The Department of Justice is seeking broad new powers to detain people charged with crimes, according to a new report.
The website Politico reported that the Justice Department has submitted documents to Congress requesting new powers that it says are needed during the state of emergency caused by the coronavirus. The site said it had reviewed the documents, but did not post them.
One change would give Attorney General William Barr the power to ask top district court judges to stop proceedings “whenever the district court is fully or partially closed by virtue of any natural disaster, civil disobedience, or other emergency situation.”
The change would apply to “any statutes or rules of procedure otherwise affecting pre-arrest, post-arrest, pre-trial, trial, and post-trial procedures in criminal and juvenile proceedings and all civil process and proceedings,” according to the request, Politico reported.
The document said individual judges currently have that power, but the Justice Department is seeking to make it uniformly applied across federal judicial districts.
One commentator said the rule change was dangerous and impinges on the right of habeas corpus.
“Not only would it be a violation of that, but it says ‘affecting pre-arrest,’” Norman L. Reimer, the executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, told Politico.
“So that means you could be arrested and never brought before a judge until they decide that the emergency or the civil disobedience is over. I find it absolutely terrifying. Especially in a time of emergency, we should be very careful about granting new powers to the government.”
Reimer said suspending rules with no end date “should not happen in a democracy.”
The draft, which comes at a time when the use of video meetings is spiking as employers and governments at all levels are encouraging new tactics to avoid bringing numbers of people together in one place, also calls for expanded use of videoconference hearings, regardless of whether defendants agree.
The department also wants Congress to explicitly say that those infected by COVID-19 cannot apply for asylum.
The department also wants Congress to pause the statute of limitations — the limit beyond which a defendant cannot be prosecuted — during national emergencies, “and for one year following the end of the national emergency.”
Initial reactions to the report made it appear that the push for new powers was going to be a hard sell.
WTH? I repeat — there is no good reason to suspend due process in our quest for health and safety. It doesn’t matter who is doing it or whether “for your own good.” This better be fake news…. https://t.co/cuMExURwvn
— Harmeet K. Dhillon (@pnjaban) March 21, 2020
Absolutely not. https://t.co/buaiiU92Xk
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) March 21, 2020
Congress must loudly reply NO.
“The Justice Department has quietly asked Congress for the ability to ask chief judges to detain people indefinitely without trial during emergencies.” https://t.co/B0TL8y6Sbh
— Justin Amash (@justinamash) March 21, 2020
Barr last week said that protecting the health of those who make the justice system operate was of major importance, according to the Washington Examiner.
He urged U.S. attorneys to “work closely with the Chief Judge in your district to ensure that every appropriate precaution is taken to protect the health of those who practice in or are called before our courts” and to “take every appropriate precaution to protect those who make the system function, including the judges, court staff, lawyers, parties, jurors, and witnesses who appear in courtrooms.”
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