The Thought Pad Trials (A Law Drama Short Story)

Fort Knight created a technology that can visualize and record thoughts. Now the courts must decide if our thoughts have the right to privacy.

Written by Gregory Patrick Travers

Outside the tall columns of the Supreme Court, gathered a large crowd at the foot of the wide and lengthy set of stairs leading up to the institution. This massive parade of citizens could be split, almost perfectly, into three separate entities. To the left, was a group of rowdy protesters, yielding home-made signs that bore slogans like, “Free Thoughts For All!” and “Stay Out of Our Heads!” And to the right, another group of rowdy protesters protested against the protesters on the left. And these protesters waved around their home-made signs that had their slogans written on them in bold marker. Slogans like, “No Communists!” and “Stop Crime!”

And in the middle, seemingly unaware of the chaos going on at either side of them, were men with slicked hair and square jaws, and women with trim figures, each dressed in expensive business suits, each holding onto microphones, staring at the men holding bulky video cameras a few feet across from them. The men who held the cameras were dressed far less exquisite than their microphone-wielding counterparts. In fact, if you looked close enough, it wouldn’t be uncommon for you to spot a mustard or coffee stain lurking somewhere on their person.

One of the square-jawed, slick-haired men was at the moment in the midst of a dramatic revelation, “We are standing outside the Supreme Court, where the controversial trial of Fort Knight vs the U.S. is set to begin momentarily. Fort Knight is, of course, responsible for the revolutionary Thought Pad technology; a brain-computer interface capable of recording thoughts, dreams, and even memories. Fort Knight’s tech has found a home in billion dollar industries, from pharmaceutical to pornography. The world-changing tech has turned Josh Higgins, CEO, and founder of Fort Knight, into the youngest billionaire on the planet. A year ago, Higgins rise to wealth and fame came to a crashing halt when he was arrested for treason after refusing to release the brain map of a Fort Knight client suspected of terrorism…”

Beside him, a tall redhead in a slim maroon skirt and jacket, was also in the middle of her report, “The days of lavish Hollywood parties, fast cars and supermodel girlfriends must feel like a lifetime ago for Josh Higgins, CEO of Fort Knight, who for the last year has been sitting behind bars in a cold jail cell, waiting. Waiting for this day, his desperate appeal to the Supreme Court to overturn the conviction…”

And just a few feet from her another newsman spoke with righteousness into the camera pointed at him, “Since the release of the Virtual Girlfriend three years ago divorce rates are at a record high. Some say the highly sought invention has ruined the modern relationship. Since Higgins’ arrest last year, there has been much controversy over the ethics of brain mapping, as more and more people are deciding to live in their own heads…”


Inside the courtroom, it was much quieter than the frenzied circus gathered outside. The public spectators sat in the pews of the gallery, speaking only in soft whispers, while beyond the brass railing, the clerk and the marshal took their positions on opposite sides of the floor and the councils at their desks shot challenging glances at each other from across the room.

Now out of his orange jumpsuit, Josh Higgins, CEO, and founder of Fort Knight, sat slouched in a chair beside his attorney, wearing the collared shirt and slacks that he had been arrested in the year before. His eyes drifted around the courtroom and the gallery with a certain detachment, causing the offense of a wide and robust woman in a sleeveless sundress and a broad-brimmed sun hat, who sat in the third row. She twisted her face at the sight of him, but Higgins didn’t seem to notice.

Unlike this unaccompanied woman, the couple beside her, an Asian woman and an African man, who looked a healthy, active middle-age, found the site of the fallen and despondent celebrity to be quite humorous. They watched him stare blankly around the courtroom with child-like grins. In fact, it seemed that all the eyes were firmly planted on the CEO, though the individual’s reaction to his presence varied exponentially from person to person.

It wasn’t long before the chamber door opened and out walked the nine Justices of the United States Supreme Court, draped in the traditional black gown. They each took their seats at the bench, with Chief Justice Anderton in the center of them. The man of sixty-three adjusted his glasses, which appeared small over his thick and valleyed features, and began to address the council, “We will hear the argument first today for the case of Fort Knight v. U.S. Council, please proceed…”

Devlin Lanchester, the attorney representing the United States Government, stood and approached the podium. Like Chief Justice Anderton, Lanchester had a full head of peppered, almost white hair. But unlike the Chief Justice, Lanchester’s face was smooth and youthful, even now midway through his forties. His cheekbones were defined and strong and his eyes were an icy, pale blue.

