Army MP’s ‘Just Showed Up’ and ‘Didn’t Cross the Line,’ Alabama Law Enforcement Official Says

March 18, 2009 - 6:41 PM
The commander of the Alabama Bureau of Investigation office in Dothan, Ala., told CNSNews.com that neither he nor his agents called for U.S. troops to come to the scene of murders in Samson, Ala., on the night of March 10 -- but he was very glad they came.

U.S. Army soldiers from Ft. Rucker patrol the downtown area of Samson, Alabama after a shooting spree March 10, 2009. (Photo: Reuters/Mark Wallheiser. Used by permission. )

(CNSNews.com) – The commander of the Alabama Bureau of Investigation office in Dothan, Ala., told CNSNews.com that neither he nor his agents called for U.S. troops to come to the scene of murders in Samson, Ala., on the night of March 10 -- but he was very glad they came. 

“I don’t know who called them,” Lt. Barry Tucker told CNSNews.com. “I didn’t. I didn’t have time to call anybody.” 

The U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command is investigating how and why 22 active duty MP’s from nearby Ft. Rucker, Ala., came to be placed on the streets of Samson during the night of a horrendous murder spree in the tiny South Alabama community – a possible violation of the federal Posse Comitatus Act.

Tucker said he was in charge of the crime scene that night.
 
“The bottom line is, I’m the commander of the Bureau of Investigation in the Dothan area. All of the (crime) scenes were in my area. It’s my responsibility to see that they’re secured, being worked – everything that goes on with a criminal investigation. And we were doing that.”

Saying he wanted to set the record straight, Tucker said law enforcement agencies in the area weren’t actually called in – they volunteered themselves.
 
“I received calls from just about every law enforcement agency in southeast Alabama wanting to know how they could help,” Tucker said. “A lot of them, in the case of Fort Rucker, just showed up.” 

Tucker, who said he was in Samson for several hours on the night in question, actually stopped to talk to the soldiers that had been dispatched.
 
“I talked to the MP’s, they were fired up to be there,” Tucker said. “They weren’t performing what I consider to be a law enforcement function.”
 
Tucker had high praise for the soldiers, and said that everyone at the crime scene – local residents and law enforcement alike – seemed pleased the MPs were there.
 
“I myself am a retired lieutenant colonel in the MPs,” Tucker said. “I understand about Posse Comitatus and how that works and how the line is drawn for MPs from an active duty base working a law enforcement mission outside of the base. 

“I know where the line is – and I didn’t see that line crossed,” he said.
 
“What I saw was MPs standing out in the road, moving traffic, doing things that would normally be done at a traffic control point. They were augmented by civilian law enforcement from outside agencies. Anything that would’ve happened could have been handled by the law enforcement agencies.”

He added: “Some of my agents said that they saw them at the crime scene, but they were outside of the tape. ‘Traffic control points’ don’t have to be just (for) vehicles. They can be for pedestrians, they can be cameras from news sources. That’s what I saw.”

Tucker said the soldiers were a “welcome sight” to the community.

“It’s good to see the post coming to life and coming out and getting involved with the community when they needed help and they needed to see some authority figures,” he added. 

The Civilian Use of Military Troops: ‘Muddy Waters’
 
Experts on the use of military troops for civilian purposes say it is becoming increasingly difficult to know where the line is drawn between proper use and improper use.

Civilian attorney Craig Trebilcock, a reserve colonel in the Army Judge Advocate General’s office, told CNSNews.com that in recent years, the president, Congress and the courts have all “muddied the waters” when it comes to civilian use of military force.

Trebilcock said the basic idea of the federal Posse Comitatus Act is very clear – the active use of the military as a police force within the borders of the U.S. is forbidden. 

“The basic rule is, you don’t use the Army or Marine Corps to go out chasing criminals. When you have active duty Army troops, they are not supposed to go out and catch bank robbers, for example,” he told CNSNews.com.

Congress has approved a few exceptions to the ban on active use – but not many. 

“One is called the Stafford Act,” he said. “During times of tremendous civil disturbance, the governor of a state can invite in federal troops by requesting them from the president. And the last we saw that was in the Los Angeles race riots back in the ‘90s.”

Another exception is in the case of civilian insurrection. But all active use of the military must originate from “very high sources,” Trebilcock pointed out.  

“Individual unit commanders cannot authorize a violation of Posse Comitatus, nor can they invoke any of the exceptions,” he added. “That request must come from the governor of a state or ‘the national command authority’-- which is basically the military’s term for the president or secretary of defense.”

The problem, he said, is that court rulings over the last few years have made it “perfectly acceptable” to use military troops within U.S. borders for “logistical support” or “humanitarian relief” for civilian authorities -- and actions by Congress and the president have further complicated things. 

“We increasingly see the military doing different types of logistical support at major civilian events like the Olympics or the Super Bowl,” he said. “This is where the line gets blurry.”

The courts have ruled that ‘passive’ use of the military does not violate the Posse Comitatus Act, he said. But the line between passive use and active use is “paper thin,” he added. 

“You can have local military forces on the scene of a situation, such as we saw in Waco, Texas, where civilian law enforcement got advice and input from the military – and that was OK, according to the courts. 

“You can have military units providing communications support – that’s OK. That’s considered ‘passive,’ not ‘active,’” he said. 

“But basically anytime you are putting military forces in control of civilians, you have a problem,” Trebilcock said. “Arresting people, detaining people, executing searches, knocking on somebody’s door and saying, ‘We’re looking for somebody’s gun’ or something like that – that’s pure law enforcement, and there’s no way of wiggling around that.” 

Trebilcock, the author of a forthcoming article in Army magazine on the topic, said the Posse Comitatus Act is antiquated and should at least be reviewed by Congress, if not totally overhauled.

“It’s a statute; it’s not a constitutional provision,” he said. “Because the president and Congress keep making exceptions to it, it’s getting to the point where the statute is largely being gutted. It still has some core meaning, but they keep nibbling away at the restrictions of Posse Comitatus until it has lost a lot of its value.”
 
He added: “Everytime they throw troops down at the border, it nibbles away at it a little more.”