Tag Archives: Federal

Did U.S. Marshals Really Arrest a Houston Man for Unpaid Student Loans?

On February 15, Paul Aker appeared on Fox 26 Houston detailing his arrest at the hands of seven U.S. Marshals armed with automatic firearms. Aker told Fox 26 that he was arrested for not paying a $1,500 student loan he received in 1987 from Prairie View A&M University.

The arrest took place on February 18 at Aker’s home in Houston. “They grabbed me, they threw me down,” Aker told the NY Daily News. “Local PD is just standing there.”

Aker was arrested and taken to a federal court in downtown Houston where he said he was faced with a judge, a prosecutor, and a county clerk. Aker told Fox 26 that the prosecutor ended up being a debt collection lawyer.

Aker said he received a “lecture” from the judge about “stealing from the U.S. government.” When Aker asked why the Marshals came in combat gear with weapons drawn, he said he was told it was because he owns firearms.

“It was because they knew I was a registered gun owner. It’s out of control. Out of control. What if they had seen a gun on me? They would have shot me for $1,500 bucks.”

[RELATED: U.S. Students Participate in ‘Million Student March’ Over Debt, Free College]

The Daily News reported that Aker was ordered to pay $5,700 for the loan, including interest. He was also ordered to pay nearly $1,300 to cover the cost of his own arrest. Aker has until March 1, he said, or he would be arrested again.

Isiah Carey of Fox 26 also stated that the U.S. Marshals are planning to serve up to 1,500 warrants to Houstonians who have not repaid their loans.

Aker’s arrest became a viral story on Tuesday afternoon and left many people wondering why the federal government was using armed raids to collect on student debt. Although Aker told the NY Daily News and Fox 26 that he was not contacted once in 29 years about the loan, Yahoo Finance has discovered some discrepancies in his story. 

According to documents obtained by Yahoo, Aker was sued in November 2007 by the federal government for failing to pay more than $2,600 in unpaid federal student loan debt. Records from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas show that Aker, listed as Winford P. Aker in the complaint, failed to appear in court, leading the judge to rule against him and order him to pay the entire balance by April 17, 2007.

Yahoo reported that a statement from the U.S. Marshals Service claims that Aker repeatedly refused to show up in court after being contacted several times. Aker reportedly told the Marshals he would not appear in court. A few months later, a judge issued a warrant for his arrest and the U.S. Marshals carried it out.

Yahoo wrote, “So, yes, Aker was arrested, but not just because he owed a little student loan debt. He was arrested for disobeying a court order.”

If the Marshals did attempt to contact Aker, they may have been unable to do so because the court record shows a different address than the listing for a “Winford P. Aker” that Yahoo Finance found in the Houston area. The U.S. Marshals Service told Yahoo they made every effort to track him down, “including searching at numerous known addresses.”

Ultimately, the arrest was not made specifically for the failure to pay the student loan but for the failure to appear in court. Still, it seems troubling that a $1,500 debt could lead to an armed raid on one’s home. It’s highly troubling that the U.S. Marshals chose to come with guns simply because Aker was a registered gun owner.

What are your thoughts? At what point does a debt warrant an arrest? Is owning a firearm reason enough to bring armed federal agents to collect a debt?

Federal Judge Lifts 11-Year Surveillance Gag Order on Internet Service Provider

In 2004, Nicholas Merrill, founder of internet service provider (ISP) Calyx Institute, was served a controversial national security letter (NSL) from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Eleven years later, the NSL’s gag order- which prevented Merrill from discussing the letter he’d received- has been lifted by a federal judge in a historic decision which “marked the first time such a gag order has been fully lifted since the USA Patriot Act in 2001 expanded the FBI’s authority to unilaterally demand that certain businesses turn over records simply by writing a letter saying the information is needed for national security purposes,” according to the Intercept.

NSLs are a tool used by the government to force telecommunication companies to give customer information without the use of a warrant from a judge. While NSLs have been in use since at least the late 1970s, their use has exploded since the 9/11 attacks.

NSLs are generally issued by the FBI to gather information from companies when related to national security investigations. This information can include customer names, addresses, phone and internet records, and banking and credit statements.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, at least 300,000 NSLs have been delivered over the last decade. The year 2004 saw over 56,000 NSLs issued. For comparison, in 2000 before the passage of the Patriot Act which relaxed standards to issue NSLs, there were about 8,500 NSLs sent.