The lady in the broad-brimmed sun hat smiled and blushed uncontrollably at the sight of the handsome attorney, dressed in an expensive, Italian-made suit. The Asian lady beside her rolled her eyes at the childishness of the lady in the broad-brimmed sun hat, but if her husband had been paying attention, he would have noticed that his wife’s eyes too had wandered, for only a brief second, before they returned to her partner, accompanied by a loving smile and a squeeze on his arm.

“Thank you, your honor,” said Lanchester. “The definition of treason states that whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere is guilty of the crime of treason. Upon Fort Knight’s refusal to provide the thought mapping of Vladimir Balanchuck, a citizen of the United States with ties to a Communist extremist group responsible for a bombing in Times Square that left forty-eight people dead and many more injured, he became guilty of the crime of treason.”

Justice Freeman, the eldest of all the Justices, leaned forward and said in a slow, drawn-out manner, “Thank you, Council. This new advancement in technology has purposed many questions on the role of thoughts as evidence. But in the ruling of Los Angeles County v. Raymond, it was found that thought-imaging cannot be used for probable cause for arrest, nor is it admissible evidence in court. So I have to ask you, how, even if the government obtained these thought images, would they plan on convicting Vladimir Balanchuck in a court of law?”

Lanchester replied without hesitation, “The case of Los Angeles County v. Raymond is a prudent one, your honor, and I think it is a valid case on why there needs to be a reform in the legislation. After purchasing the Virtual Girlfriend, Raymond’s wife put a hidden camera in the basement to keep an eye on what her husband was doing. She found out he was fantasizing about young girls. It just so happened at that time there had been an abduction of a thirteen-year-old girl in the area and so she brought it to authorities. Since this evidence was ruled not probable cause for arrest, and a warrant could not be issued, Raymond was allowed to go free. Not even six months later he was arrested for the rape and murder of another fourteen-year-old girl. However, in the case of Vladimir Balanchuck, a federal warrant was granted under the Patriot Act and under the law, the defendant was ordered to surrender the data and thought-mapping regarding said individual. It may be that Vladimir himself is not guilty of any particular crime, but he may have information on those people responsible for the Times Square bombing.”

In the third row, the large lady in the sun-hat folded her arms on her stomach and gave a hard nod, touching the gold crucifix on her collar that hung off a line chain around her neck.

Justice Amanda Letterman spoke next, “I think the real issue here is the question of if Vladimir, an American citizen, with no criminal record, has the same 1st Amendment rights as you or I. And if he does, then why has Mr. Higgins been charged with treason for standing up for those rights?

The inter-racial married couple beside the lady in the broad-brimmed hat shot her a nasty glance as if to punctuate the female Justice’s statement.

“Let me give you a hypothetical,” Justice Letterman continued. “If I am at the grocery store, and there is a robbery, would it then be okay for the police to go through the minds of everyone in that grocery store in hopes that they might find a clue as to who the robber is? Would we be obligated to give them our memories?”

“No, your honor. They would be protected under the fifth amendment,” Lanchester replied.

“Well, then I fail to see where we draw the line, Council.”

“Yes, your honor,” nodded Lanchester. He rubbed the gold band around his wedding finger as if for luck. “The Patriot Act allowed a warrant for this information to be seized. Unfortunately, Fort Knight’s data is kept in offshore, bulletproof servers, which are like Swiss banks for hackers and organized crime. Since access is not obtainable and Mr. Higgins refuses to co-operate, the truth is that, under the law, he is guilty of the crime of treason. We can sit here and talk about Mr. Higgins rights and freedoms, but the fact is there is a very evil, very violent threat out there that hates Americans and hates America. People have been killed. We need to find these monsters as soon as we can before they strike again…and what kind of person would want to protect these terrorists who wish harm on a country that gave him so much?”

An old, wobbly man of blue-collar fashion, who had been sitting in the front row, shot up and yelled out, “He’s a god damn commie-lover and you should put him to death!”

The crowd gasped and the Chief Justice Anderton banged his gavel off the bench. “Order!” he cried. “Bailiff, remove that man!”

In a moment, the man responsible for the outburst was apprehended and ushered out of the courtroom. As he passed the third row, the large lady in the broad-brimmed sun-hat gave him a comforting nod as a gesture of solidarity, while the Asian lady and her husband shook their heads at the old man in disgust. Those same reactions were mimicked throughout the gallery, some for it, some against it. And the ones that were for it would then shoot nasty glares at those who were against it because the ones who were against it were shooting nasty glares at the ones that were for it.

