“The Department of Justice has quietly asked Congress for the ability to ask chief judges to detain people indefinitely without trial during emergencies – part of a push for new powers that comes as the novel coronavirus spreads throughout the United States,” reports Politico among many others. This is a suspicious and frankly dangerous move to expand government power. Governments historically have used emergencies as a justification to push for more power. Look to the passage of the Patriot Act which greatly curtailed civil liberties after September 11th. Thankfully Congress, particularly Democrats (https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/3/22/21189937/coronavirus-department-justice-doj-powers) but also some Republicans (https://www.salon.com/2020/03/22/conservatives-push-back-on-bill-barrs-reported-plan-to-detain-indefinitely-without-a-trial_partner/), are pushing back hard.
Condemnation from civil liberties groups and criminal defense attorneys has been swift and loud. “You could be arrested and never brought before a judge until they decide that the emergency or the civil disobedience is over. I find it absolutely terrifying,” National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers executive director Norman L. Reimer told Swan. “Especially in a time of emergency, we should be very careful about granting new powers to the government.” Personally, I agree that some of the requests are really dangerous and worrying. Allowing for indefinite detention without trial is unAmerican as it flies in the face of our founding principles. These are scary and chaotic times for sure. Many of the DOJ’s requests are outrageous and should be scraped outright. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a denier of the severity and seriousness of COVID-19. My wife works for a healthcare institution so I’m seeing firsthand how devastating this virus is and will likely continue to be for some time. A more measured criminal justice response, however, is likely needed. While some have railed against some of the requests like allowing for court appearances to be achieved via teleconference even without the defendant’s consent, I don’t have near the problem with that change than indefinite detention. Discussion and debate on these topics is absolutely essential. When Congress responds to crisis in panicked fashion by rushing through drastic legal changes without debate and feedback by all stakeholders, we get draconian and oppressive laws (like the Patriot Act) that weaken the foundations of American freedom we hold dear.
So while you’re working from home or off work shelter in place, take time to stay engaged. I know all the COVID-19 news can become overwhelming fast. An informed and engaged electorate, however, is essential to keeping democracy alive. Pay attention to what the federal government, your state government, and local government bodies are doing. Understand what changes they are proposing and how they could affect not just you, but the most vulnerable among us. And once you’ve done that, make your voice heard, not just online and in social media, but by contacting your elected representative. This is how democracy works.