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web posted January 21, 2002

Association: National drivers license standards needed

The association representing state drivers licensing boards announced January 14 it wants to codify the states' driver identification systems in order to increase domestic security, a move that civil liberties advocates are already criticizing as nothing but a national identification card proposal in disguise.

The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators' task force on ID security said a national plan would, above all, get rid of state-by-state inconsistencies in licenses and allow federal, state and local law enforcement to share cardholders' information.

"The terrorist attack of Sept. 11 brought to light the fact that we in the motor vehicle and law enforcement community have known for some time that the state-issued driver's license is more than a license to drive," said Linda Lewis, CEO and president of AAMVA.

"It is the most widely used domestic document to prove a person's identification."

That is why her group is asking Congress for $100 million to create a system that would allow state departments of transportation to institute standardized licensing procedures, improve their authentication of drivers — possibly with fingerprints or other "biometric" features — and allow massive cross-referencing of information between local, state and federal agencies.

The report released by the group also recommends closer scrutiny of applications from foreign visitors who may be applying for a driver's license with an expired visa.

According to law enforcement experts, there are at least 240 different valid license formats issued by the states today.

Civil liberties advocates acknowledge that the system needs fixing, but says not at the expense of law-abiding citizens' constitutional rights.

"This backdoor national ID would require a massive national database of highly sensitive information available to every [Department of Motor Vehicles] in the country," said Katie Corrigan, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. "This would be ineffective in the fight against terrorism and represent a dangerous threat to our freedoms."

Bob Levy, an analyst with the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., said it isn't hard to imagine the slippery slope. Just look at individual Social Security numbers, he said. Right now they're demanded for much greater uses — like credit card applications and health insurance policies — than for what they were originally designed.

A national license secured by a finger print, "would be maintained by the government and therefore would give to government all sorts of information about your personal, private characteristics — medical, financial, criminal — you name it," he said.

Accor7ding to AAMVA, the recommendation is a vast improvement on the present system. Currently, each state has a different standard for residency and how licenses are secured. A national license would prevent a person from obtaining several licenses in different states without the driver's previous information being carried over with it. AAMVA's report also says better communication between the agencies will enable law enforcement to catch those people who may be defrauding the system.

After Sept. 11, they may have the backing they need to get such a system. According to a November poll conducted by Harvard University and National Public Radio, 59 percent of respondents said they would approve of national ID cards. No less than 55 percent said the card should include religion, fingerprints, DNA details, and Social Security number along with a photograph.

But Levy said polls aren't accurate or lasting measures.

"I think it's a commentary on how smart the framers were. They didn't create a country run by polls. There are certain rights, like privacy, that 51 percent of the people can't take away just because public opinion has shifted in the heat of the moment."

Democrats lose advantage with voters in latest poll

Democrats have lost their early advantage with voters as the war on terrorism and its leadership by President Bush have overshadowed the economy and other domestic issues, a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll shows.

More Americans, 61%, have a favorable view of the Republican Party; 55% have a favorable view of the Democratic Party. That erases a 9-point Democrat edge just before the Sept. 11 attacks.

And if the fall congressional elections were held today, 46% say they would vote for the Republican candidate in their district, 43% for the Democrat. That's counter to history. The party not in power in the White House usually gains congressional seats in off-year elections.

But there is a bigger gap on issues.

When the poll asked which party would do a better job on specific issues, Republicans had huge leads on defense (65%-24%), combating terrorism (61%-23%) and foreign affairs (56%-30%)

The GOP had smaller advantages on taxes (52%-40%), the economy (47%-41%) and the federal budget deficit (47%-41%).

Democrats were preferred on health — prescription drug help for seniors (56%-32%), Social Security and Medicare (53%-36%) and a patients' bill of rights (54%-32%).

Meanwhile, the collapse of energy giant Enron has not hurt Bush's standing, so far his job approval is 83%, down just 1 point from 84% a week before, before news that the company had contacted several White House officials as it neared bankruptcy.

The public is judging Enron officials more harshly than the Bush administration:

10% said the administration did something illegal, and 36% said it did something unethical but not illegal.

But 42% said Enron officials did something illegal, and 29% said they did something unethical but not illegal.

Even with the GOP on the defensive on Enron, the poll finds the nation split on whether the country would be better off with Republicans or Democrats controlling Congress — 44% for the GOP, 43% for the Democrats.

If the numbers hold, Democrats could face an uphill fight in taking back control of the House of Representatives, where they need to gain six GOP seats, and maintaining or adding to their one-seat edge in the Senate.

Democrats dismiss their slip as the public's temporary preoccupation with the war and terrorism. They say that will fade as issues in which Democrats enjoy more public confidence re-emerge.

