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“"All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”     Thomas Jefferson,    First Inaugural Address, 4 March 1801

March 18, 2009

Posse Comitatus Alert: Military Deployed in Alabama to Aid with Murder Spree Law Enforcement Activities

by Stephen Gordon

As I was just interviewed by the Associated Press pertaining to federal troops being sent to Samson, Alabama immediately following a rampage last week which left 11 people dead, I’d thought I’d collect my thoughts on the issue here.

Preliminary reporting includes these stories: the initial AP piece, USA Today, LewRockwell.com, and CNS News.

The AP is currently reporting the following:

The Army has launched an inquiry into whether federal laws were broken when soldiers were sent to an Alabama town after 11 people died in a shooting spree.

The Army confirmed Wednesday that 22 military police and an officer from Fort Rucker were sent to the nearby town of Samson after slayings last week. The town’s tiny police force and county officers were stretched to the limit after a gunman killed 10 people and himself.

Authorization from the governor or president is typically required for the deployment of federal troops on U.S. soil. It’s not clear who ordered the troops sent to Samson.

An Army spokesman says the military is trying to determine what happened. Among the questions is why the troops were sent and what they did while there.

CNS adds photographic evidence of military members on the scene as well as the following:

The troops were apparently not deployed by the request of Alabama Gov. Bob Riley — or by the request of President Obama, as required by law.

When contacted by CNSNews.com, the governor’s office could not confirm that the governor had requested help from the Army, and Gov. Riley’s spokesman, Todd Stacy, expressed surprise when he was told that troops had been sent to the town.

No request from President Obama, meanwhile, was issued by the White House–or the Defense Department.

Wrongful use of federal troops inside U.S. borders is a violation of several federal laws, including one known as the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, Title 18, Section 1385 of the U.S. Code.

“Whoever, except in cases and under circumstances expressly authorized by the Constitution or Act of Congress, willfully uses any part of the Army or the Air Force as a posse comitatus or otherwise to execute the laws shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both,” the law states.

David Rittgers, legal policy analyst at the Cato Institute, said there are other laws barring use of federal troops outside of federal property, as well.

“Title 18, Section 375 of the U.S. Code is a direct restriction on military personnel, and it basically precludes any member of the army in participating in a ‘search, seizure, arrest or other similar activity, unless participation is otherwise authorized by law,’ “ Rittgers told CNSNews.com.

“The security of a crime scene is something I think that would roll up in the category of a ‘search, seizure or other activity,’” Rittgers added.

In addition, there is the Insurrection Act of 1808, as amended in 2007, (Title 10, Section 331 of the U.S. Code) under which the president can authorize troops “to restore order and enforce the laws of the United States” in an insurrection.

Some quick thoughts on the topic:

  • This does seem (based on evidence presented so far) to be a clear-cut violation of federal law.  There may be some local law enforcement arrangements for pooling local law enforcement resources in time of disaster, but they would not override federal law on the matter.
  • There doesn’t seem to be any major harm done, so long as we don’t allow the bar to be lowered for similar future tragedies.  However, as citizens, it is important that we remain vigilant when things like this do occur.
  • This needs to be investigated to determine where the fault lies.  As I told the AP, if some local commander made a mistake, his wrist probably needs to be slapped, as appropriate.  We do need to find where the system broke down in order to prevent something like this from happening again.
  • This doesn’t seem to be part of any nefarious Obama plot to impose martial law across the land.  Some folks seem to be claiming this is President Obama’s first step in some apocalyptic total-takeover scheme.  For the conspiracy-minded out there, if this is such a plot, the Alabama mass murder seems to be a bad case to begin operations.  It was a quick response to a local event with no advance notice.  Anyway, it seems that Obama has a whole lot on his plate right now.  He’s probably too occupied at the moment to be concentrating on how to use a handful of MPs to overturn the Constitution in the deep south.
  • There are times when U.S. military forces do reasonably need to be involved in local issues.  When I was in the Army, I was involved in an operation to remove unexploded military ordinance found on private property in the D.C. area.  In this case, FEMA, local law enforcement and military personal cooperated and communicated about how to handle the issues involved and we (the military) were very mindful about the line between the military and civilians.
  • That someone didn’t quickly answer the question about who ordered the MPs offbase is concerning.  A quick and honest answer probably would have stopped online speculation which may continue for some time.  It also (probably needlessly) undermines public confidence in the military.  Why not simply say “who dunnit” so folks can move back to more important issues in their lives?

