Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Steps from the Old State House, where Bostonians first heard the Declaration of Independence, essential liberty was traded for temporary security at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
On July 25, 2004, Ohio native Vijay Shah was sitting on the steps surrounded by secret service agents, Czellecz and Holloway, who had snatched him from an anti-war protest and demanded to see his identification. From a large group of people exercising their First Amendment rights, Shah was picked out for his dark skin, full beard, and “suspicious behavior.” He was grabbed from behind, handcuffed, and taken to an adjacent dark alley where agents took their investigation to the “dark side.”
When Shah respectfully withheld his identification, the agents threw him into the back of a police cruiser and drove him to a nearby station, without reading Shah his rights or acknowledging an arrest. Shah explained to agents that he withheld his identification because he takes the Constitution seriously and paid close attention to landmark civil liberties cases such as Miranda. Agent Czellecz thought Shah said he diligently followed Iran.
Upset about the agents’ behavior and unwilling to let this happen to others, Shah filed a civil lawsuit asserting his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unlawful search and seizure and challenging his de facto arrest.
In the courtroom, Justice Department lawyers asserted “the ticking bomb” scenario and spoke of a desperate need to heighten security measures. Asking “what else could [the agents] do?,” the government lawyers included in their opening statement references to 9/11, the Madrid election bombing, and the show 24 as indications of what could happen if security had not been the main agenda at the convention.
In March, Agent Czellecz was found liable for violating Mr. Shah’s rights. As Shah’s defense team noted, “Sometimes it’s hard to stand on principle. Our Constitution was written by stubborn men for stubborn men like Mr. Shah.” If Shah did not stand up, Czellecz would have never been held accountable for violating Shah’s Fourth Amendment rights and would likely have repeated those abuses elsewhere. Ben Franklin would be proud.