First Anti-PATRIOT Ordinance passed in California
A city in California has passed the first municipal ordinance in the nation instruction employees of the city not to obey unconstitutional requests from the federal government under recently-passed anti-terrorism legislation.
By Casey Connor
Nationwide, 162 cities large and small have passed anti-war resolutions and 77 cities have passed resolutions intended to defend the civil rights of their citizens against perceived threats from the USA PATRIOT Act, the Homeland Security Act, and related legislation. In this climate of growing opposition, Arcata has taken its existing resolution a step further.
The city of Arcata on Wednesday became the first city in the nation to pass a municipal ordinance instructing the heads of the city departments to refuse cooperation with any requests of federal agents that violate of the Bill of Rights or the 14th Amendment. Such requests may be for aid in detention or questioning of individuals, for information, or other assistance.
The ordinance also declares that no management employees shall voluntarily participate in unconstitutional detentions or profiling of any kind.
If a management employee deems a federal request unconstitutional, they will report the request to the City Manager who will bring the issue before the City Council.
Opponents say that as a "symbolic gesture" this ordinance places undue burden on the employees of the city who may face legal repercussions as a result of their non-cooperation, or that it may even make Arcata more inviting to terrorists.
Supporters note that the department heads have all signed a letter endorsing the ordinance, and that to the extent that the requests under the various federal laws are constitutional, the ordinance does nothing. Federal requests accompanied by a signed warrant would be unaffected. Supporters also note that the ordinance directs the city to provide legal defense to any management employee criminally charged for their refusal, and that in such circumstances civil rights organizations such as the A.C.L.U. would probably offer their legal support.
City Council member David Meserve was a principal author of the ordinance:
"I think this is in effect an act of civil disobedience. What we are saying as a city and what I'm saying in particular is that we live in a time of emergency; we live in a time when the federal government is assuming powers which it has no right to assume under our laws and under our constitution.
"I'd say the outcome of both the town hall meeting and the major comment period of the city council meeting both ran about 90 to 95 percent in favor of it."
However, this area of Northern California is known for tension between self-described environmental and community activists and self-described supporters of logging families or traditional values; this ordinance was passed in a context where use of the term "eco-terrorist" inspires great controversy. Some critics see this ordinance as veiled protection of local activists from federal investigators. The strongly-worded resolution in response to the USA PATRIOT Act passed earlier by the city does cite inappropriate FBI surveillance of domestic groups.
David Meserve: "This ordinance does not provide protection from any valid law enforcement procedure."
The legislation, titled "An Ordinance of the City Council of Arcata Amending the Arcata Municipal Code to Defend the Bill of Rights and Civil Liberties", applies only to "management employees" such as the City Manager, the Police Chief, the Directors of Environmental Services, Public Works, Community Development, and Finance. It intends to ensure that local law enforcement will uphold the constitutional rights of the citizens, quote "even if requested or authorized to infringe upon such rights by federal or state law enforcement agencies acting under new powers created by the USA PATRIOT Act, Homeland Security Act, related executive orders, regulations or future enacted laws, executive orders or regulations." Arcata law enforcement is somewhat accustomed to the conflict between state and federal law regarding the hotly debated issue of Medical Marijuana use, but this ordinance may present new challenges.
Randal Mendosa, Arcata Chief of Police, does not believe so:
"Sure, I appreciate the council's support on that issue but I want to make it clear that I would never -- in all the years that I've been a law enforcement officer -- I would never tolerate being put in a position to violate someone's constitutional rights, so this is just frosting on the cake for me."
Nancy Diamond is the Arcata City Attorney:
"Because the ordinance is really a statement of upholding the 14th Amendment and the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution ... no management employee is going to be put at a great level of risk or exposure..."
Most city officials note that the federal agencies are highly unlikely to involve local departments in their efforts. Officials say that a recent federal Drug Enforcement Agency bust that shut down local glass-blowing operations accused of selling drug paraphernalia illegally was as much a surprise to local law enforcement as it was local citizens. Officials also note that the city does not maintain much in the way of data that would be useful to federal investigators. None expect dramatic consequences as a result of the ordinance, but most feel that it was important all the same.
Arcata Mayor, Bob Ornelas:
"People have been saying ‘it can't happen here, it can't happen here' but fascism has reared its ugly head in the U.S. The overwhelming majority of the people in Arcata would support making a statement that this does that the PATRIOT Act has just gone too far."
U.S. Department of Justice Spokesperson Mark Corallo:
"There's nothing in the patriot act that's unconstitutional. The fact that certain cities would instruct law enforcement, local law enforcement, to not cooperate with federal law, with federal law enforcement, in our attempts, in our efforts to protect the American people from terrorist attack is somewhat discouraging."
In recent months Arcata also passed a resolution in defense of international law in order to criticize military action in Afghanistan, and, regarding Iraq, a resolution to oppose to any strike, to support diplomatic solutions, and to urge U.S. officials to pursue less energy-dependent policies.
A website details the nationwide campaign seeking resolutions in support of what they perceive to be threatened civil rights. The Bill of Rights Defense Committee is at www.bordc.org.