Limitations on Government Action Protect Everyone
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COOK COUNTY, MINNESOTA - June 2, 2019 (LSN) A new neighbor with a dark past, even with acquaintances in prison, moves into the neighborhood. Alarm about the situation spreads. There is a call for action. What will our government officials do to protect us?
Public officials must listen to constituents and should consider reliable information on all topics of county concern. It is law enforcement’s role to investigate legitimate reports of illegal activity. The zoning authority has a role in lawfully regulating land use. Everyone is entitled to equal protection of the law, however, and your neighbor is protected by the same rules which protect you.
Every action by a government must have a basis in law. Government overreach, even if it is well-intentioned, can backfire and cause negative consequences no one desires.
Governments may act only when they are given authority to act. For example, by statute, a Sheriff has the responsibility to enforce criminal laws within the boundaries of the county. The County Attorney has statutory authority to prosecute crimes occurring within the county so long the case can be proven by probable cause and the statute of limitations hasn’t expired. A County can carry on planning and zoning activities, but only so long as they have the purpose of promoting the health, safety, morals, and general welfare of the community and they are consistent with state statute.
The law protects individuals from government action in violation of the constitution. In any prosecution related to a law enforcement investigation, an officer’s actions are subject to scrutiny by way of a constitutional challenge. The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, for example, protects members of the public from “unreasonable searches and seizures” by Peace Officers, so that any action an officer may take which the court deems a “search” will be unlawful unless a search warrant was issued or there is some valid exception to the search warrant requirement. A Judge may only issue a search warrant if probable cause exists that the specific place to be searched will contain fruits or instrumentalities or other evidence of a crime. The origin of the Fourth Amendment lies with the founders’ objection to the British government’s broad powers to search. Even to enter upon the “curtilage” of a person’s residence (the area impliedly open to the public, like the walk leading to the front door), Law Enforcement must have legitimate business justifying their presence.
The Double Jeopardy Clauses of the United States Constitution and the Minnesota Constitution prohibit a second prosecution for a crime for which a defendant has already been convicted or acquitted and prohibits a person from being punished twice for the same crime.
Under federal law (RLUIPA), local units of government who wish to impose land use regulation on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution, may only do so if that regulation does not impose a substantial burden upon religious exercise, unless the government can demonstrate a compelling government interest in doing so and that the zoning regulation is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.
Governments must act within the parameters of their granted authority and will face consequences for violating the Constitution by their actions. An initial “victory” may be reversed by a higher court. Evidence obtained by Law Enforcement in violation of the Fourth Amendment cannot be used at trial against a defendant. If a person is imprisoned as a result of a conviction, then that conviction is reversed based on an error like a constitutional violation, the defendant may be due monetary compensation for the time she or he spent in custody. If a court rules that a county’s zoning ordinances violated a property owner’s constitutional rights, the county may be ordered to pay that individual’s damages and attorney fees.
The general erosion of the rights that protect each of us may be the biggest risk when local authority stretches the boundaries of its power to suit public demand based on fear or speculation
By: Molly Hicken, County Attorney
County Connections is a column on timely topics and service information from your Cook County government. Cook County – Supporting Community Through Quality Public Service