But when the courtroom double doors closed shut and the man responsible for the outburst was out of sight, the proceedings resumed and the gallery settled down.

This time, the attorney representing Fort Knight, Jamie Sandel, approached the podium. She was tall and slender, dressed in a navy blue pantsuit and a silk white blouse. It was important that her clothes spoke of mature professionalism, as her soft features spoke of inexperience. Her hair sprang off her head in a frizzy mane, making her head appear bigger than it really was and, she liked to think, reminded her contenders that she was a lion in the courtroom and not to be underestimated. And it didn’t hurt that she was not very difficult to look at either.

The single men in the gallery exchanged subtle grins as the female lawyer’s heels clicked towards the podium in a hypnotizing, reverberated succession. Even the Asian woman’s husband in the third row showed a gleam of teenager-like lust in his eyes. His wife caught him looking at the woman and threw him a cold, piercing stare. The husband’s eyes sunk like a puppy that had his nose hit with the day’s newspaper for defecating in the house.

“Thank you, Chief Justice, and if it pleases the court…” started Council Sandel. “According to Supreme Court ruling in the 1937 case of Palko v. Connecticut, it was found that without freedom of thought, the first amendment right to freedom of speech is moot, as you can only express what you can think. Constraining or censoring how a person thinks is the most fundamental kind of censorship and is contrary to some of our most cherished Constitutional principles.”

“While this is most certainly true, I think we can say that the situation of Vladimir Balanchuck is a special exception,” stated Justice Morgan, a thin-framed Irishman with a high hairline and a small jaw. “The tragedy and lives lost during the attack on Times Square is not an incident that the American people would like to relive. It’s not as if the government is trying to get inside the minds of its own law-abiding citizens or anything like that. Your client could be free tomorrow if he just co-operated with the U.S. government and surrendered the requested data. Do you not see the importance of finding the ones responsible for the Times Square bombings? Do you not feel any responsibility to aid your country?”

“Thank you, your honor,” replied Sandel. “And we do believe that Vladimir Balanchuck has every right to be surveyed and interrogated to the full extent that the Patriot Act allows. But my client stands by his belief, which is in line with court law, that a thought is not real and cannot be counted on as evidence. Even memories rendered from thought-pad technology can be embellished to appear happier than they may have been, or scarier, or more exciting, or more violent than the actual event itself…”

“Let me put out a hypothetical,” Justice Letterman interjected. “If Vladimir posted a status on his Facebook page that said he wished all Americans were dead. Would that be probable cause for arrest?”

“Under the Patriot Act, yes, that could be cause for interrogation, especially given Balanchuck’s social network,” answered Sandel.

“So, what would be the difference of that thought on Facebook and the thoughts recorded from his brain?”

“In that situation of the threatening Facebook post, the subject would have expressed intent to harm. But to think a thought of violence is not the intention of the act. Many people think about harming another person, many people think about harming themselves, or perhaps robbing a bank…but if we held every person accountable for each fleeting thought of irrational behavior, no matter how distasteful or perverse, then we would quickly run out of cells in the prisons and soon there may not be a society left to govern.”

Justice Freeman leaned forward, “Are you saying that if a person were to spend the day pondering ways to murder a co-worker, let’s say, or sexually assault a woman on the train, or kidnapping a child from the park, that this person would not be accountable for such thoughts?”

Council Sandel replied promptly, “If that person were to treat his co-worker fairly, and respect the woman on the train’s human rights and walk past the park without incident, then yes, that person should be free to think what he may without persecution or judgment.”

Justice Freeman shook his head. “I don’t know if I agree, Council. Someone who thinks these thoughts could be a real danger to society.”

“Thank you, your honor,” responded Sendel. “But you yourself thought of those situations when you referenced them. But I would not say that I should make a judgment on your character because of it.”

Justice Freeman was stunned. Rarely do you see a Supreme Court Justice speechless, but Justice Freeman could not utter a single word. Josh Higgins looked up at his attorney and smiled, impressed. Across the room, Council Lanchester kept a straight face but played nervously with his wedding band.

“Thank you, Council,” said Chief Justice Anderton, breaking the silence. He took off his glasses and looked straight into the eyes of Josh Higgins, commanding his attention. “Mr. Higgins, will you please stand.”