The most contentious part of NSLs is the usage of gag orders. When a credit reporting agency, telecom company, bank or travel firm receive the letters requesting customer information, they are legally gagged and are prohibited from alerting anyone about the incident- not the customer, and not their families. The individual may seek help from a lawyer, but the lawyer then also becomes gagged.

Another alarming feature of NSLs are the fact that a judge is not needed to approve the letter or gag order.

[RELATED: Federal Appeals Court Begins Hearing Arguments on Government Surveillance Gag Order]

Image Credit: Leaksource.info
Image Credit: Leaksource.info

Eventually the FBI would withdraw the NSL because Merrill refused to comply, but Merrill continued to fight, partnering with the American Civil Liberties Union to launch a lawsuit against the FBI in the case Doe v. Ashcroft. In 2010 Merrill was finally able to disclose his identity but the fight against the gag order continued.

On August 28, U.S. District Court Judge Victor Marrero ruled that there was no “good reason” to force Merrill to remain silent about the NSL. After eleven years, the gag order has been lifted and Merrill is almost free to speak about the experience. He remains under gag order for 90 more days as the Justice Department weighs an appeal.

The Intercept reported: 

“‘If Merrill were only allowed to disclose details about the request ‘in a world in which no threat of terrorism exists,’ or in the case that the FBI disclosed the records itself — two extremely unlikely possibilities — it would effectively prevent ‘accountability of the government to the people,’ the judge wrote.”

Judge Marrero also stated that the FBI’s position was “extreme and overly broad,” and reminded the government that “Courts cannot, consistent with the First Amendment, simply accept the Government’s assertions that disclosure would implicate and create a risk.”

In a press release from the Calyx Institute, Merrill writes, “Judge Marrero’s decision vindicates the public’s right to know how the FBI uses warrantless surveillance to peer into our digital lives. I hope today’s victory will finally allow Americans to engage in an informed debate about proper the scope of the government’s warrantless surveillance powers.”

Jonathan Manes, supervising attorney in the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic, commented on the ruling, stating, “Today’s decision will finally allow Mr. Merrill to shed light on the scope of the FBI’s claimed authority under the NSL statute, and to explain how the FBI’s interpretation is deeply problematic and potentially unlawful.”

Truth In Media has previously written about other efforts to reign in the use of National Security Letters. In October 2014, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) asked an appeals court to uphold a ruling that found the NSL provision of the Patriot Act to be unconstitutional.

In 2013, the unnamed company took their NSL to court to debate its constitutionality. U.S. District Judge Susan Illston in San Francisco ruled that the NSLs violated the First Amendment by removing the recipient’s ability to speak about the letter. The EFF and the company itself face federal prison time if they choose to reveal the names of the defendants.

What are your thoughts on National Security Letters? Do you believe this ruling will slow down the surveillance state? Leave your comments below.

Government Issues “Sovereign Citizens” Warning to HUD Employees

On Tuesday, the Department of House and Urban Development issued a warning to its employees and contractors concerning scams and confrontations with anti-government “sovereign citizens” who are reportedly illegally occupying federal housing.

The District Sentinel wrote:

“The alert, which came from HUD’s Office of Inspector General, alleged that sovereign citizens are increasingly taking advantage of state laws that aim to redistribute department-owned properties.

“The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and HUD OIG have noticed a resurgence of sovereign citizen fraud in HUD programs,” the IG said, stating that over the last four years, HUD has tallied 20 prosecutions and convictions related to sovereign citizens scams, recovering more than $17 million.”

Essentially, the report claims that “sovereign citizens” are illegally deeding themselves HUD real estate, installing alarms, and locking out the authorities. The report goes on to state that individuals might be involved in subsidized Section 8 housing programs and foreclosure rescue schemes.

The report states that “unlike other ‘squatters,’ sovereign citizens may retaliate if you confront them.” The report also warns employees that engaging in verbal arguments “could spiral into a violent confrontation.”

One issue with these types of reports is that this “movement” of so-called “Sovereign Citizens” is not a movement at all, but rather a loose group of individuals who have similar but often conflicting beliefs.

