Local Cops Skirt State Limits on Surveillance by Joining Federal Task Forces

Local Cops Skirt State Limits on Surveillance by Joining Federal Task Forces

by Mike Maharrey

Police are bypassing state restrictions on warrantless surveillance by acting as federal agents on joint terrorism task forces.

It’s well-known that a federal program known as “Equitable Sharing” allows local prosecutors and police to bypass more restrictive state asset forfeiture laws by passing cases off to the federal government through a process known as adoption. A Department of Justice directive issued last summer by Attorney General Jeff Sessions reiterates full support for the equitable sharing program, directs federal law enforcement agencies to aggressively utilize it, and sets the stage to expand it in the future.

Through the adoption process, local police claim cases are federal in nature to justify transferring them to federal jurisdiction. Under these arrangements, state officials simply hand cases over to a federal agency, participate in the case, and then receive up to 80 percent of the proceeds.

Participation in federal joint law enforcement task forces gives state and local police a similar means to circumvent restrictive state surveillance laws and conduct warrantless spying with immunity.

When state or local law enforcement officers join a federal joint task force, they are deputized as federal agents. As a result, they then operate under the exact same parameters as an FBI or DEA agent. That means they act as if they are no longer bound by state laws governing surveillance. In practice, this allows local cops to ignore state laws as they collect information on people in their communities.

For instance, last year, Illinois passed the most restrictive law on cell site simulators in the country. Commonly referred to as “stingrays,” these devices essentially spoof cell phone towers, tricking any device within range into connecting to the stingray instead of the tower. This allows law enforcement to sweep up communications content, as well as locate and track the person in possession of a specific phone or other electronic device. Under the Illinois law, police must get a warrant before using a stingray to track an individual’s location in most situations, and they are barred from using the devices to access data an electronic device or listen to conversations. But an Illinois police officer serving on a joint task force can ignore the warrant requirement and deploy a stingray despite the state law.

According to a report by the Century Foundation, Joint Terrorism Task Forces are particularly invasive due to their broad and sweeping mandate to “prevent terrorism.”

Prior to 9/11, there were about 30 JTTFs scattered around the US. Today, more than 180 such task forces operate all across the US. According to memoranda of understanding (MOUs) obtains by the ACLU, state and local law enforcement officers assigned to JTTFs follow federal rules for intelligence gathering.

According to the New Century report, these JTTFs also allow state and local cops to operate in virtual secrecy and with little or no local oversight.

“Partnerships on JTTFs may also enable local and state police to conduct activities in secret, under cover of federal law protecting ‘classified information,’ where their activities would otherwise be subject to public scrutiny through state open records laws. Sometimes, local officers deputized to work as federal agents on JTTFs aren’t even subject to ordinary chain-of-command requirements, for example, if their local commanding officer doesn’t have security clearance to access information held by the JTTF member. These frameworks make it impossible to hold local and state law enforcement officials accountable for their work on JTTFs.”

In 2008, the DOJ established rules allowing FBI agents to conduct “assessments” – essentially an investigation without any indication of terrorist or criminal activity. Any FBI agent can unilaterally initiate an assessment for up to 30 days without any oversight After 30 days, the agent must report to a supervisor. From that point, the supervisor can renew the assessment every 30 days. An agent does not have to have probable cause or even reasonable suspicion to open an assessment. He only needs to have an “authorized purpose” and a “clearly defined objective.” According to the Brennan Center for Justice, agents can engage in the following activities, among others, during in the assessment phase.

  • Recruit informants to monitor the subject
  • Question people without revealing their identity
  • Search commercial and government databases
  • Conduct physical surveillance of a person’s public movements

When operating within a JTTF, a local law enforcement officer can engage in all of these activities, regardless of state law or department policy.

Deputization and membership in a JTTF also open the door for local cops to access federal databases holding information that was collected without a warrant.