Higgins did as requested and stood up from his seat. As he did, he felt the eyes in the gallery burning a hole through his back. Chief Justice Anderton addressed him, “Son, there is no doubt that you are a very, very smart young man. Some would even say you’re a genius. You’re the Tesla of our time. And having had a father who suffered from Alzheimer’s, I do respect the work you’ve done in the field of memory saving. I think it is a fantastic breakthrough. But then there’s another side to you that is not so commendable. The bulletproof servers on which your data is kept is offshore and shared with criminal hackers, drug dealers, terrorist organizations and other organized crime syndicates. Now, how can you sit here and claim the benefits of American ideals when you share your servers with men who are directly opposed to those same ideals?”

“Your honor, there is a proverb in the ancient teachings of the Tao that states, in regards to governing, when you don’t trust the people, you make them untrustworthy. For example, the prohibition of alcohol gave birth to illegal speakeasies. When you make drugs illegal, you give birth to drug smugglers. When it has been revealed that the NSA is secretly monitoring its civilian citizens, we move our servers offshore. Not because we’re anti-American but because we are pro-American and we take the freedom of thought very seriously. And that is why people trust us with their deepest secrets. Society now and days is so afraid to be kind, so fearful of being vulnerable, scrutinized and picked apart. And with good reason. Censorship is the new witch hunt. Shame is the new religion. Is it any wonder that millions and millions of people would rather live inside their heads? I say, if that’s what they choose, let them. If they want to stay home and have sex with their Virtual Girlfriend, all the power to them. Why live a miserable reality when you could live a happy lie?”

“They’re sinners and perverts!” yelled the lady in the broad-brimmed hat.

The gallery began to whisper and murmur.

“Order in the court!” cried Chief Justice Anderton, banging his gavel off the bench.

Higgins turned to the large woman and said loudly, “Sinners and perverts? M’am, I noticed the crucifix around your neck. Did you know that it is against the commandments to covet a married man?”

“Of course I do!” snapped the woman. “What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Order!” yelled Chief Justice Anderton. The gavel pounded down.

Josh pointed to Council Lanchester across the room. “I saw the way you looked at him when he stood up to fry me, the lust in your eyes! You’re telling me you didn’t see the wedding band on his finger?”

By this time, the gavel pounding against the bench sounded more like a contractor roofing a house. “Order! Mr. Higgins, you will stop this outburst right now!”

Josh Higgins eyes remained fixed on the lady, whose face was now bright red under the broad brim of her sun hat. “You saw it. But you looked anyway. You thought about fucking him anyway, didn’t you?”

“Baliff! Arrest Mr. Higgins for contempt of court!” cried Chief Justice Anderton, who was almost perspiring from rage.

“I would never!” gasped the lady in the third row.

“Well, we have the tech to find out!” yelled Higgins as the Bailiff slapped the steel cuffs around his wrists. “I’ll tell you what, why don’t we record your thoughts and then we’ll play it for your whole congregation!”

The lady seemed horrified at the thought.

“You wouldn’t like that would you?” said Higgins, being ushered down the hall. “So why is the privacy of your thoughts any more important than Vladimir Balanchucks? Answer me that!” And then Higgins looked around at the blank eyes in the gallery staring back at him and screamed out, “One day it will be your thoughts they come for! And on that day, I will pity you!” Then his voice broke slightly, as a single tear rolled down his cheek. “But you know what?…I’ll pity you even more if they don’t.”

And with that, Josh Higgins disappeared from the courtroom and the double doors came to a close. The Asian lady leaned over and said quietly to the lady in the broad-brimmed sun hat, “He’s a little out of your league don’t you think?”

The lady turned red all over again. “Don’t you start! I saw you giving him the same look!”

The Asian lady’s husband raised his eyebrows at his wife, awaiting an explanation. “Oh, don’t give me that look!” she snapped at him. “I saw you checking out that frizzy-haired, white girl lawyer! You pervert!”

The hearing came to a close and pew by pew the spectators exited the gallery. It was less than a month before the nine Justices of the Supreme Court came back with a final ruling on Fort Knight v. the U.S., deciding if he was indeed guilty of the crime of treason. But maybe, just this once, the conclusion to the story is best left unrevealed. Maybe, just this once, it would be better to simply pose the question to the reader…what do you think?

The End




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