The bulletin gives this description of “Sovereign Citizens”:

[quote_box_center]”Sovereign citizen groups are loose associations of antigovernment extremists who do not recognize the Federal Government. They believe they are separate or sovereign from the United States and are exempt from Federal, State, and local laws and tax systems. They believe the county sheriff is the supreme law enforcement officer in the land and county clerks or registrars are the only legitimate elected officials. They subscribe to a belief in “common law” and their right to arrest or sue employees of the “illegitimate government.” They are known for filing nuisance lawsuits or liens against individuals who try to stop their schemes, which have involved in lender, credit card, tax, and loan frauds. They make their own driver’s licenses and license plates and sometimes attempt to form their own parallel institutions of government. Sovereign citizen encounters with law enforcement and government personnel frequently become confrontational and sometimes turn violent.”[/quote_box_center]

The FBI’s bulletin, “Sovereign Citizens: An Introduction for Law Enforcement”, elaborates upon the description:

“Sovereign citizens believe the USG (U.S. government) is illegitimate and has drifted away from the true intent of the Constitution. As a result, the USG is not perceived to be acting in the interest of the American people. These groups generally do not adhere to federal, state, or local laws.

They believe the US Federal Reverse System, the Treasury Department, and banking systems are illegitimate.”

According to the bulletin, many users of this website might be considered a “sovereign citizen” for believing that the Federal Reserve is illegitimate or for refusing to support the federal government. However, the FBI bulletin does note “these activities may also be indicative of lawful, innocent conduct”, including rights protected by  the United States Constitution,  and thus “these indicators should be considered in the context of other suspicious behavior and the totality of the circumstances in which they are observed or reported.”

Still, even with that caveat there is a dangerous trend for the U.S. government to demonize legal behavior while tying it to extremist viewpoints, such as those who identify as “sovereigns” or “Freemen” and choose to commit violence. Of course, this comparison completely ignores the millions of liberty lovers who believe similar ideas, yet never speak of violence.

The HUD bulletin goes on to offer indicators of a possible “sovereign citizen”. These include:

  • names spelled in all capital letters
  • Personal seals, stamps, or thumb prints in red ink
  • references to the Bible, and the Constitution of the United States

Also, included in the bulletin is an example of a fraudulent claim filed by a so-called “sovereign citizen” which highlights the use of silver dollars.

sov

Similar to the Missouri Information Analysis Center (MIAC) report and other  Department of Homeland Security documents, this latest bulletin may have many Americans asking why constitutionally protected behavior and thought is being targeted.

The report includes images of flags that are claimed to be associated with “sovereign citizens” including a “Title 4 Flag”, and the flag known as the “Gadsden flag” which is often associated with the American Revolution. However, this Gadsden flag has a ribbon above it that reads “The New Minute Men”.

NewMinutemen-m

A quick search for the Title 4 Flag does indeed lead to a website which professes the rhetoric discussed by the government, but there are no obvious calls for violence. A search for “the new minute men gadsden flag” leads to this website where a man claims ownership of the flag. He described the flag as one “that I created by combining the best attributes of the Culpeper and the Gadsden Flags.” The Culpeper Minutemen are well known for fighting in the American Revolution.

Once again, a search of the website does not reveal any calls for violence or even a mention of “sovereign citizens”. The site is apparently owned by a retired firefighter who will likely be surprised to find that his flag is included in a government warning about extremist violence.

UPDATE: TruthInMedia spoke with the creator of the “New Minute Men Gadsden” flag, Charles Manetta, a 62 year old retired firefighter and 9/11 first responder.

Manetta says, “This flag was made on my computer and was just to see if I could do it. It was creative art and nothing more. I am 100% behind our government and I love The United States. I would never take up arms against our Military or our Police. I love and have the utmost respect for all of them. In fact, three of my children are US Marines and have a few good friends that are Police Officers and they have all seen this image and see no threat from my creation.”

These type of reports are part of a dangerous trend where the U.S. government discourages, or even criminalizes legally protected behavior. While this new bulletin from the HUD may be of some value, it also creates a state of paranoia where police and government agents are constantly on the lookout for individuals who dare express their concerns with, or outright opposition to, government.

Justice Department Faces Lawsuit over DNA Collection Program

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is suing the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigations for failing to provide documents related to the Rapid DNA system. The FBI said they found no responsive records to Freedom of Information Act requests made by the EFF. 

Rapid DNA analyzers are machines designed to allow processing of a DNA sample in as little as 50 minutes. The machines are portable and roughly about the same size as a laser printer. This means that law enforcement using Rapid DNA can collect a DNA sample from a suspect, and match the profile against a database without the help of a scientist in an accredited lab. The EFF believes this will lead to further invasions of privacy.

According to the FBI’s fact sheet, the first The FBI Rapid DNA Program Office was established “in 2010 to direct the development and integration of Rapid DNA technology for use by law enforcement. The Program Office works with the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Institute of Justice, and other federal agencies.”

