Tuesday, March 11, 2008

This Spitzer Scandal: Government Destroying our Civil Liberties

This scandal bothers me on multiple levels.

First, if two consenting adults want to make a private transaction for sex, that's their business. If Spitzer is cheating on his wife, that's a private matter for him and his family. It's not the business of the government. Some people will argue that prostitution results in a negative impact to society, but most of the negative effects are the result of it being illegal. This results in an unregulated, black market. This is no different than the war on drugs or prohibition. If prostitution were legal, state and local governments could regulate it and tax it.

Second, it bothers me that Spitzer's bank basically was spying on him on behalf of the government. They noticed that there were some unusual transactions and they reported it to the IRS. The IRS then reported it to the Justice Department and thus the investigation began. They aren't just spying on governors. Our banks are spying on all of our transactions and since more and more of transactions are now electronic, this means that more and more of our transactions are available to the spying eyes of the government. The relationship between a bank and a customer is a private business relationship and it is an invasion of our civil liberties that banks are forced to spy on us on behalf of the government. If banks can spy on us today, who will be spying on us tomorrow? Our telecommunication providers are already spying on us on behalf of the government. Will our doctors and lawyers be spying on us in the future?

And we know prostitution isn't a Federal crime because it's legal in some places like Nevada. So what exactly are the Feds going to prosecute him for? Structuring. According to the NY Times, "The payments were made over a period of several months in a way that investigators believe was intended to conceal their purpose and source, which could amount to a crime called structuring," which is punishable by up to five years in prison. So the mere act of trying to obfuscate your transactions is illegal, even if the transactions themselves are legal. So here's the rub -- this is a pretty shaky federal case. I think the Republican administration just wanted an excuse to make this information public and destroy the career of a rising Democratic governor. They don't really have much of a case. Maybe he violated New York State law or a Washington, D.C. law, but the Federal case seems pretty weak. If the government can spy on one person using their power of warrants and subpoenas to ruin his reputation, none of us is safe.

I am once again reminded of a quote from the Anti-Federalist Papers:
This power, exercised without limitation, will introduce itself into every corner of the city, and country -- It will wait upon the ladies at their toilette, and will not leave them in any domestic concerns; it will accompany them to the ball, the play, and the assembly; it will go with them when they visit, and will, on all occasions, sit beside them in their carriages, nor will it defect them even at church; it will enter the house of every gentleman, watch over his cellar, wait upon his cook in the kitchen, follow the servants into the parlor, preside over the table, and note down all he eats and drinks; it will attend him to his bedchamber, and watch him while he sleeps; it will take cognizance of the professional mail in his office, or his study; it will watch the merchant in the counting house, or in his store; it will follow the mechanic to the shop, and in his work, and will haunt him in his family, and his bed; it will be a constant companion of the industrious farmer in all his labor, it will be with him in the house, and in the field, observe the toil of his hands, and the sweat of his brow; it will penetrate into the most obscure cottage; and finally it will light upon the head of every person in the United States. To all those different classes of people, and in all these circumstances, in which it will attend them, the language in which it will address them, will be GIVE! GIVE!


Privacy said...

I think the charges against Spitzer were devised as a means of airing his impropriety. I doubt that the fed/state will prosecute him. The desired effect has been achieved (his resignation).

From http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/12/nyregion/12legal.html:

"The officials said Mr. Spitzer was implicated in potential wrongdoing in two ways, first for the apparent efforts to hide the financial arrangements and second for the arrangements for a prostitute to travel to Washington. ... The officials said federal authorities rarely prosecuted either offense..."

I haven't seen much evidence that the major impetus for airing this was driven by Republicans. Lots of Democrats wanted him to step down too. I suspect that most people felt that his behavior was improper (illegality is a separate issue), especially because he is/was the governor.

It bothers me some that my bank monitors my financial transactions, but it is a valuable means of identifying illegal activity, whether it's fraud, tax evasion, money laundering, etc. I do worry about abuses. I wish there were more checks-and-balances in place. But stopping the practice outright, IMO, does more harm than good.

Privacy said...

Some data that it may be politically motivated: http://www.tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=c5005f31-237e-4f9d-bca1-891c7aa2b7b2&k=90024

Ben said...

Alan Dershowitz agrees with you: