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In the United States, police may legally detain and question a person if they have reasonable suspicion that a crime has been, or is about to be, committed by that person. This person may be completely innocent of any crime - they may have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. For instance, maybe they were out jogging at the same time and general location, as a criminal robbed a store and ran away. Assuming they fit the same general description (similar race, height, build), police might, legally under US law, stop and detain the jogger, ask a few questions, and then send them on their way after it became clear the person was simply jogging. This is not an unrealistic scenario. It happens a lot.

Ayn Rand has said that the rights of one man cannot and must not violate the rights of another. In the context of a reasonable search, does this mean that one does not have the right to be free from detainment, when someone else merely has a reasonable suspicion that one has committed a crime? Or is the US law, which allows detention and questioning upon reasonable suspicion, a rights violating one?

asked Jul 22 '11 at 09:17

anthony's gravatar image


edited Jan 05 '14 at 14:22

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦

It is not a violation of your rights to detain you on reasonable suspicion. To the contrary, it is an act of the police protecting your rights.

The police force cannot work magically. The police don't always have perfect information about who has committed each crime. The process of detection involves finding suspects and questioning them, and perhaps detaining them. It would be ludicrous for each suspect to cry "this violates my rights!" unless it were fully certain that said suspect were completely innocent -- in which case suspicion would be unreasonable.

To be an innocent suspect in a crime investigation is unfortunate fact of life, like catching a cold, or encountering a traffic jam. You must deal with it -- it's senseless to try to punish someone for it.

answered Jul 23 '11 at 16:52

John%20Paquette's gravatar image

John Paquette ♦

edited Jul 23 '11 at 16:54

Thanks John. You have answered my question quite directly. Unfortunately your answer is very similar to an argument which was being used to justify taxation.

Before reading the answers to this question I formed my own conclusion: The key reason that a reasonable search is okay is that any rights violation which might occur is accidental.

After reading the answers, I still think it is more accurate to say that an accidental rights violation took place, than it is to say that no rights violation took place. But maybe it's better to say an inevitable accident is not a rights violation at all.

(Jul 27 '11 at 12:49) anthony anthony's gravatar image

The government, as such, has no right to violate rights. The government is, properly, allowed to detain suspects for questioning. In other words, you don't have a right to escape detention just because you think you are innocent. There are strict rules of procedure regarding exactly what powers of detention the police have.

Police are agents of objective enforcement. If you are a suspect, detaining you is no accident on their part. If a detained person is to claim a rights violation, it is the fault of the guilty criminal, not the police. Crime has indirect victims.

(Jul 27 '11 at 13:12) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

I don't believe I have a right to escape detention just because I think I am innocent. I believe I have a right to escape detention "just because" I am innocent.

"If you are a suspect, detaining you is no accident on their part." The accident is that they are detaining the wrong person. If I think I am shooting a deer and I'm actually shooting a human disguised as a deer, that's an accident. Whether or not that constitutes an "accidental rights violation" or is simply not a rights violation at all, I don't know. It's certainly an accident.

(Aug 01 '11 at 09:05) anthony anthony's gravatar image

To put it another way, do you believe that detaining an innocent person on reasonable suspicion constitutes the retaliatory use of force? Rand says "Men have the right to use physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use."

The police, when detaining a completely innocent person who is a suspect, believe they are using retaliatory force. But they are not.

The law does not state that police have a right to detain innocent suspects. Rather, it states that there is no punishment for doing so based upon reasonable suspicion.

(Aug 01 '11 at 09:25) anthony anthony's gravatar image
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The rather uncomfortable ground in which the term "reasonable" resides constitutes what makes this question difficult. The police are charged with protecting citizens from dangers posed by criminals. In doing so, they occasionally must detain and question citizens who MAY have been involved in a crime. Ultimately, the courts may be called upon to decide what was "reasonable" in making that detention and questioning. For example, race alone as a criterion has been found not reasonable. On the other hand, race, clothing, actions (running away from the crime site), and age all together may constitute reasonable criteria even if the person is ultimately found to be uninvolved in the crime.

As long as the police are acting to ensure safety of we citizens, we are best served by cooperating with them. Having just returned from an international trip, I was impressed with the non threatening nature of pre boarding screening and evaluation. Unlike what might be expected from news coverage, I saw no persons objecting or being abused. Rather, all parties appeared to cooperate. Whether we are, indeed, made more safe by these searches is an entirely different issue. The searches appear reasonable and non injurious. There were national differences between Kenya, Netherlands, Italy, Great Britain, and the U:S but all had similar approaches at the basic functions.

