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   Just What Is the Posse Comitatus Act?

Civics Lesson:

Just What Is the Posse Comitatus Act?

by Alice Cherbonnier
BALTIMOREhe original Posse Comitatus Act—a criminal statute—was a rider to an appropriations bill, Chapter 263, Section 15, approved on June 18, 1878. The provision reads:
"From and after the passage of this act it shall not be lawful to employ any part of the Army of the United States, as a posse comitatus, or otherwise, for the purpose of executing the laws, except in such cases and under such circumstances as such employment of said force may be expressly authorized by the Constitution or by act of Congress; and no money appropriated by this act shall be used to pay any of the expenses incurred in the employment of any troops in violation of this section, and any person willfully violating the provisions of this section shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and on conviction thereof shall be punished by fine not exceeding ten thousand dollars or imprisonment not exceeding two years or by both such fine and imprisonment."
Prior to 1878, it was common practice for federal troops to be stationed at polling places to prevent trouble—including making sure only the favored few could vote. After the Civil War, these poll-watching federal troops were supposed to assure that newly enfranchised citizens could exercise their voting rights, and to make sure no former Confederate officers could vote in any national election. When Reconstruction ended, it was felt the federal troops were no longer needed for this purpose.

Also, up to that time Fort commanders were providing uneven security and civilian law enforcement for westward-bound settlers in those parts of the country that had not yet been admitted to statehood. Congress, through the Posse Comitatus law, was attempting to bring civilian order to what was viewed as too often arbitrary law enforcement, in violation of Constitutional protections.

At a Hearing on the Posse Comitatus Act [PCA] Before the Subcommittee on Crime of the Committee on the Judiciary on H.R. 3519, 97th Cong., 1st Sess. 10-11 (1981), William H. Taft, General Counsel of the US Department of Defense, testified, "The [PCA] expresses one of the clearest political traditions in Anglo-American history: that using military power to enforce the civilian law is harmful to both civilian and military interests. The authors of the [PCA] drew upon a melancholy history of military rule for evidence that even the best intentioned use of the Armed Forces to govern the civil population may lead to unfortunate consequences. They knew, moreover, that military involvement in civilian affairs consumed resources needed for national defense and drew the Armed Forces into political and legal quarrels that could only harm their ability to defend the country. Accordingly, they intended that the Armed Forces be used in law enforcement only in those serious cases to which the ordinary processes of civilian law were incapable of responding."


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This story was published on August 7, 2002.
  
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