Papers, Please! Buenos Aires Police Get Free Rein to Stop and Question

Everyone is a suspect in the Argentinean capital now. (<a href="" target="_blank">April Killingsworth</a>)
Everyone is a suspect in the Argentinean capital now. (April Killingsworth)

EspañolOn the afternoon of April 14, 2014, Lucas Abel Vera found himself roaming the Constitution metro station in Buenos Aires. At 3:20 p.m., police officers walked up to him and asked him to produce identification. Nervous, Vera told them he was armed — a loaded gun sat at his waist, and he didn’t have a permit. The police promptly arrested him.

During trial, Vera’s lawyer questioned the procedure. “It amounts to a violation of the freedom of transit,” he argued. The police can stop individuals for an interrogation “only when there is a suspicion, which was not the case.” While the appellate court first sided with the defense, the Buenos Aires Supreme Court reversed the ruling.

The justices decided that the officers had acted within the law. They resorted to a military-era decree that allowed the police to keep “a registry of the capital’s inhabitants … to the extent necessary for preserving their safety.” The obligation to produce the national identification card (DNI) was among the police officers’ “implicit faculties,” Justice Inés Weinberg reasoned.

Does Security Trump Privacy?

Disregarding constitutional guarantees, the ruling effectively does away with two basic individual rights: the right to privacy, and the freedom of movement. In other words, the court tramples on the presumption of innocence: the right to go about your business without having to provide an explanation to anyone, as long as you’re not violating the law.

Many might object that security is a paramount concern, and they would be right to be worried. Buenos Aires has the highest rate of theft in the Americas. Only those who have something to hide should worry, the argument goes, and law-abiding citizens shouldn’t have a problem with showing their ID.

But this reasoning is wrong. We all have something to hide, and not necessarily anything criminal.

What if someone made up an excuse for why he couldn’t show up to a tedious family gathering? A random arrest would foil his plan. Freedom of movement protects everyone, those who have something to hide, and those who do not. Edward Snowden, someone who knows a thing or two about privacy, put it best: “Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”

Of course, preventing crime is a fundamental task of the police. If someone tipped them off about a murder-for-hire plot, and they suspect a certain individual may be involved, waiting for the crime to occur would be absurd. Security is what police are there to ensure, after all.

However, this ruling grants the police far more leeway than they need. Justice Ana María Conde wrote that “random identification checks in public spaces … are not a violation of any constitutional guarantee per se.”

It essentially subverts the criteria adopted by other courts. Standards such as “strong signs of culpability,” a “state of suspicion,” and “flagrancy” will no longer be needed. From now on, the police can demand that anyone — “at random” — show their papers. The court has replaced the presumption of innocence with the presumption of suspicion: we are all suspects until proven otherwise.

If someone cannot prove his identity card, because he left home without his ID or whatever other reason, he will be in serious trouble. Buenos Aires police can detain a person who doesn’t have his ID card, or refuses to show it, for up to 10 hours, in order to conduct a “background check.” Without any reasonable cause, the police will arrest him — kidnap him, really — for disobeying an unconstitutional mandate.

Consider Yourself Lucky

The ruling replaces the aforementioned criteria to reasonably stop someone with random chance. In practice, this will lead to all sorts of abuse.

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“Random checks” for the police are never really that random: they are based on arbitrary measures, such as skin color, clothing, age, or place of residence. If we had problems with officers unfairly targeting people before, now it will be commonplace.

For Buenos Aires residents who usually don’t get stopped by the police, this probably won’t change much, but it will be an intimidating environment for all those who fall under the police’s arbitrary radar. Someone who has never committed a crime in his life may now potentially have to show his ID to police several times a week, restricting his freedom.

With this decision, the Buenos Aires Supreme Court has stripped away the privacy rights and freedom of movement of an entire city. The police are the ones who have all the rights, and we’re left relying on mere privileges, and a little luck. We’re all suspects now.

Translated by Daniel Duarte.

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