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Trusting Your Privacy To Government

July 11, 2022 Frontpage No Comments

By DEACON MIKE MANNO

I was recently reminded of a column I wrote several years ago. It was about a court case that involved the potential of an accidental release of private information. And, in the legal arguments surrounding the case, there were strong suggestions that those accidental releases might have been done on purpose.
In the case, a Michigan nonprofit, the Thomas More Center, was suing California over a rule it was attempting to enforce that required nonprofits that sought to raise money in the state to provide to the attorney general the names and addresses of certain donors to the organization. Now if you have been a reader here for any amount of time, you probably know about the Thomas More Center. It is a nonprofit law firm that is dedicated to pro-life and religious liberty causes.
Over the years, it has been very successful in representing clients that we would consider mainstream, but to the “woke” it would appear ultra-conservative, or as now used, MAGA. In other words, Thomas More was a pain in the neck for liberal officeholders who were tired of its ability to protect the rights of pro-life workers, free speech advocates, church independence, and other “deplorable” causes.
So the state decided to collect the information on its donors, but why? The state claimed that it was to prevent consumer fraud, but Thomas More and its attorneys from the Alliance Defending Freedom saw it otherwise. To them, citing the long history of “woke” cancellations in California, as well as numerous other leaks from the attorney general’s office, which could represent a pattern of behavior involving disfavored groups, they saw the attempt to collect the information as a curb of Thomas More’s ability to raise funds.
Of course the enlightened folks who run the state — most of whom are still in office, or moved up — argued that the information, when collected, would be in safe hands and could not be disclosed to the public because the state had a rule against that. And even if something was leaked those leaks are usually inadvertent and rarely happen. Nope, sorry, Thomas More, this is only a matter of keeping these nonprofits honest and to eliminate fraud.
The trial court found for Thomas More, holding that a blanket disclosure rule violated the organization’s privacy rights as well as the privacy rights of the donors. California appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, who promptly reversed. The Ninth Circuit held that the disclosure rule was “substantially related” to the state’s interest in policing nonprofits fraud. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of Thomas More.
In the event the court went the other way, well, there was really no harm because there were rules and laws protecting privacy, thus the organization and its donors had nothing to worry about. After all, you can trust your government.
Then, at the end of June comes a news story about how the California attorney general announced that thousands of gun owners’ private information, including names and home addresses, had been “inadvertently” released to the public. There were records of people who had applied and were approved for gun permits, as well as those whose applications had been rejected. The information also revealed the type of guns that were owned.
The “leak” came only days after the United States Supreme Court struck down a New York ban on possession of certain guns outside a person’s home. The California Rifle & Pistol Association questioned the accidental nature of the leak.
Unfortunately, there are many citizens who for many legitimate reasons need to keep a gun handy, notably for self-protection. Included in that number are hundreds of women who have been stalked and have moved to avoid their intimidators. They now know where you live, is the message.
I remember several years ago when reporters from a local Gannett newspaper combed the local records in New York and published a list of names and addresses of people holding valid gun permits. In that case the information was, according to state law, a public record which could be accessed by any member of the public. Of course, not all people wanting to harm another or who have had a no-contact orders entered against them knew that they could find out the information by checking public records.
That naturally caused a fire-storm of reaction, especially from those who recognized that many with gun permits have substantial reasons to keep that information secret. But it did do one good thing: It provided home burglars with a list of places not to burgle. The Des Moines Register here is a Gannett paper so at the time I decided it might be a safe step to get a gun permit in case our paper did the same.
My house would be safe and I didn’t even need to purchase a gun. That came only a couple of years later when I thought Hillary Clinton might be elected president. A nice, nifty Smith and Wesson snub-nose .38.
Speaking of guns, there is a lot of talk these days about so-called red flag laws. Of course a couple of places that have them recently suffered mass shootings. So why don’t they work? Let me venture an answer.
For years I practiced in the area of mental health commitments. In Iowa it doesn’t take much to begin. Basically a doctor, certain officials, or two citizens can file a complaint with the clerk of court containing affidavits stating the facts that have caused the filing. That then goes to a judge or magistrate who will review the filing and if it shows that a person is a threat to himself or others, the judge can order the individual picked up and taken to a mental hospital for evaluation.
A hearing is scheduled for within a few days, an attorney is appointed for the respondent – that’s where I usually came in. In many cases where our county attorney’s office was conflicted or there was some reason it could not prosecute, I was named a special prosecutor and would take on the prosecution of the individual. In fact, there were certain cases filed under a special section of the code that for the longest while, I was the only attorney that could be appointed. Needless to say, I’ve had a lot of experience in this area.
Here is what I can tell you from personal experience: While red flag laws are good ideas in and of themselves, they won’t work. It is because the family does not think their loved ones are “that bad.” In fact, for most of the cases I remember, family members were only reluctantly able to acknowledge the problem, and far too many only saw the problem after they sat through the hearing, and listened to the physician and other mental health care workers testify.
In short, it was usually the family that was the last to recognize the seriousness of the problem. All too often the problem was brought to the surface by bystanders, others who saw something and called DHS, or the individual was picked up for some criminal activity and the arresting officer took his charge to the hospital instead of jail, and the hospital made the referral.
Red flag laws may seem simple and workable on paper. Unfortunately their weak link is the people closest to the individual who are in denial, especially the family.
(You can reach Mike at: DeaconMike@q.com, and listen to him every Thursday on Faith On Trial on IowaCatholicRadio.com.)

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