Category Archives: Criminal Justice

Americans Need To Grow Up

The ubiquity of social media has created a whole new category of problems, especially for lawmakers and parents. Much of the consternation is understandable and many of the concerns eminently reasonable. But when technology and social media meet America’s deeply-rooted sexual prudery, we get some very unfortunate (not to mention marginally insane) results.

A recent case from Minnesota is illustrative.

A 14-year-old girl is facing charges in Minnesota juvenile courts that could lead to her being placed on a sex offender registry—all for taking a nude selfie and sending it to a boy at her school. Prosecutors say that she violated Minnesota’s child pornography statute, which bans distributing sexually explicit pictures of underaged subjects.

Words fail.

A 14-year old girl showed an absence of good judgment. (That’s sort of the definition of a 14-year old…girl or boy.) This sort of behavior clearly calls for parental intervention; what it just as clearly doesn’t call for is placement on a sex-offender registry.

Parents, schools, and law enforcement around the world are wrestling with how to handle teen sexting. In 2014, a teenage boy in the UK was added to an investigative database after sending a nude snap to a classmate. The Supreme Court in Washington state recently upheld the child pornography conviction of a 17-year-old boy who sent a picture of his erect penis to a 22-year-old woman.

We can expect to see more of these cases in the future because surveys suggest that it’s a common activity among underage teenagers. One recent survey found that 12 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds had sent a sexually explicit image to someone else in their lifetimes—including 4 percent who had done so in the last month. That adds up to millions of teenagers who could be classified as child pornographers by the reckoning of Minnesota officials.

I don’t have a solution for this problem, but I’m pretty sure that labeling impulsive and hormonal teenagers sexual predators and giving them criminal records that will follow them through their adult years–affecting their abilities to get jobs, enter universities and rent apartments–isn’t the way to go.

For some reason, Americans have never seen sex as simply a natural part of life. (Hester Prynne isn’t the only woman who has been humiliated by that A.) That historical prudery, ironically, has intensified interest in–and consumption of– pornography and other sexually-explicit materials. Anyone who ever raised teenagers understands the attraction of the forbidden. It’s like drinking–French children who are accustomed to wine with dinner are much less enamored of alcohol than the suburban offspring of uptight parents who lock their liquor cabinets and lecture their children about the evils of drink.

We really need to grow up.

 

 

 

Compelling Honesty

It’s interesting how many people indignantly wrap themselves in the Free Speech provisions of the First Amendment in order to justify behaviors that–properly understood–aren’t really speech at all.

In all fairness, it can be difficult to distinguish between actions that are intended to communicate a message (protected) from actions that are committed through speech (not protected).

If you describe that cubic zirconium you are selling as an expensive diamond, the fact that your fraud involved the spoken word won’t turn your deception into a free speech issue. On the other hand, if you burn an American flag (assuming it’s yours to burn), you are clearly doing so in order to convey a message. (The content of that message is precisely why people get so angry.)

This little exercise in First Amendment philosophy is an introduction to an interesting case involving Crisis Pregnancy Centers.

Crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) are pro-life organizations that often offer women incorrect, incomplete or misleading information about their reproductive options.

In response, some localities have passed legislation requiring CPCs to make disclosures to their clients. California, for example, passed the Reproductive FACT Act in 2015. Under this law, CPCs must notify clients of public resources available to prevent or terminate pregnancies. It also mandates that CPCs inform their patients if they are not licensed as a medical facility.

Anti-choice advocates have taken issue with these requirements. The National Institute of Family and Life Advocates has sued California’s attorney general on behalf of CPCs. In November 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court decided it would hear the case.

The question the Court will have to decide is deceptively simple: does requiring Crisis Pregnancy Centers to disclose accurate information that counters or undermines their beliefs violate their First Amendment right to free speech?

