6 Terrifying Powers You Didn’t Know The Government Had

The legal system is an opaque and mysterious behemoth that governs our daily lives. And while you might be forgiven for thinking that it’s a relatively helpful and benign system, it turns out you were completely wrong. As it turns out, not only does the legal system hold nothing but pure contempt for you, but it’s also constantly devising new ways to completely ensnare your hapless ass and take all your stuff.

For instance…

6

State DMVs Can Sell Your Information

Going to the DMV is an ordeal Americans put on par with going through airport security. What could make it worse? Spam email? Telemarketing calls? Boils?

God, they’re not going to give us boils, are they?

Nope, it was the first two things. Remember how whenever you sign up for any semi-reputable online account that asks for your email, they’ll have a disclaimer saying they won’t send you spam and you have to manually opt in for any marketing offers? That’s because by law a company can’t just sell your information without your permission. But before 1994, the DMV could give out information like your address, phone number, and make/model of your car to literally anyone who ponied up a few bucks. Naturally, this was a huge resource for telemarketers and early spammers, since it gave them access to people who weren’t listed in the phone book. Worse, it also gave this information to less savory people. Abortion physician Susan Wicklund had activists camped outside her house for over a month after they obtained her address from the DMV. Actress Rebecca Schaeffer was murdered by her stalker after he found her address in the same manner.

So in 1994, a federal law called the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act was passed that limits the reasons someone can access your information (stalking and anti-abortion lunacy are not permissible reasons) as well as giving drivers the right to opt out. Unfortunately, since most people aren’t even aware that their information is being sold, they don’t know to opt out, which usually requires a separate form and isn’t prominently advertised. For example, in Michigan, only 70,000 people have opted out since the bill’s passage in 1994.

If you’re in Texas, you’re doubly screwed. See, while the federal government threatened to fine states that didn’t adopt similar laws, they didn’t specify exactly what part of the law would be have to be considered similar. So, Texas created a law that restricted the uses people could buy this information for but didn’t give drivers any chance to opt out. And in Florida, the state got around the pesky privacy law by declaring that any information you willingly give to the state for any reason (renting a campsite at a state park, for instance), becomes public information and can be sold.

So if you have any choice in the matter, don’t get stalked in the South.

5

If Your Computer Is Hacked, The FBI Can Hack It Too

Despite what you may have learned from movies, real hacking involves a lot fewer virtual reality gunfights and a lot more wheedling information out of bored, tired people on the phone. But occasionally, hacking still retains its good ol’ mid-90s charm of hackers straight-up taking over someone’s computer using software they carefully crafted themselves.

One such method uses malware that is secretly installed on a large number of computers and lies dormant until activated by the hacker to do their nerdy bidding. The computers are collectively called a “botnet” and hackers can use their collective computing power to overload and crash much larger systems like Amazon, Reddit, and Twitter.

Luckily, the FBI is on the case! Unluckily, “the case” means that they’re finding computers infected with this kind of malware, hacking into them themselves, and installing their own malware to combat the first virus, thus resolving the problem forever. Or, making it twice as bad, depending on your perspective. Now it is true that they need a warrant to do this, but because of the distributed nature of the botnets they’re fighting, as we’ve recently seen in an FBI child-porn sting, a single warrant can give them access to thousands or millions of computers.

If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard about this from Congress, it’s because Congress didn’t hear about it either. The federal court system has their own procedure for making minor changes to criminal procedure rules, so that they don’t need an act of Congress to fix a typo. However, in this case, the courts decided that “a minor change” included the ability to access all the computers, everywhere. So, you know, don’t download child porn, but also don’t own a computer.

4

Law Enforcement Can Track Your Cell Phone Location Without A Warrant

Whenever a new app asks for access to your location data, most people tap “OK” without giving it a second thought. But here’s a fun fact: According to most courts, when you allow the Bonr app to use your location to find the nearest erection, you’ve given up all reasonable expectation of privacy to the data that Bonr tracks.

It’s called “third-party doctrine” and it basically says that if any data is ever held by someone other than yourself, it’s no longer private data and can be collected by the government without a warrant. This isn’t just limited to genital-based apps, either — banks, ISPs, phone companies, email providers, and pretty much anyone who provides any sort of internet-age function can be considered a “third party.”

Fortunately, greater legal minds than ours have come to the realization that since you can’t check your email without giving up 17 forms of private data, perhaps the old way of thinking of privacy doesn’t apply in the smartphone age. Unfortunately, said legal minds don’t all agree, and how they feel about it varies wildly from state to state. For instance, four appellate courts have heard cases on the privacy of cell phone data and only one found that police needed a warrant to obtain the information. Currently, only 17 states have any laws on the books requiring a warrant to obtain your extremely private smartphone data. Which means if you’re in one of the 33 states that doesn’t have any restrictions, the cops could be judging your Tinder swipes right now.

3

The Cops Can Use Drones To Spy On You

You probably already know that drones can be used for everything from killing time on a nice day, to killing people on a nice day. You probably also know that they can be used to spy on people. Until recently this spying might have been limited to intelligence agencies in Afghanistan, and also the pervy guy who lives down the street, but now the buzzing camera watching you lounge nakedly about your house could very well belong to your local police department.

As drones have gotten cheaper and cheaper to produce, police departments have started picking up more and more of the little buggers, primarily for relatively benign things like search and rescue or taking aerial photographs of crime scenes. But depending on your state’s laws, there might be very little preventing cops from also watching what you were really doing when you told your parents you were meeting your friends for bowling.

