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Ft Drum Commander Tramples Soldiers' Due Process Rights

blizzardOne of the bedrock principles of our criminal justice system is the presumption of innocence. This means that when someone is accused of a crime he or she has the right to try to prove their innocence by challenging the prosecutor's evidence and offering their own witnesses and/or evidence to rebut the charges before a jury of their peers.

Commanding General Michael Oates has undermined this fundamental right by publishing the photographs and identities of Ft Drum soldiers who've been arrested for drunk driving in the four most recent issues of the base newspaper, "The Blizzard." The paper has carried photos and news notes about each Drum soldier who's been arrested for drinking while driving. Oates has told reporters that he is doing this to combat a growing tendency among soldiers to drink and drive. He apparently believes that by humiliating those accused of drunk driving others will be deterred from this behaviour. He also hasn't stated whether the newspaper will publish retractions or apologies for those soldiers who are eventually acquitted of DWI charges or have their convictions overturned on appeal. Clearly, the stigma of having one's photo and description of one's alleged crime can have serious repercussions for soldiers who are rated for their personal conduct as well as their job performance.

In an interview with the New York Times (3/8/08) Oates stated; "I'm aware that there are people who aren't happy with this, but I felt compelled to do something. When you drink and drive you place everyone around you at risk." He stated that his goal wasn't so much to humiliate those charged as it was to deter others from driving drunk.

Members of the Iraq Veterans Against War (IVAW) at Ft Drum noted that many of the 48 soldiers who had their photos printed in the first Blizzard story, had returned from Iraq combat last November with the Second Brigade. "When you return to the base after a month or so of leave, that's when PTSD often starts to kick in," commented Sp/4 Eli Wright.

As far as is known, no other US military base newspaper currently publishes such photographs. A few local branches of government, particularly in New Mexico also follow this practice of printing photos and news about those accused of DWI.

Citizen Soldier attorneys have been researching the possiblity of a federal lawsuit to challenge Oates' policy as an unconstitutional abridgment of due process rights. They are also discussing the problem with the New York State Civil Liberties Union, based in Syracuse.

"While the incidence of drunk driving may have increased around Ft Drum since 10th Mountain troops have been forced to endure multiple deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, wouldn't it make more sense to expand the mental health services available to combat-stressed soldiers rather than simply ridiculing those who self-medicate with alcohol?" asked Tod Ensign, Citizen Soldier's director.