Civil rights vs the accused

In the aftermath of September 11th and in light of other recent events such as the Virginia Tech shooting, the wiretapping bill, and the Patriotic act, public safety vs. civil rights has become the source of much controversy (Olsen, S, & Hansen, H, 2001).  The Patriotic act and its effect on civil rights has becomes one of the presidential candidates many platforms for election. The United States of America was founded upon the concept of civil rights; however where do we draw the line between public safety and these civil liberties?  Should the accused have rights when it becomes a matter of public safety?  Finding the balance, which is delicate at best, becomes today’s challenge.

Investigations done after the shooting at Virginia Tech revealed that Seung-Hui Cho, the accused shooter, had multiple interactions with the mental healthcare system prior to the event. Information that arose after the shootings, pointed to the fact that health care professionals that treated him had prior knowledge that he posed a threat to public safety.  Due to patient doctor confidentiality, the information was never provided to school officials. As Randall Hagar, director of governmental relations for the California Psychiatric Association said, “A person has to actually commit a crime — there has to be blood on the ground — before we can act,” Wereschagin, M. (2007).

Had this information been accessible prior to the event, it is possible that the shooting could have been avoided or the damage minimized. Current laws make it difficult to prevent crime from happening and from citizens being victimized as the traditional view of the law is considered reactive vs. pro-active. Numerous times, criminals or severely impaired people that are known to be a threat to society are left untreated and the issue never dealt with, in order to preserve the civil liberties of the accused.

The government in the past has been left with limited options in dealing with terrorist due to issues with confidential banking, records, and doctor patient confidentiality (Olsen, S, & Hansen, H, 2001). The question that remains is; do accused such as terrorist maintain the same civil rights as others? If they do, will this not infringe upon law enforcements ability to prevent atrocities from occurring; and if they do not, who determines which people lose their rights? Who determines which rights remain, and which do not?

The Bill of Rights amendments, mainly 1-10 were created to assist in protecting citizens from wrongful accusations by the government and law enforcement policies that would infringe on their civil liberties. An old English saying that precedes even the amendment bill of rights, which goes all the way back to the colonies, states that it is better for 99 guilty persons to go free than for just one innocent person to be punished.  The burden of proof thus lies upon the prosecutors, as defendants are innocent until proven guilty.  In the prior illustration of the shooting at Virgina Tech Seung-Hui Cho’s prior diagnoses might not mean as much as some might think.

Are not most people diagnosed with emotional and psychological diseases relatively safe to the public? Should they be stereotyped and stripped of their constitutional rights because they have a mental disorder? Laws that exist to protect these rights are to a certain degree necessary. A democracy cannot survive with the absence of civil rights.  Reduction of a person’s civil rights should be done carefully with the goal being done in order to lower the possibility of harm that could result from the acts of terror. Christina Newhill, an associate professor in the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work stated, “Public safety trumps civil rights if there has been an action that suggests that person is dangerous,” Wereschagin, M. (2007).

Although public safety is of high importance, the reduction of civil liberties is a dangerous approach, and extreme caution must be used to maintain a careful balance. There should be firmly established reasons, which demonstrate that stripping a person of their civil liberties will result in increased safety. Careful consideration of the costly effects of the approaches that might be taken by law enforcement officials will be helpful in protecting the beliefs and the system that the United States was founded upon.


Wereschagin, M. (2007, April) Public safety vs. right to privacy. Retrieved from:

Stefanie Olsen and Evan Hansen (2001, September) Privacy Vs Safety. Retrieved from:, S, & Hansen, H (2001)