An Open Letter to My Westminster Neighbors

Update: The police have made an arrest in the Jessica Ridgeway murder. Remember that due process matters, the evidence matters, and suspects are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Yet, the possibility that this may be the guy, and that the perpetrator might now be off the streets, is a huge relief. Thank you, law enforcement, for your diligence.

Dear Westminter Neighbors,

The murder of Jessica Ridgeway has horrified the residents of the city.

Although we read about horrific crimes daily in the paper, this crime struck close to home. I have taken my nephews to play at Witt Elementary, the very school that Jessica attended. My wife and I vote at that school. My wife has walked alone on the very trails where a man tried to abduct a woman earlier in the year—the same man police suspect is responsible for Jessica’s murder.

We all want the perpetrator caught.

But not all means are justified toward that end.

When a neighbor told me that police asked to search her house, without cause, merely as part of a fishing expedition, I was surprised. I was proud of her for respectfully declining.

When I saw a claim on Facebook that police were swabbing people for DNA, I was shocked. And yet, “Investigators have gathered DNA samples from about 500 people as they search for Jessica Ridgeway’s killer, 9Wants to Know has confirmed.”

I hate to state the obvious here, but if the police have 500 “suspects,” that means the police have no suspects.

Although it is a reasonable guess that the perpetrator of this heinous crime is still in the area, apparently the police have no idea where the perpetrator lives, whether he ever resided in the area, or whether he is still in the area.

Now, I suspect that the real value to the police in asking for DNA samples is simply in observing how people respond to the request. (I don’t know whether the police actually have DNA from the perpetrator collected from the crime scene; I hope so.) Honestly, I have a hard time thinking badly of police officers who resort to this tactic; the desperation to arrest the perpetrator is palpable.

However, I do urge my neighbors—including members of the Westminster Police Department—to remember their Fourth Amendment rights and responsibilities. This is an excellent time to review the language of that important amendment:

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 no Warrants shall issue, 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.

If the police ask to swab your cheek for a DNA sample, or to search your house without cause, the only appropriate answer by any self-respecting citizen is “no.”

We are citizens of a free republic, not subjects of a police state.

If the price of capturing a heinous murderer is to surrender our basic rights, then the price is too high.

However, as a practical matter, generally the police do far better to conduct a real criminal investigation rather than to go on fishing expeditions. Seriously, how many hours have the police wasted swabbing and testing (if the testing is even done, which I doubt) essentially random men in the area? Police officers could have spent that same time employing other, and likely more effective, means of investigation.

I am fully aware of the danger posed to the community by a callous and cowardly murderer—a man who brutalizes innocent and defenseless children—who may still be in the area. However, a far greater threat to our lives and safety would be the creation of a police state. America’s Founders hardly were ignorant of the evils of which men are capable. And yet they learned, by the examples of history as well as by their own hard experiences, that the police powers must be restricted. The Fourth Amendment is not some utopian scheme that prevents the police from doing their jobs; it is a needful recognition of our basic rights and of appropriate limits of police power.

In a previous article I used the term “civilian” to distinguish those who are not police. Someone appropriately corrected me. The police too are “civilians.” They are civil servants. Properly their job is to protect people’s rights, to act as peace officers. For the most part, based on what I’ve read in the media, I’ve been impressed by the way the police have approached this difficult and painful case. These police officers are our neighbors, too. We respect the rights-protecting work you do. I ask the police, as their neighbor and fellow citizen, that you stay focused on your mission of protecting individual rights, and not lose sight of the letter or the sprit of the Fourth Amendment.

If by some chance the perpetrator of this heinous crime reads this post, I say to you this: We are not your neighbor, we are your sworn enemy. We are watching, and we will do what we can to bring you down. Now, I cannot speak for the prosecutor, but I suspect that, if you voluntarily turn yourself in and throw yourself on the mercy of the court, you will have a better chance of avoiding the death penalty, as richly as you deserve it.

I do hope my neighbors remember that nearly everyone around us is a good, hard-working, family-loving person. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the horror of a crime such as this one. But the goodness of humanity is revealed all around us, every day. Let’s remember that.

Sincerely,

Ari Armstrong

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