“Local and state police assigned to JTTFs and deputized as federal agents may even have access to information collected by the CIA, NSA, or foreign intelligence agencies, as their FBI counterparts do. Indeed, FBI guidelines allow agents to ask the CIA and NSA for information on people agents are investigating during an assessment. Again, agents and task force members do not even need to suspect someone of involvement in criminal activity before opening such an assessment. Local police assigned to the JTTF may therefore have access to information about Americans that was collected by the NSA without any judicial process, even if the targets of the spying aren’t suspected of any crime—let alone a serious offense connected to terrorism.”

The FBI calls JTTFs “our nation’s front line on terrorism: small cells of highly trained, locally based, passionately committed investigators, analysts, linguists, SWAT experts, and other specialists from dozens of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies.”

The New Century report came up with a much less glowing assessment.

“Communities and individuals who have been monitored, harassed, or threatened by JTTF operations or their task force officers may see their role differently. To those groups, the JTTFs likely appear more interested in solidifying and expanding the power of their own bureaucracy, and protecting the political, social, and economic status quo—often at the expense and on the backs of marginalized communities. And despite the FBI’s claim that the JTTFs are the nation’s “front line on terrorism,” the FBI doesn’t have much to show, in terms of benefits to public safety, for the vast expenditures of public funds poured into them.”

Joint task forces further detach local peace officers from the communities they ostensibly serve. Federal deputization allows your local cops top operate outside of state law with virtually no local or state oversight or accountability. They can surveil you with impunity, even if your state has passed laws to protect your privacy.

Joint task forces should not serve as a vehicle to circumvent state law. State and local governments need to take steps to regain control over their police departments. They should refuse to lend their officers to any joint task force that does not operate within the limits of state surveillance laws. They should also insist on having an oversight role when any of their officers are involved in joint investigations.

Despite revelations by Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers revealing the total disregard of the Fourth Amendment by federal agencies like the NSA, Congress has shown no inclination to rein the federal surveillance state. State and local government may not be able to completely shut down the federal surveillance state, but they certainly don’t have to participate.


(TLB) published this article from The Tenth Amendment Center with our gratitude for the coverage of this pertinent issue in Government.

About the author: Mike Maharrey

Michael Maharrey [send him email] is the Communications Director for the Tenth Amendment Center.He proudly resides in the original home of the Principles of ’98 – Kentucky.See his blog archive here and his article archive here.He is the author of the book, Our Last Hope: Rediscovering the Lost Path to Liberty. You can visit his personal website at MichaelMaharrey.com and like him on Facebook HERE


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1 Comment on Local Cops Skirt State Limits on Surveillance by Joining Federal Task Forces

    The missing link in this article is very basic under the structure of law know as the Bill of Rights.
    The simple fact is that all state actors are bound by their own promised performance prior to assuming offical government position.
    The promise is to first recognize the law of the state and second the federal Constitution.
    The controling language over all federal government acts is the Bill of Rights.
    Why? Because the Bill of Rights AMENDS all federal powers or authorities by the language contained in the Bill of Rights. Read the preamble section for proof of this statement.
    In short the Bill of Rights is the “thou shall not” standard by which all federal and state government actors voluntarily bind themselves too.
    Thus, all those believing they are protected by federal fiat regulations are actually placing them selves under more pesonal liability to their own promise.
    With this understanding we the People now have two bodies of law, state and federal, to which we may hold these agents accountable.
    There is one question that destroys utterly the claim of immunity by any government actor.
    “ Can and will you Mr. government actor identify for me the portion of the state or federal Constitution that authorizes in any manner whatsoever the authority or power to regulate or harm the People or deny the People access to the protections of the Bill of Rights which you promised to recognize and serve in your capacity as a public official?”
    It is impossible to identify the power to regulate or harm the People because no constitution created and implemented by the People granted such power.
    Why is this statement true? It is true because none of the People hold powers to regulate or controle their neighbors.
    Therefore the People creating the American experiment in self governance throgh Constitution could never grant what they do not have to government.
    ALL other discussion or argument about government actions by government actors fail to state a claim until this question is addressed fully.
    The actions identified in the article, while true, merely expose the practice of SLAVERY over those affected by overbearing usurpatious actors regulating the People for private gain and benefit, their pay checks.

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