The EFF is concerned that Rapid DNA is simply another aspect of the growing use of biometrics. Biometrics is defined as the “measuring and analysis of such physical attributes as facial features and voice or retinal scans.”

“EFF has long been concerned about the privacy risks associated with collecting, testing, storing and sharing of genetic data. The use of Rapid DNA stands to vastly increase the collection of DNA, because it makes it much easier for the police to get it from anyone they want, whenever they want. The public has a right to know how this will be carried out and how the FBI will protect peoples’ privacy,” said Jennifer Lynch, EFF senior staff attorney.

The EFF first filed FOIA requests with the FBI in 2012. The group says the FBI has briefed Congress and discussed the plans for implementation of a nation-wide DNA collection system but refuses to disclose the details of these plans to the public.

 “Incredibly, the FBI told us it found no records responsive to our requests. Even though it has been funding and working with manufacturers to develop the technology, and has a whole webpage devoted to the subject, the FBI said it couldn’t local a single document about this major effort to use Rapid DNA,” said Lynch.

In March it was reported that the Tuscon PD in Arizona would begin using Rapid DNA, and the San Diego PD in California recently responded to the NY Times for a report on the departments use of the system. The Rapid DNA system recently made international news as police in the UK uploaded the first Rapid DNA results to the national DNA database.The EFF has also documented the use of Rapid DNA by immigration officials. In 2013 EFF wrote:

“From documents we received recently from US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and DHS’s Science & Technology division, we’ve learned that the two agencies are working with outside venders NetBio, Lockheed Martin and IntegenX and have “earmarked substantial funds” to develop a Rapid DNA analyzer that can verify familial relationships for refugee and asylum applications for as little as $100.”

Still, the FBI must wait until rules are put in place and Congress changes DNA laws before the full implementation of the system can begin.

“The FBI shouldn’t be allowed to hide its plans to develop a technology that could have a huge impact on genetic privacy,” Lynch said. “We are asking a court to order DOJ to turn over documents we requested so we and the communities where Rapid DNA is being deployed can review the program.”

FCC reclassifies the internet, approves net neutrality rules

The Federal Communications Commission has just approved their plan for net neutrality, which also reclassifies broadband Internet as a public utility.

Under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act, the reclassification of the internet as a public utility allows the FCC to place regulations on Internet service providers (ISPs) such as Comcast and Verizon. These regulations would mandate these service providers to transmit all Internet content at the same speed, regardless of what interests are involved, according to Newsweek.

According to engadget, the FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler, said, “It [the internet] is our printing press; it is our town square; it is our individual soap box and our shared platform for opportunity… That is why open internet policies matter. That is why I support network neutrality.”

Net neutrality, also known as open Internet, is an idea which says all Internet networks and content are equally available to all legal content generators, according to USA Today. Therefore, a practice called “paid prioritization” which results in ISPs showing preference towards companies who pay more for higher transmission speed of content, would be illegal.

The new reclassification also affects wireless data providers. The new plan places similar regulations on phone companies as those placed on other ISPs.

However, some people have spoken out against the new net neutrality plan.

Jim Cicconi, AT&T’s senior executive vice president-external and legislative affairs, said, “What doesn’t make sense, and has never made sense, is to take a regulatory framework developed for Ma Bell in the 1930s and make her great grandchildren, with technologies and options undreamed of eighty years ago, live under it.”

Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai said, according to FOX News, the plan represents a shift of power to allow the government to control the internet. Pai also warned the new plan would result in intended and unintended consequences, such as rate regulations. “The order explicitly opens the door to billions of dollars in new taxes… Read my lips: More new taxes are coming. It’s just a matter of when.”

The FCC has said the new regulations will be posted online soon and will be published in the Federal Register. The new regulations will also go into affect 60 days after their publication.

Lone shooter killed in Texas after firing on government buildings

A single gunman has been killed early Friday morning in Austin, Texas after he shot over 100 rounds at various government buildings and damaging the Mexican consulate.

The shooter was identified as 49-year-old Steven McQuilliams, who, according to USA Today, has a previous criminal record.  Currently, the police are investigating McQuilliams motives behind the shooting, but it is believed the shooting was politically motivated.  Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said, “If you look at the targets that were hit, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that that’s a potential.”

Assistant Chief Raul Munguia told NBC News they had received 911 calls around 2:30 a.m. and gunshots were reported throughout the downtown area for the next few minutes afterwards.

During that time frame, McQuilliams fired at the federal courthouse, the police headquarters, and at least one other building.