At the other extreme are those governments that use detention, interrogation, and even torture as a means of controlling citizens. Here there is no attempt to make citizens safer. Indeed, detention in these cases is simply used by the government as a means of dominating the citizenry. Citizens are not protected from crimes. Rather, they are subjected to criminal governmental actions. The only protection from this type invasive and illegal government is an active and free citizenry protected by a government that is limited and has counterbalanced powers of legislative, executive, and judicial branches.

answered Jul 23 '11 at 12:29

ethwc's gravatar image

ethwc ♦

I agree with the thrust of ethwc's answer, but with one objection. Doesn't mandatory screening of everyone at airports go beyond the bounds of "reasonable suspicion"? Airport screening has nothing to do with any evidence that a particular individual may have committed, or intends to commit, a crime. Airport screening is actually motivated by very different principles, primarily the timidity of the U.S. government in foreign policy toward nations that sponsor or harbor terrorists, and toward the underlying ideology that spawns terrorists.

(Jul 23 '11 at 16:05) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

http://www.slate.com/id/2299697/ The next generation of scanner image interpretation uses automation to view the image and indicate if further specific search is needed. If only a computer sees your "naked" image, has your privacy been violated?

(Jul 24 '11 at 08:46) ethwc ♦ ethwc's gravatar image

A domestic TSA checkpoint is not just a violation of privacy rights, it is (much more clearly) a direct violation of property rights. Only the owner of the airport has the right to set up a permanent checkpoint which screens all passengers regardless of any suspicion at all.

In any case, my question was about the underlying moral principles, and not the details of what constitutes "reasonable". There are obviously at least some situations where police need to detain people who turn out to be completely innocent. We can't have trials before we have investigations.

(Jul 27 '11 at 13:02) anthony anthony's gravatar image
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I would like to echo the main views expressed in the answers by ethwc and John Paquette, but with some additional perspective.

The original question (pertaining to police conduct) highlights the division of intellectual labor between philosophy and law. Philosophy, especially Objectivism, identifies the basic principles; law works out the details of their implementation and application to a wide range of concrete cases.

The original question does a good job of noting the essential princples: police...detain and question...reasonable suspicion (on concrete evidence)...crime...committed by the detainee...ask a few questions...send an apparently innocent detainee on his way...reasonable "search" (i.e., temporary detention and questioning)...questioning (by police) upon reasonable suspicion of a crime...

I would disagree with the formulation that "someone else merely has a reasonable suspicion...." The issue isn't civilians or a "citizen's arrest." It is actions specifically by police, as agents of government, upon reasonable suspicion.

Echoing John's answer in particular, I would also ask how the police can be expected to do their job if they can't even stop and question someone near a fresh crime scene who is running and fits "the same general description (similar race, height, build)" of someone who "robbed a store and ran away," presumably as seen and reported by one or more witnesses. What if the person seen by the police actually is the same one who robbed the store? I would expect any reasonable observer to want the police to be able to at least take a closer look, ask a few questions, and at least make note of anything else that might be out of the ordinary after talking with the detainee. Any nearby jogger rationally would want that kind of protection by the police, too, especially if the criminal was still in the area and possibly armed and dangerous. Joggers have enough difficulty already just defending themselves from neighborhood dogs and wild animals. They are no match for human predators. Joggers near a crime scene might also have valuable information about something they may have seen that should be made known to the police, so that the police can integrate it with everything else that the police may have learned about the crime or might learn subsequently.

The process that the field of law would use to define what the police may and may not do in order to protect the righs of the innocent would undoubtedly involve looking at a very large number of actual cases in great detail, and identifying all relevant similarities and differences that could be integrated into practical, workable rules of police conduct. Legislative bodies in a proper government would undoubtedly do much the same in formulating any statute laws that might be warranted, and the courts would do it, over time, in defining legal precedents in cases where there are no clear statutes. It is not the task of philosophy to preempt these integrative processes in the field of law or in other fields that Objectivism refers to as special sciences.

The law, i.e., legislatures, courts and even the police, rationally also should ferret out and rectify any instances of racial prejudice or other excesses sometimes perpetrated by the police. A philosophy like Objectivism certainly does not endorse racism.

Passenger Screening at Airports

The answer by ethwc also mentions government-mandated screening of passengers at airports. "Screening" here refers to any form of government agents stopping and questioning all passengers, regardless of any reason (or none at all) to suspect anyone in particular of intending to commit terrorist acts. As I noted in a comment, that type of screening clearly goes beyond the scope of the police stopping someone on reasonable suspicion (from concrete but limited evidence) of having committed, or intending to commit, a crime.

It is perhaps becoming harder for younger travelers today to understand that there was a time, not really so very long ago (prior to 9/11/2001), when the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) did not exist, hadn't been thought of, and there were no "security checkpoints" at all (for domestic flights), no stopping of passengers by government agents demanding to see a valid boarding pass and photo ID, requiring passengers to place all carry-on items into a tray for scanning by an X-ray machine, remove all metal items from their pockets, even take off their belts if necessary to remove metal, remove coats and sweaters and even their shoes, walk through a metal detector (and/or odor sniffer and/or body scanner, whether human-operated or automatic), and possibly still need to have their carry-on bags opened and searched manually or given a swab check for explosives-related chemical residues, and perhaps body-scanned again using a hand-held metal detector and/or physical "pat down." None of that existed prior to 9/11/2001. For domestic flights, anyone, passenger or not, could walk right up to the doorway leading to the boarding ramp to the aircraft to wait for arriving passengers, and no one was concerned about "liquids or gels" being carried onto the aircraft by passengers. It was a very different world ten or more years ago, though in a trend that arguably made an incident like 9/11/01 inevitable. Even for international flights (especially arrivals in the U.S.), the main security focus was on immigration control rather than potential terrorism.