"Republicans want to make the 2002 elections all about war and national security when it's really going to be about economic security, health security, prescription drugs for seniors and other kitchen table issues people care about," Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe says.

For now, terrorism still sits atop the public priority list, a major GOP advantage. But education, the economy and Social Security and Medicare are not far behind, suggesting that Democrats still have strengths.

"If the economy does not turn around by midyear, it's potentially a winning issue for the Democrats," says University of North Carolina political scientist Thad Beyle.

For now, the public is optimistic on the economy: 78% expect it to be better a year from now. And 54% say Bush is doing enough to combat the recession.

Republicans admit that they've been boosted politically by Bush's strong reaction to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the military success in Afghanistan, and concede that their fortunes are tied to his.

"As long as the president stays bipartisan on most positions and looks like he's doing what's best for the country, it will be beneficial to Republican candidates," says Republican National Committee pollster Matthew Dowd.

Other poll findings:

Most want Bush to have more influence over the direction of the country this year than Democrats in Congress, 59%-36%.

Bush's approach to budget and taxes is preferred over the Democrats, 50%-38%.

The Jan. 11-14 poll of 1,008 adults has an error margin of +/- 3 percentage points; 5 points on some split-sample questions.

Court defends police searches

The Supreme Court reaffirmed January 15 that police have broad leeway in deciding when to pull over vehicles and that they may rely on innocent-looking actions as grounds for their suspicions.

Even slowing down at the sight of a parked squad car or driving a minivan can be factors in some cases that weigh in favor of stopping a motorist, the justices said.

The unanimous ruling revived marijuana-smuggling charges against an Arizona man whose slow-moving minivan was stopped by a Border Patrol agent near the Mexican border.

More significantly, the Supreme Court used the case to reiterate that there is no "neat set of legal rules" to say when officers have the required "reasonable suspicion" to stop a motorist.

It is more than "a mere hunch," but well less than actual evidence of wrongdoing, said Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Officers can rely on a "common-sense inference" from what they observe to decide when a vehicle should be pulled over. And judges should not casually second-guess these decisions, Rehnquist added.

It marked another Rehnquist reversal of an opinion written by Judge Stephen Reinhardt of Los Angeles, one of the liberal leaders of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

Rehnquist and Reinhardt differ on their interpretations of the Fourth Amendment, which forbids "unreasonable searches and seizures" by the government.

Rehnquist has insisted that judges should not tie the hands of police officers. Reinhardt has argued that judges should protect the privacy of pedestrians and motorists by limiting the police from conducting searches without warrants.

They clashed over a case that began on a January afternoon in 1998 in southern Arizona. Agent Clinton Stoddard noticed a minivan traveling on a dirt road north of Douglas, Ariz. Smugglers frequently take these back roads to avoid checkpoints on the highways.

When the minivan approached him, it slowed sharply and the driver sat rigid, avoiding eye contact. In the back seat were children whose knees were visible, as if they were resting on something large.

When the minivan suddenly turned onto another remote road, the last turn before a checkpoint, the agent decided to stop the vehicle. After questioning the driver, Ralph Arvizu, the agent learned that he lived in a neighborhood known for smuggling and drug-dealing. He then searched the minivan and found a duffel bag with 128 pounds of marijuana.

When Arvizu appealed his case, the appellate court ruled that it was an "illegal stop" because the agent had relied on too many innocent actions as grounds for stopping the motorist.

Civil libertarians have faulted the high court for giving police unchecked authority to stop vehicles. This can lead to "racial profiling" against minority motorists, and it can result in annoying and unwarranted stops, they say. One brief filed with the court noted that a study by the American Civil Liberties Union had found that of 34,000 highway stops by the California Highway Patrol in 1997, only 2 percent resulted in arrests.

But the Supreme Court took up the government's appeal in U.S. vs. Arvizu and reversed the 9th Circuit.

The chief justice said searches should be judged by "the totality of the circumstances," and here, a variety of factors tip the balance in favor of stopping Arvizu. He was driving along a dirt road on a route used by smugglers and taking actions that seemed intended to avoid the police.

"Undoubtedly, each of these factors alone is susceptible to innocent explanation," Rehnquist said. "Taken together, we believe they sufficed to form a particularized and objective basis for Stoddard's stopping the vehicle."

Jesse Jackson sued over alleged scuffle

Rev. Jesse Jackson was sued by a man who claims he was roughed up by the civil-rights activist and members of his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.

The suit filed in Superior Court on January 16 also names Jackson's son Jonathan along with Gregory Mathis, star of the television show Judge Mathis.

The suit, which alleges assault and civil-rights violations, seeks at least $25,000.

"The charges are absolutely untrue and our lawyers will be responding in an appropriate way," said Tracy K. Rice, chief of the Los Angeles bureau of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.

