The Land of the Free

This evening is the Super Bowl – Arizona Cardinals vs. Pittsburgh Steelers.   Being from a rustbelt city myself, I favor the Steelers, as does much of the country.  The Cardinals appear to be suspect on many levels, whereas the Steelers appear to have ‘earned it’.  Yay.  I’m all for earning it.

Once again, someone with a famous face and a famous voice will be singing the national anthem (and someone else will tell us how hard it is sing).  IMHO, the best it was ever done was Whitney Houston in 1991.  I still tear up on the mental replay of “land of the free, home of the brave”.  In 1991 I believed it.

You are asking: “Do you still believe?”  Yes – I believe in the principle as envisioned by the DWM’s who wrote the founding documents.  I believe in the dynamism that F. S. Key reflected in a tranfiguring moment.  Its power reaches across centuries to touch us now and turn our actions to a new course.  I believe it guides the actions of millions of Americans.  But not these guys: Prince George’s Police Chief Melvin C. High and Sheriff Michael Jackson

This is an article by April Witt in the magazine of the Washington Post concerning a late July 2008 incident in Berwyn Heights, MD.  A SWAT team knocked down the door of a suspected drug house, shot the guard dogs and handcuffed the occupants.  Except that the facts failed to fit the scenario.  It was the home of the mayor of the town, Cheye Calvo, his wife and mother-in-law and two pet labradors.

Sorry for the length of the post; the article is even longer (it should be read in its entirety) and April Witt dressed the story up with gooey ‘dead pet’ sentiment and buried the lead.  The whole point of the events narrated here is at the very bottom: “In other words, police can do what they did to us with impunity” Cheye concluded. “There are no consequences, not for them.”

It wasn’t a home invasion. It was a raid by the Prince George’s County Police Department and the county Sheriff’s Office. Both agencies declined to discuss specifics of the raid for this story.


Inside the house, Cheye was starting to ask questions, too.

“Do you have a warrant?” he recalled asking more than once, until someone said:

“It’s en route.”


At home in St. Mary’s, Murphy dialed the cellphone of his second-in-command, now standing on the mayor’s front lawn. Murphy’s officer handed the phone to a Prince George’s narcotics investigator, Det. Sgt. David Martini.

This is how Murphy later recalled their conversation:

“Martini tells me that when the SWAT team came to the door, the mayor met them at the door, opened it partially, saw who it was, and then tried to slam the door on them,” Murphy recalled. “And that at that point, Martini claimed, they had to force entry, the dogs took aggressive stances, and they were shot.”

“I later learned,” Murphy said in an interview, “that none of that is true.”


Cheye, struggling to understand, pieced together questions officers asked him and comments he overheard. Narcotics investigators for the Prince George’s police had apparently left that white box on his front step, then sent SWAT officers from the Sheriff’s Office to retrieve it. The box contained marijuana. Officers from the two county law enforcement agencies had apparently been parked watching his house all day. Yet they had apparently done so little investigatory work — they hadn’t even taken 30 seconds to Google Cheye — that they didn’t know they were launching a paramilitary attack on an elected official’s home until after they’d broken down the door and shot the dogs. Cheye was particularly disturbed when he discovered that narcotics investigators seemed to have known that criminals had been mailing drugs addressed to innocent people, in hopes of intercepting the packages before the addressees claimed them.


On Friday, Aug. 1 — 71 hours after the raid — the lead detective, Scarlata, returned to their home. He came alone. Cheye met him at the fence. The detective handed Cheye the warrant he had first asked to see while handcuffed in his living room. Scarlata also gave Cheye a list of what they’d confiscated in the raid. It consisted of a single item: the box police had brought there in the first place.

After the detective left, Cheye studied the document. There was nothing anywhere to indicate that Scarlata had asked the judge who signed it for permission to break his door down for a no-knock search. He hadn’t presented the judge with evidence that anyone in the household was armed and dangerous. He’d basically said that police had intercepted a box of drugs addressed to Trinity, delivered the box and watched as it was taken inside.


Americans have defended their right to privacy and the sanctity of their homes since Revolutionaries denounced British soldiers entering homes and businesses with impunity to search for contraband rum and tea and generate taxes for the British Crown. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits unreasonable government searches and seizures. But civil libertarians argue that this constitutional protection has been seriously eroded in recent decades, largely as an unintended consequence of the nation’s war on drugs.


Federal policies and funding stemming from the war on drugs gave local police financial incentives for making a high volume of drug arrests, even if they netted only users and low-level dealers, not drug kingpins, and spurred the military to arm SWAT teams with its excess military equipment. Laws allowing police to seize — and add to their own budgets — cars, cash, jewels and other items gathered during drug raids, even if nobody was convicted of any crime as a result of their search and seizures, became further incentive for police to use military-style raids against suspected drug traffickers, Balko argues. In a landmark 1995 case, Wilson v. Arkansas, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the longstanding common-law endorsement of the knock-and-announce approach to serving search warrants was enshrined in the Fourth Amendment. But it also recognized significant exceptions to the knock-and-announce approach. In a unanimous opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that police could enter a home unannounced under “exigent circumstances.” Among them: if police had a reasonable belief that their safety would be imperiled by announcing themselves, if they were pursuing a fleeing suspect or if an announcement would allow suspects to destroy evidence. In the Berwyn Heights raid, police appeared to suggest that Georgia’s terrified scream created the kind of exigent circumstance envisioned by the court.


Cheye likes to sit near the chest on winter nights, Marshall at his feet, as he reads. Often, he sits up late researching Supreme Court rulings on police searches and seizures.

He’s read the court’s decision in one 2006 case, Hudson v. Michigan, more than once. In Hudson, the court found that even when police make a clearly illegal no-knock raid, the evidence they seize can still be used against a defendant at trial.

“In other words, police can do what they did to us with impunity” Cheye concluded. “There are no consequences, not for them.”

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