Why was the world so different? Why couldn't the trend of diminishing freedom be reversed? That was the point of my comment on the example of passenger screening at airports in relation to the original question about "reasonable suspicion" of a specific individual by police on the basis of concrete evidence.

Historical Clarification

As the questioner points out in the comments, the history of airport security checkpoints actually goes back considerably farther than 10 years ago. (My own recollections were a little off.) According to Wikipedia, under the topic of "Airport Security," checkpoints began in 1973 in compliance with new FAA regulations. As the comments also point out, what changed in a major way 10 years ago was the complete takeover of checkpoint operations by the newly formed TSA, and the marked tightening of regulations on passengers.

answered Jul 24 '11 at 18:03

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

edited Aug 05 '11 at 15:38

We often hear of the halcion days of air travel before 9/11/01. However, it may be of worth to remember that there were occasional airplane bombings for various reasons (suicide, insurance, terrorism). Those are now very rare. I would like to board with no impediment. However, I do find I like the increased likelihood of arriving alive. Yes, bombs were rare. However, in medicine we always were reminded that on occasion hoof beats were from zebras.

(Jul 24 '11 at 18:45) ethwc ♦ ethwc's gravatar image

There were security checkpoints for domestic flights before 9/11/2001. They were set up by private companies under contract with the airline or airport. There were metal detectors, you had to take off your belts, you had to remove metal from your pockets, and you had to put carry-on luggage onto a conveyer belt for screening by an X-ray.

That's the way it was in major airports, anyway. I'm really not sure where you're getting the idea that there wasn't.

(Jul 27 '11 at 13:38) anthony anthony's gravatar image

What happened on 9/11 was that planes were hijacked and used as weapons. The federal government took over security of the airports, not on the basis of protecting passengers, but on the basis of stopping terrorists from obtaining these weapons. The argument is that commercial aircrafts should be regulated by government for the same reasons as, say, plutonium.

This is further complicated by the fact that property rights over airspace have not been properly defined.

This is an interesting argument, and I'd love to read a discussion of it. But on another question, please :).

(Jul 27 '11 at 13:54) anthony anthony's gravatar image
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In forming a proper government, you delegate your right of self-defense to the government (except in emergencies); you will not be a vigilante and pursue your own form of justice. Instead, government has a monopoly on the use of force, but only in retaliation for the use of force against you.

Part of the process of retaliating on your behalf involves questioning suspects. It might also involve issuing subpoenas that force people to appear in court. The desired outcome is justice, which, in order to be objective, must be administered by a neutral third party and must follow an objective legal process.

Even if you are the subject of this type of force, your rights are still being protected ultimately, because without force, government would not be able to act on your behalf either, if or when the time comes.

answered Aug 02 '11 at 10:27

Rick's gravatar image

Rick ♦

I agree that the government has a right to use retaliatory force, but, to quote Rand, "only against those who initiate its use". The right to use retaliatory force does not extend to the right to use force against innocent people. That, in fact, is the exact same argument which is used to justify taxation. "Even if you are the subject of this type of force [taxation], your rights are still being protected ultimately, because without force [taxation], government would not be able to act on your behalf either, if or when the time comes."

(Aug 02 '11 at 10:43) anthony anthony's gravatar image

A key aspect of Objectivism is context. In an immediate, life-or-death situation, it's likely that you will know without a doubt who initiated force against you. However, if someone, unknown to you, sneaks into your house to steal something or hurt someone, it may take some effort to find that person, including questioning people who might be innocent; the context is wider; the use of force is short-term and very limited, and entirely related to "retaliation." In fact, it is the legal process itself which determines who initiated the use of force.

(Aug 03 '11 at 01:22) Rick ♦ Rick's gravatar image

I don't disagree with any of that. But it is not sufficient. Man's right to use retaliatory force (regardless of the fact that this right is delegated to government) is limited "only against those who initiate its use". Merely being "entirely related to retaliation" is not sufficient.

Yes, the job of the legal system is to determine who initiated force. But it may not itself initiate force while doing so.

Diana Hsieh's podcast about subpoenas in a free society is quite relevant: http://cast.dianahsieh.com/2011/05/episode-78-live-rationally-selfish.html

(Aug 04 '11 at 11:29) anthony anthony's gravatar image
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Asked: Jul 22 '11 at 09:17

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Last updated: Jan 05 '14 at 14:22