Several states don’t have any laws on the books at all regarding drone usage, meaning that police can use them however they damn well please. We should point out that there are still laws on privacy, and many police departments have super-duper pinky sworn that they will only use drones for emergency situations, so you probably don’t have to worry about one flying up your bathrobe yet.

Just don’t look surprised when it does.

The FBI is getting in on the fun too. Former director Robert Mueller stated in 2013 that the U.S. government has, “in a very, very minimal way,” used drones to spy on Americans in America. Some members of Congress, like Dianne Feinstein, have fought for restrictions on drone usage, but seeing as she’s also come out in favor of the NSA collecting metadata from your phone without a warrant, it seems likely the drones have already gotten to her.

2

Texan Police Officers Can Question The Immigration Status Of Everyone They Detain

It’s not a great time to be an immigrant in the U.S. With our leathery, spray-tanned scrotum of a president banning visas and planning walls and otherwise stirring up hatred, hate crimes against anyone even kinda foreign-looking have risen sharply.

Trump has also threatened to defund so-called “sanctuary cities” which are cities that elect not to enforce immigration laws when providing other basic services. Several such states and cities have stated that they will continue to ignore Trump’s order, mostly to protect their immigrant citizens, but also possibly just a little to annoy him.

Texas — get this — is not one of those states. In fact in May, Governor of Texas Greg Abbott signed a bill that reinforced Trump’s executive order, prohibiting sanctuary cities and ordering local police officers to enforce immigration regulations alongside their regular duties.

Among the powers granted, cops can now inquire about the immigration status of every person they detain. “Detain” is a very crucial word here, because it does not mean “arrest.” There are a lot of fairly specific rules about when cops can and can’t arrest you, but they can detain nearly anyone they want for any reason they can come up with. Which means that now in Texas, if your skin is a shade too brown for the officer’s liking, or you spell “color” with a U, they can interrogate you about your immigration status and demand to see proof of citizenship, which, of course, every person carries with them at all times.

This makes traffic stops particularly scary, because in 2007 the Supreme Court ruled that when a vehicle is stopped, all the passengers are legally detained as well, not just the driver. So even if the driver is as American as a bald eagle playing baseball, anyone that’s riding with them can be asked to name the 1943 World Series champion as well.

But won’t this just build more distrust between the police and population, particularly when people of color already have a tense relationship with police? Probably! And even if a particular cop thinks this is bullshit, the Texan bill states that any officers who fail to comply can themselves be charged with a crime. But seeing as this will certainly stop immigrants from committing all those crimes they statistically don’t commit and taking jobs Americans don’t want, it all evens out in the end.

It will just even out at a much worse, lower level than before.

1

Civil Asset Forfeiture Means Cops Can Take Your Shit For Any Reason

When police raid a drug dealer’s hideout, all the stuff they seize is eventually sold. This means that you can pick up your local drug kingpin’s Ferrari collection for pennies on the dollar, the police get extra money in their pocket, and the drug dealers have to Uber their way home from prison. Everybody wins!

SIphotography/iStock
Except for the Uber driver. They’re probably not doing too good.

The only tiny little hiccup occurs when the criminal isn’t actually guilty of the crime that resulted in their stuff being seized. In which case they’re kinda fucked. For instance, a couple and their two children were pulled over in Texas for loitering in the passing lane on the highway. The officers asked if they could search the car and when the couple acquiesced, the cops found a glass pipe and some cash in the car, leading to them being arrested as potential drug smugglers. The police then told them that they could sign over the cash (about $6,000) and be on their way, or they could fight it, which might mean their two children would be sent to foster care while the courts sorted everything out.

In principle, asset forfeiture makes sense. If you’re convicted of doing bad stuff, you lose your cash and prizes. But that’s criminal forfeiture; the way many civil forfeiture laws are written, you don’t need to be convicted or even accused of a crime for the police to take your shit. Here again, this minor difference in wording makes a huge difference in enforcement. Civil law has different rules than criminal law; for one, you’re not guaranteed a right to an attorney in civil court, so if you want to fight it, you have to pay out of your own pocket. For another, there’s no presumption of innocence, which makes it that much harder to prove your case.

IPGGutenbergUKLtd/iStock
“Objection! There’s no proof that this man isn’t a pedophilic lizard person!”
“I’ll allow it.”

Tack onto that the fact that civil cases can take years to resolve, and you can see why many people just eat the loss of their Toyota Tercel rather than take on the justice system. While cases of police seizing homes and cars (and, in one case, cash that was being donated to a freakin’ orphanage) have gained headlines, the reality is that most forfeitures are small amounts. An ACLU study found that 60 percent of civil forfeitures in Philadelphia were for less than $250, which is not nearly enough money to hire a lawyer for, but still enough money to majorly fuck up your day, week, or month, depending on your circumstances.

SIphotography/iStock
Also, ha-ha, this does affect minorities far more than everyone else, and yes, the whole country is going down the toilet, thanks for checking.

A number of states have begun passing laws limiting the circumstances and value of things that the police can seize or, in some cases, doing away with civil forfeiture altogether. But it’s an uphill battle because police still claim that civil forfeiture is a crucial tool in fighting crime, and as a rule, politicians don’t like crossing the police too much. Also, the cops have an ally in Donald Trump, who openly offered to destroy a state senator’s career for saying that cops should be required to have a justifiable reason to take your stuff. So try not to get stopped by the cops if you’re carrying a bunch of cash.

When he’s not jaywalking with hundred dollar bills stuffed in his pants, Chris can be found on Twitter.

Also check out 5 Terrifying Ways Police Can Legally Screw You Over and 5 Ways U.S. Democracy Is More Rigged Than You Think.

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