RIGHT OF THE DAY: No Military Investigation of Civilians

YOUR RIGHT OF THE DAY: The U.S. military is prohibited from investigating or enforcing state laws against civilians. 1Posse Comitatus Act of 1878

NCIS is not just a TV show. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service is responsible for investigating crimes against or by members of the Navy and Marine Corps.  While NCIS is allowed to investigate its members on or off base, it is strictly prohibited from investigating civilians (this is strictly left to civilian law enforcement). Yet it has been doing just that.

Although NCIS did not set out to directly investigate civilians, it has conducted criminal investigations of its members’ online activity that have swept up some civilians.  The agency found evidence of one such civilian’s criminal activities and turned it over to civilian law enforcement.

A federal court ruled recently that NCIS’s actions were NOT OK, and as an NPR article notes:

The court likened that to having military police stop cars in downtown Seattle on the “off chance” that a drunken driver was in the military.

Why does this matter to you?

While it may seem unimportant whether civilian law enforcement rather than the military enforces state criminal law, as long as the bad guys go down, it’s actually a hugely significant symbolic issue for our democracy.

The law that requires this separation, the Posse Comitatus Act (how cool is that name?), was passed in 1878, illustrating that this country has long understood that the powerful U.S. military should stay out of civilian affairs. This ensures that the military’s reach does not increase to the point that it could threaten our democratically elected civilian government, and that we, the people, are able to keep a closer watch on those who would convict us of crimes and throw us in jail.

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