Meanwhile, questions that don't normally arise in connection with a court-approved search are swirling about this case, mostly because it involves someone named Morial.
The Morial family -- actually, it was the Morial women, for Jacques and former mayor Marc have been conspicuously silent (and absent) during all this -- objected to the heavy-handed tactics used by federal agents who arrived at Jacques' residence at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 14. The agents announced their presence with bullhorns and told Morial to let them in. One minute and 10 seconds later, they forcibly entered his home by battering down his front door. Agents brandished weapons and wore protective vests.
Not quite the Valentine's Day card Morial expected, to be sure -- but as federal searches go, it was pretty standard stuff.
To obtain a search warrant, agents must convince a federal judge that it is "more probable than not" that evidence of a crime will be recovered during the search. The agents thus expected to recover evidence of criminal wrongdoing at Jacques Morial's house, and they submitted sealed affidavits to support their claim.
Feds serve search warrants all the time, and sometimes it can get dangerous. Thus, it's standard procedure to carry weapons, wear protective vests, and break a door down if the occupant doesn't open it within a "reasonable" amount of time.
Ah, there's the rub: what constitutes reasonableness at 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday during Carnival season -- in the French Quarter, no less? Is 70 seconds enough time to get out of bed, get dressed, and run down the stairs to let the federal government into your abode?
It wouldn't be at my house.
The courts have ruled that a mere 20 seconds is enough time to wait -- in a drug case. By all accounts, this is an IRS and white-collar corruption case. Did the agents expect Jacques Morial to erase his hard drives, flush compact disks down the toilet, or shred documents while they tarried outside?
Unfortunately for Jacques, the courts don't take individuals' rights and expectations into much account in such cases. Remember, the warrant was obtained based on affidavits that Morial's residence contained evidence of criminal activity. Time will tell if the feds were reasonable, or correct, in making their case for the search, but the legal threshold that the feds had to satisfy to get the warrant in the first place (i.e., "more probable than not") is not very high. Moreover, once that threshold is crossed, the scales tilt against a citizen who's being searched. That gives agents broad discretion with regard to the tactics they may employ. Ergo, a battering ram, flak jackets and weapons drawn.
The questions and alarm among Morial supporters is understandable, but such tactics, quite frankly, are not unusual in the least. So, while the Morial women rail against Big Brother, the investigation into Les Freres Morial continues.
Morial opponents, meanwhile, are gleefully cheering the feds on. Anyone who opposed the Morial political machine, either at the polls or in competition for public contracts, can tell a story or two about heavy-handed tactics. That, in fact, is part of what the wide-ranging investigation of Marc Morial's administration is supposedly all about.
They say that turnabout is fair play. Not everyone would agree that that's a good idea when individual liberties are at stake, but for now, if you hear federal agents knocking at your door, you best throw down a key. And be quick about it.