fly landed on a printer head in a government office, thus causing the "T" to print as a "B" on the arrest warrant.
Typical of its dark humor, the movie's real criminal is an unlicensed heating and air-conditioning repairman played by Robert De Niro. It's a satire of our modern society's impenetrable bureaucracies and the powerlessness we can feel when we're at their mercy. No wonder the Orange County Register named it one of the best libertarian movies of all time.
I'm reminded of Brazil as I read news about federal efforts to crack down on "bad guys." Conservatives often express support for the "waterboarding" of terrorists. That sounds OK, provided the bureaucrats actually got the right guy.
Same goes with those "no fly" lists that the Transportation Security Administration uses to keep suspected terrorists off airplanes. The lists and their criteria are secret. There's no due process, meaning that if you get pulled out of line you have no way to appeal that decision. The New York Times reported on an 8-year-old who a few years ago was stuck on a TSA "watch" list. Often, people with names similar to someone else's—think Buttle versus Tuttle—get stopped.
Liberals can be just as unconcerned as conservatives over the veracity of these lists. For instance, California is the only state with the Armed Prohibited Person System (APPS). It's a state Department of Justice database used to send agents to people's homes to confiscate their weapons after the state determines they no longer are eligible to own them (e.g., after being convicted of a crime or being the subject of a restraining order).
No one wants dangerous people to have access to an arsenal, but we again run up against the problem of lists. Anyone who has compiled lists realizes how quickly they become out of date, or how easy it is for a clerk to misspell a name. An analysis of the APPS list from the state auditor and a gun-rights group found that anywhere from 37 percent to 60 percent of the people on the list actually had a legal right to still own firearms.
In a free society, it's not OK for an innocent person to have guns confiscated or kept from flying because of some mistaken entry on a ledger. It's infuriating how difficult it is to clear one's name after an error is detected. There are few things more aggravating than clearing up bureaucratic snafus—whether it's with a government agency or health insurance company.
In August, the California state auditor looked at the CalGang program, which is a database, or list, used voluntarily by the state's law enforcement agencies to track gang members. The recent audit—focusing on four agencies, including the Santa Ana Police Department—found wild inaccuracies that are causing real harm to real people.
For instance, the auditor analyzed the names of 100 people entered into the database and found "they lacked adequate support" for including 13 people on the list. Furthermore, "we found 42 individuals in CalGang who were supposedly younger than one year of age at the time of entry."
Again, no one has sympathy for gang members. But what about people who aren't gang members who are included in the list? They are monitored by the police, "potentially violating their privacy rights," the auditor notes. It can also harm their job prospects, given that a number of agencies use the database to disqualify applicants. Santa Ana police officials agreed with the recommendations and vowed to correct the problems, which is the right attitude.
But I have little faith in any government list of the citizenry that's been created without due process. We all want to get tough on criminals, but we have to be sure that innocent folks don't land on the list because of a bad printer, a dead fly or an inaccurate typist.