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Federal officers use crowd control munitions and teargas to disperse Black Lives Matter protesters at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on July 21, 2020, in Portland, Ore. (AP) Federal officers use crowd control munitions and teargas to disperse Black Lives Matter protesters at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on July 21, 2020, in Portland, Ore. (AP)

Federal officers use crowd control munitions and teargas to disperse Black Lives Matter protesters at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on July 21, 2020, in Portland, Ore. (AP)

Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher July 22, 2020

No, Obama did not sign a law allowing protesters to be snatched off the streets

If Your Time is short

  • The reference appears to be a law Obama signed regarding the military detention of terrorist suspects, not law-abiding domestic protesters.

  • Federal agents can detain law-breaking protesters, but they don’t have authority to snatch them off the streets for merely protesting.

As President Donald Trump threatened to deploy federal agents beyond Portland, Ore., to other Democratic-led cities where crime has spiked amid protests, an image shared on Facebook claimed the controversial policy is actually a Democrat’s doing.

Above a photograph of a smiling Barack Obama, text in the image declares:

"When everyone just blames Trump but forgets who actually signed the law authorizing federal agents to snatch protestors off the streets in Portland."

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

The reference appears to be a law Obama signed regarding the military detention of suspected terrorists, not law-abiding domestic protesters. It doesn’t apply to the current situation.

Federal agents can detain law-breaking protesters, but they don’t have authority to merely snatch them off the streets.

In recent days, federal agents have cracked down on protesters in Portland, where some demonstrations have turned violent. The fact that many federal agents there are not wearing identifiable law enforcement gear and not driving law enforcement vehicles has raised legal questions about the agents’ presence.

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Commenters on the Facebook post cited another image. It claims that Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, and that Section 1021 allows the president to detain anyone indefinitely for any reason. 

Law professor Stephen Vladeck, an expert in constitutional and national security law at the University of Texas, told PolitiFact he has seen the same reference, but it’s erroneous. 

Vladeck said the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act signed by Obama includes controversial provisions concerning military detention of terrorism suspects — but it has nothing to do with what’s happening in Portland. 

He said a provision known as Section 1315 — which is what the federal Department of Homeland Security says allows agents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to enforce federal laws in Portland — was enacted as part of the Homeland Security Act of 2002. That was signed into law by President George W. Bush. It is that provision that is cited by the Trump White House as the legal basis for the federal agents’ actions. 

Federal agents can only enforce federal law, unless they are specifically authorized to enforce state law by the state, said Vanderbilt University law professor Christopher Slobogin, whose specialties include criminal law.  

"So, federal agents cannot snatch any protester off the street, only those threatening federal property or personnel, or who are also committing some other federal crime such as drug trafficking or national security laws," he said.

Put another way, said Kermit Roosevelt, a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania who focuses on constitutional law, federal agents have authority to arrest people attacking a federal courthouse, but no government official has the authority to arrest peaceful protestors. 

We rate the statement False.

Our Sources

Facebook, post (archived here), July 20, 2020

Lawfare, "What the Heck Are Federal Law Enforcement Officers Doing in Portland?", July 17, 2020

Email, Kermit Roosevelt, professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania, July 21, 2020

Email, Stephen Vladeck, expert in constitutional and national security law at the University of Texas, July 21, 2020

Email, Christopher Slobogin, Milton R. Underwood Chair in Law; Director, Criminal Justice Program; Affiliate Professor of Psychiatry at Vanderbilt University, July 21, 2020

Wall Street Journal, "The Portland Protests, Trump Administration and Federal Authority," July 20, 2020

Politico, "Trump law enforcement officials brush off pleas to butt out of Portland," July 20, 2020

Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute, Homeland Security Act of 2002, accessed July 22, 2020

Email, Barack Obama spokesman Eric Schultz, July 21, 2020

CBS News, "White House defends legality of use of federal agents in Portland," July 21, 2020

New York Times, "Trump Threatens to Send Federal Law Enforcement Forces to More Cities," July 20, 2020

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More by Tom Kertscher

No, Obama did not sign a law allowing protesters to be snatched off the streets

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