Your Innocence Is No Protection

by Harry Browne

December 6, 2003       

When the politicians violate the Bill of Rights with the Patriot Act or some other guaranteed-to-bring-peace-and-security-to-the-world scheme, they always reassure us by saying:

"If you aren't guilty, you have nothing to fear."

If only that were so. The truth is that innocence is no protection at all against government agencies with the power to do what they think best or against a government agent hoping for promotion and willing to do whatever he can get away with.

   Tell a businessman he has nothing to fear from the piles of forms he must file to prove he doesn't discriminate.

  Tell a home owner he has nothing to fear when his property is seized by the government in a mistaken or contrived drug raid.

  Tell a taxpayer he has nothing to fear when the IRS drags him into a "taxpayer compliance" audit that eats up a week of his life, costs him thousands of dollars in accounting fees, and threatens him with unbearable penalties.

It is the innocent who suffer most from government's intrusions. How many times have we seen the following pattern?

1.  The press and politicians demand that something be done about violent crime, terrorist acts, drug dealing, tax evasion, or whatever is the Urgent Concern of the Month.

2.  A tough, new, take-no-prisoners law or policy is put into place.

3.  After the dust settles, the initial "problem" continues unabated, because the guilty continue to slip through the net. But the innocent are left burdened with new chores, expenses, and hazards more mandatory reports to file, less privacy, reduced access to products and services, higher costs, heavier taxes, and a new set of penalties for those who shirk their duty to fight in the War on ___________ (fill in the blank).

4.  And, needless to say, the ineffectual law is never repealed.

Being innocent doesn't allow you to ignore the government's demands for reports or to say "No, thanks" when a government agent wants to search your records, your place of business, or your home or to refuse to observe regulations that were aimed at the guilty, not you.

When coercion is used to solve social problems, we all suffer. The coercion fails to achieve its stated aims, but it is wondrously effective at harming the innocent.

Even worse, every year a few million innocent people suffer special burdens greater than those the government places on all of us. The dismantling of the Bill of Rights has allowed the government to disrupt their lives, confiscate their property, or even kill them even though they've committed no crimes.

I hope you never become one of them.

Not Even Ministers Are Safe

For example, suppose you're a 75-year-old minister living in Boston. You've worked all your life to console those who are poor in money or spirit.

One afternoon 13 men with sledgehammers break down the door and charge into your apartment. They're wearing helmets, battle fatigues, and boots and they're armed with shotguns and pistols.

They force you to the floor, pin your legs and arms, and handcuff you. They scare you so badly you suffer a heart attack and within 45 minutes you're dead.

Who were these criminals?

They weren't "criminals." They were members of a SWAT team searching for drugs and guns. There wasn't anything illegal in your apartment, as you could have told them if they had stopped long enough to ask you.

But they didn't stop and they didn't ask. They didn't have to. They knew you were a bad guy, and they weren't going to allow you to escape or to flush your drug inventory down the toilet.

Six weeks after you die, it is revealed that the SWAT team raided the wrong apartment. You have been completely exonerated. But, unfortunately, the government can't bring you back to life.

Not one of the SWAT team members or the prosecutor who okayed the raid was prosecuted or suffered any career damage for causing the death. Compare that with a pot smoker who is hurting no one but might have to spend several years in prison if he gets caught.

This isn't fiction. It is the story of the Reverend Acelynne Williams, and how he died on March 26, 1994.1

Fatal Attractions

And the tale isn't extraordinary. Donald Scott was shot to death when a task force of 27 men smashed into his house in Malibu, California, on October 2, 1992. They claimed Mr. Scott was growing marijuana although their only evidence turned out to be a false report from an anonymous informant.2

Similar stories can be told of other people who were shot without warning, whose homes were torn apart, or who went to prison for resisting arrest people like Harry Davis of Fort Washington, Maryland; Charlotte Waters of Los Angeles; David Gordon of Bridgeport, Connecticut; Xavier Bennett, Jr., of Atlanta; Kenneth Baulch of Garland, Texas; Robin Pratt of Everett, Washington; William Grass of Kentucky; Albert Lewin of Boston; Manuel Ramirez of Stockton, California; Charles DiGristine of Titusville, Florida; and Donald Carlson of San Diego.3

All of them were innocent. But all of them had plenty to fear from government. And now their families will always fear government as much as any Soviet citizen did.

