The government can have overwhelming authority over its citizenry. However, the United States constitution has put checks and balances in place in order to ensure that in maintaining law and order, the police officers respect the rights of the populace.
In other words, the constitution has set ethical boundaries that government officers are to respect when handling citizens. Two prominent inclusions in the constitution include the first and fourth amendments. Despite their inclusions, ethical issues regarding the two keep coming up as law and the society’s sense of ethics keeps colliding.
Ethical issues arising from the fourth amendment
Ethics relate to what a person should or should not do, regardless of whether such an act permissible under the law (Kraut, 2010). The fourth amendment on the other hand requires police officers suspecting a person of wrongdoing to obtain a warrant before searching and seizing the suspected person’s property (Slobogin, n.
d.). Specifically, the reasonableness clause in the amendment states that “the right of the people to be secure in their houses, persons, papers and effects from unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated” (Dale and Lewis, 2009, p. 46). As has been interpreted by Slobogin (n.
d.), the drafters of the fourth amendment assumed that magistrates would not approve of unjustified intrusions into people’s homes or property. As such, the amendment requires a police officer seeking a search or seizure warrant from a magistrate to give proof that there is a ‘probable cause’. More so, the police officer seeking the warrant must indicate to the magistrate that he or she has sufficient facts to believe that the targeted person committed a crime (in case of an arrest warrant) or that the place to be searched could have evidence on contraband or crime (Hall, 2005).
In the internet age, government’s snooping of web traffic ostensibly to trace criminal activity has continuously raised much hue and cry among ethics crusaders. In its defense, Dale and Lewis (2009) notes that the government argues that without using intrusive technology, police officers and other law keeping organs in the government would stand little or no chance in detecting and convicting terrorists and other criminals using the web as their medium of communication. The outrage that met government proposal however took a passive nature after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack in the U.S. thus giving way to the passage of the “USA patriotic Act and Homeland Security Act” (Dale and Lewis, 2009, p.
46). While the outrage may have toned down after the destruction brought about the terrorist acts, ethical issues still persist to this day. For example, the use of the web-snooping computer tools by the FBI police could very well be used to violate people’s privacy. More so, it can be used to violate the freedom of speech treasured by American citizens, and even worse, the government can use it to “take over” the internet (Dale and Lewis, 2009). This then raises the question; just how far can the rights and freedoms of the ordinary citizens as guaranteed under the fourth amendment, be forfeited for the sake of upholding national security? More so, is FBI’s police use of web-snooping tools ethical? In the criminal justice system, tracking and detaining terrorists and other people who pose a threat to the national security may be a case of the end justifying the means.
To the general population however, FBI snooping is just another unethical exercise that they may have to live with for the sake of enhancing their greater security and welfare.
Ethical issues arising from the first amendment
The first amendment grants American citizens rights to freedom of expression and religion. More so, the amendment protects the citizenry from government interference (Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute, 2010). Ethical issues relating to the first amendment and police officers do not often focus on how the latter handle their role in law enforcement. In some cases, ethical issues may arise in determining whether the police officers do have a right to freedoms and rights provided in the first amendment. For instance, a police officer no doubt has a right to free speech.
However, the mere nature of the police career may hinder individual police officers from practicing free speech for fear of facing disciplinary action, which may in cases include job termination (Scarry, 2006). While a previous case (Pickering v. Board of Education, 1968) in the US Supreme Court established that government employees have a right to free speech as provided in the first amendment, it was established in a different case (Connick v. Myers, 1983) that a public employee can loose the right to free speech if the subject of his or her speech is motivated by personal interest and hence cannot be classified as a matter of public concern. In Waters v. Churchill (1994), it was further established that the content of a police officer’s speech must be judged in order to verify whether it raises public concern issues, or whether it was purely a complaint made by the officer about workplace issues. In cases where the former is applicable, then the police officer’s speech could be protected by the first amendment.
However, if the speech was made purely on a personal interest basis, then the police officer may have to face disciplinary action. The ethical issue arises from the fact that such gagging of police officer may make it hard for them to reveal unethical, unprofessional, immoral and even criminal conducts that may exist in police departments. In the criminal law system, gagging the police officer may be justified by the precedent set in Kelley v. Johnson (1976). In the ruling, it was stated that employees working in law enforcement agencies need to be more loyal and disciplined when relating to their employer. As such, they are subjected to greater 1st amendment restraints than ordinary government employees. To the general population however, muffling police officers who may want to expose the unethical, unprofessional, immoral and even criminal conducts that may exist in police departments is tantamount to a gross violation of their free speech rights as provided in the first amendment.
Ethical issues are not as clear cut as most people would want them to.
The situation is even worse when ethics collides with existing laws. Often times, principles held by the society may suggest that evidence obtained by police officers even without search warrants should be used in a court case if it can help rid the society of criminal activity. However, the courts usually use the constitution as the basis for their decision, and hence evidence obtained inappropriately through warrantless searches and seizures is in many cases deemed inadmissible in courts of law.
Regardless of the ethical issues that arise based on the collision that occurs between the society’s moral convictions and established laws, the US populace has learnt to trust the judiciary to guard their rights as provided by the constitution, while still upholding the moral fabric of the society. Whether their trust has born any benefits so far remains a debatable issue.
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