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This episode of Law And Order was inspired by the shooting of New York
City Councilman Jerome Davis in City Hall during the last decade.
However the plot of this story has a collateral victim only wounded by
the assassin who is the real target and the poor councilman just was in
the wrong place at the wrong time.
Paul Austin plays a city water inspector who was the unfortunate victim and New York sends bills to all business and property owners and asks them to cough up money for their water like any other municipality. But with eight million customers and only four inspectors they get backlogged.
When an overestimated water bill sends some poor electronics store owner over the edge I could almost sympathize. I have my gas meter in my place inside and I live in an area where heaven forfend it be on the outside where the gas inspectors can read it. And it would cost my landlord to have the company reinstall it on the outside. As a result I get royally inflated gas bills every now and then when inspectors can't get in to read. It burns me up, but nothing like what is going on in this episode.
A key piece of evidence was also seized by the Feds because they're conducting their own investigation. Because this store shipped video games to Algeria with technology that could be used for missile guidance systems they got on the Federal radar. And with a warrant from a secret court they were on the perpetrator's property and taking evidence for their case two days before Jerry Orbach and Jesse Martin got there.
There is such a court it's called a FISA Court the Federal Information Securities Act court and secret warrants are obtained in this secret court. That impassioned defender of the Bill Of Rights, Danielle Melnick played by Tovah Feldshuh is rightly upset. But is it relevant to the business at end of her client shooting a City Councilman even by accident?
Nicely done episode of Law And Order, both entertaining and covering a wide range of issues.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The episode is particularly provocative, not just because of its story
but because of what followed in the real world after its airing. It was
shown in 2004, in the midst of America's reaction to the lunatic
attacks on 9/11 by terrorists that killed some 3,000 innocent people in
As part of our enhanced vigilance, the Patriot Act was passed. It established the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which created a court that could grant search warrants and perform other judicial duties in secret. They were not required to reveal the agency requesting the warrants nor the reason for issuing them nor the targets. The FISA court was very cooperative with all the federal agencies investigating possible terrorists. Out of all the requests for warrants they denied only five.
In this story, a shooting takes place in city hall. Briscoe and Green ultimately identify the culprit but when they search his apartment they discover it has already been searched and objects of importance, including the murder weapon, have been removed by unidentified investigators. This makes for extreme difficulty in convicting the murderer. McCoy needs that gun but has nothing but difficulty prying it out of the hands of the FBI, who were acting under a FISA warrant.
McCoy and the DA are in conflict with the FBI over the obtained evidence, but that's not the real subject. The intent of the story is clearly to introduce the viewer to the FISA court and its secret activities that are independent of other law-enforcement agencies. FISA warrants are not made public -- so who conducted the initial search, and why? And the episode asks, implicitly, is a secret warrant by a secret court for a secret search by an unidentified agency of the apartment of a US citizen -- in his absence -- going a little too far? There's no insoluble problem, of course. The murder weapon is finally retrieved from the FBI and the killer is duly convicted. This is commercial television, after all.
What's most interesting about the story is that the problems it describes were compounded a few years later -- were being compounded at the time, as a matter of fact -- when the FBI and CIA and other federal agencies began to ignore the requirement for FISA warrants entirely and simply conduct their searches of whoever they wanted, without any oversight by any judicial body, just by claiming the subject might be a terrorist or have ties to some terrorist-linked organization, whatever that means.
Here's what the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution has to say about the issue: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and Warrants shall not be issued, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." It's a vague attempt to balance the person's right to privacy against the public's need to know about what he's been up to. Advocates of small and unobtrusive government ought, logically, to be on the side of privacy but in fact don't appear to be.
There was a transient public clamor when these activities were rooted out by journalists. But that was five years ago and memories fade. The problem, however, may or may not have faded. The FISA court still exists but, covert as its operations are, it's unclear whether anyone is still bothering to ask them for search warrants.
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