The suit says Jesse Lee Peterson was assaulted at a December 10 coalition meeting in Los Angeles, where he raised concerns about a deal Jackson had reached with Toyota Motor Sales USA.

The auto company has agreed to spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year to train and hire more minorities, buy from minority companies and work with minority advertisers.

Peterson's suit contends that after he questioned whether any of the money would go to conservative minorities, Jackson's son and other coalition members surrounded him and pushed him toward the exit.

Jackson "did nothing to restrain, but actively incited, participated in, egged on, approved and ratified the mob pursuit," the lawsuit alleges.

La Verkin repeals anti-U.N. ordinance

America's first "United Nations free zone" is no more. On January 16, new members of the La Verkin City Council helped deliver the coup de grace to the dubious law that brought international attention and a dose of embarrassment to the town located in the shadow of Zion National Park.
The council voted 4-1 to repeal the six-month-old ordinance, which essentially banned the humanitarian organization from conducting work within city limits and made class C misdemeanors of flying a U.N. flag from City Hall and quartering U.N. troops.

The law, prompted by several council members and residents opposed to American involvement in the organization, was passed 3-2 during a special Fourth of July meeting. But Councilman Al Snow, who voted against the repeal, pledged to bring the issue back with a referendum during the next election.

"It will be up for a vote again; I will not allow this to go," he said to an applauding audience. "You're going to have to kill me to stop me."

After repealing the ordinance, the council passed a nonbinding resolution that called for La Verkin to stay true to the ideals of the founding documents of the United States and to oppose any foreign entity usurping American rights. Snow voted against the resolution as well.

A motion by Snow to table the repeal of the ordinance until a public hearing could be held failed 3-2 earlier in the meeting.

La Verkin tweaked its original U.N. ordinance after Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and the American Civil Liberties Union complained that the law was unconstitutional. The council cut parts of the law, including a requirement that residents post signs if they worked for the United Nations and a prohibition against flying a U.N. flag within city limits. Those parts were cut in the watered-down revision.

Councilman Gary McKell, who voted against both the original and revised ordinances, said there is no need for a referendum on the issue because residents already voiced their decision by voting in anti-ordinance council members during the most recent election.

"It looks to me like the people have already spoken," said McKell, who asked Snow to let the issue die.

McKell said before the meeting that the United Nations is not a municipal issue. "We should not be spending our time solving the world's problems," he said.

Bingham, N.M., the United States' second, and now only, U.N. free zone, has no plans to reverse its decision to ban the organization.

The unincorporated community of 10 people adopted the law through a referendum.

"We're going to maintain [the law]," said township Mayor Clay Douglas.

Scientists: Ice sheet growing

It may be dropping huge chunks of iceberg that drift hundreds of miles while they slowly melt, but the West Antarctic Ice Sheet just may have stopped melting, scientists reported on Thursday.

Their study, published in the January 18 issue of the journal Science, is sure to provoke controversy and will have to be confirmed by other experts.

But the team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology say their measurements show the ice sheet is getting thicker.

"We find strong evidence for ice-sheet growth," Ian Joughlin and Slawek Tulaczyk wrote in their report.

Joughlin and many others have been taking measurements that show the ice sheet, known to scientists as the WAIS, has been steadily melting since the end of the last Ice Age about 11,000 years ago. It currently covers about 360,000 square miles.

The sheet has enough ice to raise global sea levels by five to 18 feet if it all melted. Earlier predictions had said that it could melt in 4,000 years.

The United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts the average global temperature could be as much as 11 degrees Fahrenheit higher at the end of the century than it was in 1990. If this affected the Antarctic, it could melt enough ice to raise sea levels enough to swamp coastal areas.

It would also greatly alter the planet's climate by changing ocean currents and temperatures.

But experts have been saying there is little evidence that global warming is responsible for melting the ice sheet -- they say currents and the way water washes underneath the floating portions seems to have more of an effect.

Joughlin and Tulaczyk used satellite radar to measure the thickness of the ice.

They specifically looked at ice streams, which are similar to large, flowing rivers of ice.

While previous measurements had suggested ice was being steadily lost, they found that in fact there was slightly more ice in the areas feeding the streams than before. Overall, there were 26 billion tons more ice each year, they said -- not the loss of nearly 21 billion tons a year that other studies showed.

These are extremely large amounts that can measurably affect world sea levels.

Richard Allen of Pennsylvania State University wrote in a commentary that the satellite radar tool could be useful in measuring a huge, complex ice system that has been extremely difficult to measure.

"Perhaps after 10,000 years of retreat from the ice-age maximum, researchers turned on their instruments just in time to catch the stabilization or re-advance of the ice sheet," Allen wrote in a commentary on the study.

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