At first blush, the idea of requiring speech to be truthful seems like a great idea. (Fox “news” anyone?) In practice, it’s difficult if not impossible to separate opinion from flat-out lying. After all, most lies aren’t as obvious as those constantly being told by Donald Trump and Sarah Huckabee Sanders. In the case of Crisis Pregnancy Centers, however, the intent to mislead is pretty transparent.

A 2016 paper published in the Journal of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology found that nearly half of the 85 websites surveyed promoted abstinence-only sexual education. Over 60 percent of these websites provided negative facts about condoms, including minimizing their efficacy and suggesting they break often, and less than 10 percent encouraged the use of condoms to prevent sexually transmitted infections.

A larger examination of 254 CPC websites, published in Contraception in 2014, found that 80 percent provided at least one item of false or misleading information — most commonly, claiming links between abortion and mental health concerns.

A study published in 2017 in Women’s Health Issues focused on the websites of crisis pregnancy centers in Georgia. It reviewed all of the accessible websites of the CPCs in the state and found that more than half had “false or misleading statements regarding the need to make a decision about abortion or links between abortion and mental health problems or breast cancer.” Eighty-nine percent of sites did not indicate that their centers do not offer contraceptives or direct patients to resources where they might find them.

There is considerably more abortion research at the link.

The question that the Justices will have to weigh, however, is unrelated to the issue of reproductive choice–although attitudes about abortion will undoubtedly play an outsized role.

The legal issue to be resolved will apply in areas far removed from reproductive rights. What level of harm to the public justifies government interference with an advocacy organization’s communications? Do the lies being peddled rise to the level of fraud, as in our cubic zirconium example? Or should the risks to the “consumers” of these services be governed by the doctrine of caveat emptor–let the buyer (or in this case, the pregnant woman) beware? Should the imposition of government sanctions require intent–that is, should a finding of culpability require evidence that the people making the false claims know better?

I personally think that organizations willing to lie to women who are already distraught are despicable. But legal analysis must consider the consequences of a decision based upon that sort of emotional reaction.

Can the Supreme Court craft a decision that limits the ability of dishonest folks to prey on vulnerable women, without handing government a cudgel with which to beat the merely opinionated? And if so, what should be the burden of proof?

 

Guns–A Meditation

Once again, Americans are talking about guns in the wake of an unspeakable tragedy. There is little I can add to the outpouring of conflicting opinions, but after digesting a fair number of them, and for what it may be worth, I will share my perspective.

Bear with me.

  • There are 300 million guns in this country. We aren’t going to get rid of them–couldn’t if we tried. Furthermore, the vast majority of gun owners are responsible people–hunters, sportsmen, people hoping to protect their homes. It’s true that a significant number of the 30,000 plus gun deaths in America each year involve those responsible owners: suicides, domestic abuse, children accidentally shooting themselves or others. These deaths are tragic, but I’d draw an analogy to highway deaths–we don’t ban or confiscate cars because they can be lethal.
  • If we continue with the car analogy, however, there are lessons to be learned. We don’t let just anyone drive; in order to get a license you must pass a test. Your license can be revoked if you repeatedly break the rules. Academics study traffic deaths and issue recommendations for making our roadways safer–and legislatures, by and large, take those recommendations seriously. With guns, Congress has prohibited government from funding research on gun violence, and state lawmakers are constantly attacking and rolling back even the most reasonable firearm regulations. Congress even refused to pass a measure that would have prohibited individuals on the no-fly list–people with demonstrable connections to ISIS–from owning guns.
  • The history and interpretation of the Second Amendment has been twisted beyond recognition. If self-proclaimed “originalists” are really interested in the original meaning of the Amendment (I have my doubts), they might find this explanation by former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens edifying.
  • Stevens entire explanation should be read for a full understanding of the history of the Second Amendment and Supreme Court cases interpreting it, but a couple of paragraphs are illuminating.

