There's nothing wrong with snitching on your neighbors.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
July 31 2002 6:30 PM

A Snitch in Time

Don't kill the TIPS program, fix it.

(Continued from Page 1)

Perhaps most central to the effectiveness of the mandatory-reporting laws, though, is the fact that they are not deliberately structured to circumvent the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement. By deputizing teachers and doctors to report suspected abuse encountered outside the home, these laws generally respect the constitutional sanctity of the home. Ashcroft later backpedaled from the notion that TIPS was intended to recruit precisely those service people who have access to your home, telling the Judiciary Committee at the 11th hour last week that volunteers would simply report on "anomalies, things that are different" and raise suspicions. He emphasized, too late, that TIPS was not "a program related to private places like homes." But clearly that was its original intent, and that was why these particular workers were selected. By circumventing the warrant requirement and making the cable guy an agent of the state, Ashcroft infuriated people of every political stripe. A TIPS program deputizing American workers to report suspicious activity outside the home would have been closer to the abuse-reporting laws and might not have died in Congress.

Mandatory abuse-reporting programs have launched a thousand lawsuits, and while the tippers usually prevail, defending against them is expensive, time-consuming, and disruptive—especially as the numbers of false-positive tips rise. Caseworkers are often overwhelmed by tips, and as a result, many are not investigated. The lesson for Ashcroft? Don't set up a reporting system unless you have the resources to follow leads. Police officers shouldn't be dispatched each time the mail carrier hears me play my Greatest Iraqi Dance Hits CD.

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Even a TIPS enthusiast is given pause by the news that unsubstantiated child abuse reports may stay on the books for years. In Arizona, uninvestigated reports stay on the state registry for five years, presenting real consequences for parents who have been reported. The idea of false TIPS leading to permanent state records is properly horrifying to anyone afraid that he might lose a job over a UPS driver's bogus tip.

No one disputes that we must sacrifice some privacy to root out terrorist cells. Reporting programs work in other contexts and don't automatically lead to a decline in civil liberties or even civility. A properly crafted TIPS program, which deputized the right workers to report suspicious, well-defined behaviors outside the home, a program with a clear follow-up procedure and an established information flow might have done some real good in the war on terror. Sadly, we'll never find out.