By ignoring the Bill of Rights, acting on anonymous tips and intruding without warrants, government agents have put all of us in jeopardy the innocent as much as the guilty.

Maybe you haven't been hurt yet by a government agent acting on a malicious report or on his own ambition. So far, a mean-minded office rival or business competitor hasn't stooped to giving a false tip about you to the police or the IRS.

Be thankful. And hope it doesn't happen next year. You might not be given time to prove your innocence.

The Bill of Rights Is for the Innocent

The outrages I've mentioned violate the Bill of Rights.

Because government schools don't teach much about Constitutional safeguards, many people think the Bill of Rights is just a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card for criminals. And they wonder why we should protect the rights of killers and thieves.

But the Bill of Rights wasn't written to protect criminals. It was designed to protect you:

  To make sure a zealous prosecutor can't take you to court over and over again on the same charge searching for a jury that will convict you.

  To make sure the police can't break into your home unannounced on the mere chance that you might have some drugs or illegal weapons stashed in your closet.

  To make sure politicians can't confiscate your home or other property to fulfill some dream of social reform.

  To make sure you don't have to answer questions put to you by the police so a ruthless policeman can't twist your words out of context or browbeat you into confessing something you didn't do.

  To make sure your attorney can cross-examine any accuser or any witness against you.

Of course these safeguards protect the guilty as well as the innocent. But brushing them aside gives government employees the power to do as they wish to harass whomever they claim is guilty.

Why There's So Much Violent Crime

And these safeguards, which are respected less and less every year, haven't been letting the guilty off. Crime rates haven't skyrocketed because of criminals using the Bill of Rights to their advantage.

Crime is soaring. . .

  Because the government's War on Drugs has transformed a minor social problem into an immensely profitable enterprise for those willing to defy the law;

  Because many of the government's schools have become cesspools;

  Because the government packs the prisons with non-violent offenders, making it necessary to release the thugs early;

  Because the government diverts law-enforcement resources to fighting victimless crimes as well as to affirmative action, gun control, and other social reforms leaving too little with which to protect your life and property; and

  Because government schools teach young people that inequality of wealth is unjust providing a moral justification for taking from someone more "fortunate" than oneself.

The government has inspired or abetted a thousand criminals for each one it has freed on a legal technicality.

Why the Bill of Rights Is Important

When Constitutional safeguards are honored, they rescue innocent people far more often than they let the guilty slip away.

In fact, new laws that violate the Bill of Rights usually hurt the innocent more than the guilty.

The truly guilty make it their business to be aware of a new law and take steps not to let it ensnare them. But the innocent, secure in the knowledge that their innocence will protect them, suddenly find their property confiscated through asset forfeiture or their liberty destroyed by zealous police or prosecutors trying to pad their conviction records.

And when the Bill of Rights is ignored and an innocent person is convicted, the truly guilty are left free to continue committing violence. That's why the Bill of Rights must apply to all people citizens or aliens, innocent or presumed guilty, nice guys or thugs.

Unfortunately, the Constitutional safeguards are ignored more and more by Congress, the police, federal officials, and the courts. Disregarding the Bill of Rights has done nothing to reduce the crime rate, but it has put your life and mine in jeopardy.

As a result, we have neither physical protection from the guilty nor legal protection for the innocent.

Until the Bill of Rights is a living document again, I hope the government doesn't think you're suspicious or covet your property for one of its programs.

Your innocence probably won't protect you.


This article was adapted from a passage in Why Government Doesn't Work, the complete text of which is now available for downloading at

1This story in recounted in detail in Reason magazine, May 1995, page 48.

2The Wall Street Journal, August 25, 1993, page A11.

3These stories are recounted in Lost Rights by James Bovard.