For more than 200 years following the adoption of that amendment, federal judges uniformly understood that the right protected by that text was limited in two ways: First, it applied only to keeping and bearing arms for military purposes, and second, while it limited the power of the federal government, it did not impose any limit whatsoever on the power of states or local governments to regulate the ownership or use of firearms. Thus, in United States v. Miller, decided in 1939, the court unanimously held that Congress could prohibit the possession of a sawed-off shotgun because that sort of weapon had no reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a “well regulated Militia.”…During the years when Warren Burger was chief justice, from 1969 to 1986, no judge or justice expressed any doubt about the limited coverage of the amendment, and I cannot recall any judge suggesting that the amendment might place any limit on state authority to do anything….

Thus, Congress’s failure to enact laws that would expand the use of background checks and limit the availability of automatic weapons cannot be justified by reference to the Second Amendment or to anything that the Supreme Court has said about that amendment. What the members of the five-justice majority said in those opinions is nevertheless profoundly important, because it curtails the government’s power to regulate the use of handguns that contribute to the roughly 88 firearm-related deaths that occur every day.

  • I am not and never have been a gun owner, so I will not attempt to respond to the gun lobby’s impassioned defense of an unrestricted and unregulated right to own any and all kinds of firearms. I will leave that defense to Trae Crowder, who is both more eloquent and more informed about “gun culture” than I am.

 

Liberal Redneck – On Guns

I sympathize with pro-gun people and always have. But at some point god damn enough is enough. Side note: Ignore the shirt, I just didn't have a plain black one and am dumb. That's all. Love y'all.

Publicado por Trae Crowder em Terça-feira, 3 de outubro de 2017

  • What I do know is that a mother should be able to take her daughter to a concert without worrying that one of them won’t live to make it home. I do know that a husband has a right to take his wife to a concert without having her die in his arms. I do know that constant, widespread anxiety about safety feeds social tensions and paranoia, and exacerbates the tribalism that is tearing this country apart.

Gun owners, please listen: Obama wasn’t going to “take” your guns. Hillary wasn’t, either. No one is suggesting the confiscation of 300 million firearms, or a law forbidding further gun sales. Funding research on gun violence, keeping guns out of the hands of people with a history of violence or mental illness, or people on the no-fly list, is not an infringement of anyone’s Second Amendment rights.

Requiring drivers’ licenses wasn’t a “slippery slope” toward the confiscation of cars, and restrictions on AK-47 ownership won’t lead to Armageddon.

 

 

Good Things Still Happen!

The news isn’t all terrible. (Okay, mostly it is. But not all.) The GOP’s latest effort to strip healthcare from millions of Americans appears to be dead, and Patheos has reported on a rare and welcome bit of bipartisanship:

The U.S. House of Representatives unanimously approved three amendments late Tuesday that would defund a notorious federal forfeiture program that was recently restored by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions…

Sponsored by Reps. Justin Amash, Tim Walberg, and Jamie Raskin and co-sponsored by Reps. Steve Cohen, Jim Sensenbrenner, and Mark Sanford, the amendments address so-called “adoptive” seizures and forfeitures. Under the federal adoption program, state and local law enforcement can seize property without filing criminal charges, and then transfer the seized property to federal prosecutors for forfeiture under federal law. Local and state agencies can collect up to 80 percent of the forfeiture proceeds.

This pernicious practice had been curtailed under former AG Holder, it has been reinstated by Sessions. The amendments cut off funding for the reinstated program. Political sentiment across the spectrum has shifted strongly against asset forfeiture; more than a dozen states have moved to restrict the practice over the past few years.

For those who may not be familiar with civil forfeiture, it is a practice that allows police to seize — and then keep or sell — any property they allege is involved in a crime. Owners of the property need not ever be arrested or convicted of a crime for their cash, cars, or real property to be confiscated by the government.

 

As the ACLU has explained,

Forfeiture was originally presented as a way to cripple large-scale criminal enterprises by diverting their resources. But today, aided by deeply flawed federal and state laws, many police departments use forfeiture to benefit their bottom lines, making seizures motivated by profit rather than crime-fighting. For people whose property has been seized through civil asset forfeiture, legally regaining such property is notoriously difficult and expensive, with costs sometimes exceeding the value of the property.

