Dallas Police Chief David Brown didn't think his proposal to secure access to a federal database of private banking and financial information would be controversial. It sailed through the City Council's Public Safety Committee unopposed last week. Then again, that committee didn't have City Councilman Lee Kleinman.
"'The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated,'" Kleinman began, reading from a copy of the U.S. Constitution at this morning's meeting of the City Council.
"I feel very strongly that this item is a violation of that," Kleinman continued. "I'm not in favor of having a law enforcement authority searching through financial records."
Brown said that civil liberties concerns are unwarranted. The database DPD is seeking permission to access -- the Treasury Department Financial Crimes Enforcement Network -- has been providing law enforcement with information on suspicious transactions (e.g. those involving $10,000 or more) since 1990, though only after they prove probable cause and obtain a warrant. DPD already uses information from the database when it partners with the feds on high-level drug operations.
The feds aren't terribly interested in the networks of crack houses and front businesses that tend to be the problem in Dallas neighborhoods. But that's what Brown hopes to target with information from the FNEN. Sort of like the department did before budget cuts forced it to disband its money laundering unit in the mid-1990s.
"Think about the Al Capone rule," Brown told the council. "He didn't get taken to jail for racketeering. He got taken to jail for not filing his IRS taxes."
"This is a tool that will help us take down major drug organizations in our city," he added.
That wasn't quite good enough for Philip Kingston, who wanted more assurances the the financial information stored by the government is constitutional.
"I don't care if you can take down every drug dealer in this city," he said. "If you violate my civil liberties, it's illegal."
For most of the council -- everyone except Kingston and Kleinman, as a matter of fact -- Brown's confidence, plus some assurances from City Attorney Warren Ernst that allowing DPD access to the federal database seemed to be in line with the Constitution, was plenty.
Here's Vonciel Hill, rebuking Kleinman and Kingston:
I understand that to disrupt the drug activity in the part of the city that I represent, we need to follow the money. That's how you disrupt the drug dealers. I don't have drug cartels, but I do have on almost every block two or three drug houses.
It is not correct to say that with any constitutional right there is not a balancing act. There is. Every supreme court case every one that examines a constitutional right balances the constitional right against the public's interest in public's health and safety. My neighborhood, my part of the city has an interest in safety and getting rid of the dope houses, and I strongly suspect there is not a court in this country against my citizens.
Jerry Allen called it "naive...to think that our citizens would be put at some sort of risk," citing strong federal financial privacy laws.
Allowing access to the database carries an additional perk. Rather than having to split proceeds from crime-related seizures with the feds (they take 75 percent), DPD will be able to keep 100 percent, which Brown argued will take some of the onus off the City Council to increase funding for the police department.
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