Jesse Van Wallene, 29, was working as a server at the time of the shooting and said, “He was firing in bursts of about five shots…He didn’t even seem to acknowledge we were there, he just seemed very focused on firing at the building, which had no lights on inside.”

McQuilliams made his way to a police station where one officer who was putting away police horses saw McQuillaims shooting.  The officer then opened fire on McQuilliams from horseback.  Shortly after the officer opened fire, the shooter was killed, but it is still unclear at this time whether the officer shot and killed McQuilliams or if he took his own life.

Once the shooter was down, officers began to investigate the shooter and his vehicle, which was nearby.  According to the Raw Story, officers saw what could have been improvised explosive devices in the vehicle as well as in the shooter’s jacket.

The bomb squad was called in to investigate the devices, but no IEDs were found at the scene.  However, there were a number of small green canisters commonly used for portable BBQ grills stashed in the vehicle.

These canisters were reportedly used by the shooter to try and light the Mexican consulate on fire, but the fires were put out before any significant damage occurred.

According to the LA Times, the FBI will be assisting the investigation into the shooter and his motives.  Spokeswoman for the San Antonio office of the FBI, Michelle Lee, said the FBI’s main concern though is why the shooter fired on the Mexican consulate and the federal courthouse.

No civilians or officers were injured during this shooting.

Black Box in Cars: More Spying Programs by Federal and State Governments

With car gas mileage improving and people driving less due to high gas prices, the government is looking for a new way to raise taxes for road maintenance.  Their solution involves tracking cars using a small “black box” and taxing their drivers per mile driven.  Some states, such as Oregon, have already been testing such a system for a number of years.

Black_box_2_car_IMG_0003Advocates say that a new method of generating government revenue for road maintenance is necessary.  They say it is unfair that people who drive higher gas mileage vehicles don’t have to pay as much tax money for road maintenance, simply because their cars are more fuel efficient.  The irony, of course, is that the government subsidizes “green energy” to try to prompt more people to use these sources of energy.  Hybrid cars have become increasingly popular in recent years, and now their drivers are having some benefits of their use stripped away.

People also say the black box could help the government to change traffic flow.  By taxing some streets more and some less, they could persuade people to choose some routes over others, rather than individuals simply choosing the faster or shorter route (which would also use less fuel).  Indeed many cars are already made with black boxes to help police determine exactly what happened in traffic accidents.  Some are trying to make this mandatory.

The most obvious problem with the plan is the inevitable violations of privacy which will result.  Government databases would store exactly where individual citizens went, their day-to-day routines, when they did anything, and how fast they were going at any given moment.  Such data could be used for anything, from studies to purchase by private companies to use by law enforcement.  Such widespread tracking would do to everyday life what the NSA has done to internet and phone communication.

Though hybrid cars and electric cars would be charged the same as “gas guzzlers,” many of the people who use the roads and currently pay no taxes would continue to avoid payment.  Nationwide, the government is putting hundreds of millions of dollars into building bike paths – at a cost of $5,000-$50,000/mile – but bicycles would not be taxed for this use.  Advocates claim that this would even out the cost per driver and is therefore more fair, people requiring some of the most expensive work would continue to avoid paying the tax.

Some states have proposed variations on the plan to address these concerns.  Some have said there would be no GPS device in the black boxes, though at that point there is no reason the odometer can’t simply be checked at required emissions tests.  Some have proposed simply taxing tires.  Some have allowed an “opt out” solution in which people who refused to use the black box would be charged for the average miles driven in their state.  Some say that a simple raise in the gas tax – an 18.5 cent per gallon tax which hasn’t been raised in 20 years – would be a better solution.

House Republicans stopped a $90 million federal test of the per mileage concept passed by the Senate in 2011.  It’s not surprising that the majority of people who support such a plan are urban “progressives.”  With cities being more dense than rural areas, people who live there have to drive fewer miles to get where they’re going, but they have a much lower MPG driving there.  Many use public transportation, which is already riddled with privacy violations such as surveillance cameras and trackable passes connected to credit card data.

Some libertarians seem to be in favor of the proposal, however. Adrian Moore of the Reason Foundation told the LA Times that it’s an acceptable action because “People are paying more directly into what they are getting.”

The Tea Party and ACLU, however aren’t as keen on the idea.  There are simply too many privacy violations involved, as well as this being yet another tax on American citizens who are already being crushed by new taxes, higher healthcare costs and a crippled economy.  Even when much of the 2009 stimulus went to infrastructure, much of that money was used on projects with no significant value.  There is no guarantee that higher taxes would lead to better roads.