In short, we should probably try to figure out what happened and fix the problem so a) the bar doesn’t get lowered and b)  we can prevent this from happening in the future.  We need to remain vigilant, but not overreactive.  Based on information available so far, it appears that no serious harm was done but we do need to get to the bottom of it — and with no stonewalling, either.

UPDATE: Here’s an updated AP report from the Houston Chronicle:

The chairman of the Libertarian Party of Alabama, Stephen Gordon, said while many are worried about the use of Army troops in civilian police roles, he doubts there was anything nefarious about the soldiers in Samson.

“There is no apparent harm here, but the principle still needs to be upheld,” Gordon said. “The barrier has been lowered for the next time, and we really need to take a look at what happened.”

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9 Comments

  1. How hard is it to ask the MPs involved “Who ordered you to go here?” And then follow the chain of orders up to whoever originated them? Shouldn’t the army be keeping records of who gives orders to whom?

    Comment by Peter — March 18, 2009 @ 11:38 am
  2. Peter,

    I’m sure the enlisted soldiers involved have been ordered not to answer any questions from the media.

    Comment by Stephen Gordon — March 18, 2009 @ 11:50 am
  3. Good point, Peter, I always knew who it was that was tell me what to do. I guess a low-level officer could have lied and told us that the orders came from the Captain (O-6 Navy, not O-3 Army), but I don’t remember any officer being that stupid (not even either of the two I considered completely brainless.)

    Comment by Merf — March 18, 2009 @ 12:02 pm
  4. Stephen, the enlisted won’t know much, anyways. They will have gotten their orders from a senior enlisted who got them from a junior officer, and there may be several other people between that junior officer and the one who actually gave the orders . . . . Senior enlisted will know more, but maybe not much.

    Comment by Merf — March 18, 2009 @ 12:08 pm
  5. According to reports, there were 22 enlistees and one officer dispatched. I assume the officer was probably a 1LT or CPT. The order probably came from much higher up the local chain of command.

    Comment by Stephen Gordon — March 18, 2009 @ 12:10 pm
  6. It would have had to. I cannot imagine that an O-2 or O-3 would have done this without orders.

    Comment by Merf — March 18, 2009 @ 12:17 pm
  7. [...] Merf: It would have had to. I cannot imagine that an O-2 or O-3 would have done this without orders. [...]

    Pingback by The Liberty Papers »Blog Archive » Preliminary Government Answers About MPs in Alabama Not Passing Sniff Test — March 19, 2009 @ 12:02 am
  8. This is a big deal I wish people we more worried and were very mad. Soldiers don’t make good police. They end up being used to intimidate and harass people that’s it.

    That town’s police chief needs to set up a reserve police officer or deputy program or auxiliary program. It was wrong for him to call the Army for help in this situation.

    Comment by Lyn — March 19, 2009 @ 5:07 am
  9. Lyn, I agree with you. As I said on another thread, you are military or you are police — one or the other, not both. The military’s job is to kill people and break things. I, personally, had a job that involved keeping equipment running so the ship could get into position to launch planes . . . . so the pilots could kill people and break things.

    This is not a bad thing, mind you. There are some people in the world that understand that language and no other, and will leave us alone as long as they think we will hurt them more than they can hurt us.

    But while military is good for things like cleaning streets after a hurricane, we’re not all that good for law enforcement — not even MPs.

    After all, MPs expect a certain level of obedience that civilians haven’t been taught to give them — and should be expect to give them, either, whereas military personnel know, when they talk, we shut up and listen, and then do what they say. It is part of what we agree to when we join — and civilians haven’t joined.

    Comment by Merf — March 19, 2009 @ 8:23 am

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