Critics Call Snooper Program 'Silly'

By MIKE SCHNEIDER | Associated Press Writer
Posted Fri, Jul. 09, 2004

ORLANDO - Civil rights groups voiced concerns Thursday about a law enforcement plan to teach firefighters, utility workers and others who regularly go into homes to report terrorist activity, drug trafficking or other suspicious acts.

Leaders of the American Civil Liberties Union and a defense lawyers association said a plan proposed by a local domestic security task force could invade privacy and add to a culture of suspicion and paranoia created after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"We think it is misguided," said Scott Rost of the ACLU's Orlando office. "We think it's an attempt to turn neighbor against neighbor, intrude on privacy and encourage racial profiling with little reason to believe it will make us safer."

A brochure for the Citizen Awareness Program warns that a potential sign of international terrorism could be "multiple adult males living together, usually of Middle Eastern appearance and between the ages of 18 and 45, with little or no furnishings."

That warning has members of Orlando's Arab-American community worried.

"Clearly, this is going to disproportionately impact Arab Americans and those of the Muslim faith," said defense attorney Mark NeJame, a leader of the Arab American Community Center in Orlando. "To think that a terrorist is going to invite people to snoop around is ludicrous at best. It's not only silly, but silly and scary at the same time."

Orange County sheriff's Capt. Mark Pilkington said the program was no more than an education program to train workers who regularly go into people's homes on what terrorist, drug or sexual-predatory activities look like. The sheriff's office would like Orange County's firefighters to be the first trained, followed by utility workers.

"We're not asking anybody to do more than their job," Pilkington said. "We don't want them to exceed their purpose for being there. We're not asking them to look anywhere they shouldn't. Just contact law enforcement."

The brochure reprints the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, and warns participants that they are not law enforcement officers and shouldn't enter unauthorized areas or remove anything for evidence.

The intent of the program was to "rekindle good, old American citizenship," said Orange-Osceola State Attorney Lawson Lamar, who dismissed the Arab-American concerns as political correctness.

"The people who committed the mass murders in America on 9/11 were not retired Lutheran ladies," he said.

The program resembles a federal program, TIPS, that was proposed by the U.S. Justice Department two years ago but then severely scaled back after it faced similar criticisms.

Signs of narcotics use, according to the sheriff's office brochure, include "unusual power bills, high or large spikes in usage" as well as "unusual odors or chemicals present."

Indicators of sexual predators of children include "large collection of untitled video tapes or tapes with sexually explicit titles," sexually explicit literature or "tape, rope, handcuffs, or wire, usually kept in a garage that may be hidden in a closet," the brochure warns.

The program could have meter readers acting like "junior G-men," said Thomas Kurrus, president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys.

"Any homeowner ought to be concerned about it," he said.