 

After Sessions moved to restore the program, The Atlantic looked at the numbers, which are staggering:

Civil forfeiture has existed in some form since the colonial era, although most of the current laws date to the War on Drugs’ heyday in the 1980s. Law-enforcement officials like Sessions defend modern civil forfeiture as a way to limit the resources of drug cartels and organized-crime groups. It’s also a lucrative tactic for law-enforcement agencies in an era of tight budgets: A Justice Department inspector general’s report in April found that federal forfeiture programs had taken in almost $28 billion over the past decade, and The Washington Post reported that civil-forfeiture seizures nationwide in 2015 surpassed the collective losses from all burglaries that same year.

 

Civil forfeiture has always been problematic, even in theory. As practiced, it makes a joke of the rule of law, not to mention constitutional values like fundamental fairness and limited governmental authority.

 

Let’s hope the Senate follows the example set by the House, and tells Jeff Sessions there are limits to his regressive efforts.

Trump’s Not The Only One Undermining the Rule of Law

One of the many reasons Trump’s pardon of Arpaio was so appalling was the nature of Arpaio’s behavior during the years he was sheriff. Trump’s pardon essentially endorsed the abuse of power.

Every time a public official–cloaked in the authority of the state–engages in self-serving, corrupt or unlawful behaviors, government legitimacy suffers. The most central principle of the rule of law is that no one is above it; the rules apply equally to the governed and those who do the governing.

Of course, if we don’t know what government officials are doing, we can’t enforce the rules.

One of the reasons our Constitution explicitly protects freedom of the press is because the press acts as a “watchdog,” ferreting out official misconduct. When Trump attacks unflattering coverage as “Fake News,” when Arpaio criticizes the press for pointing out that his actions are racist, they are attempting to delegitimize a critical element of Constitutional accountability.

Mother Jones recently provided an excellent example of how the system is supposed to work.  The magazine investigated and uncovered a Judge’s conflict of interest in the aftermath of an immigration raid that netted 400 undocumented workers. As the article notes, such workers are

usually charged with civil violations and then deported. But most of these defendants, shackled and dragging chains behind them, were charged with criminal fraud for using falsified work documents or Social Security numbers. About 270 people were sentenced to five months in federal prison, in a process that one witness described as a “judicial assembly line.”

Overseeing the process was Judge Linda R. Reade, the chief judge of the Northern District of Iowa… The incident sparked allegations of prosecutorial and judicial misconduct and led to congressional hearings. Erik Camayd-Freixas, an interpreter who had worked at the Waterloo proceedings, testified that most of the Spanish-speaking defendants had been pressured to plead guilty…

Yet amid the national attention, one fact didn’t make the news: Before and after the raid, Reade’s husband owned stock in two private prison companies, and he bought additional prison stock five days before the raid, according to Reade’s financial disclosure forms. Ethics experts say these investments were inappropriate and may have violated the Code of Conduct for United States Judges.

The subsequent discovery of emails and memos from Immigration and Customs Enforcement showed that in the months leading up to the raid, Judge Reade had repeatedly met with immigration officials and federal prosecutors. She had also attended a meeting with officials from the US Attorney’s Office where “parties discussed an overview of charging strategies,” according to ICE memoranda. In those meeting she learned that about 700 arrests were anticipated.

I’ve previously argued that prisons should never be privatized. Not only is incarceration an inherently governmental function, but the private prison industry lobbies (often successfully) for counterproductive public policies. Currently, CCA and Geo, the two largest prison companies, are actively resisting criminal justice reforms and the decriminalization of marijuana. The Mother Jones article points to a less-recognized danger–public officials succumbing to the temptation to “enhance” the value of their investments.

Today, dozens of people who were sentenced by Reade while her husband owned prison stock remain behind bars. According to the US Sentencing Commission, the Northern District of Iowa, where Reade sits, sends a significantly higher proportion of defendants to prison, and with longer sentences, than the national average.

Can we spell “appearance of impropriety”?