Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Police Use of Force: Deferential Legal Standards

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two part blog post examining police use of force. Part one examines the deferential legal standards applied to police use of force. Part two will be published next week and will examine the relationship between officer training and police use of force.

In December 2009, Albuquerque police responded to a domestic violence call where they discovered a man had doused himself in gasoline.  Several police officers managed to place the man in handcuffs and removed him from the apartment.  The man resisted the officers by banging his head against the wall.  In response, several officers used their Tasers in drive-stun mode[1], setting the man on fire.  This account is one of many examples listed in the 2014 Department of Justices civil investigation into the practices by the Albuquerque Police Department (APD).  The findings concluded the department engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive force--in many cases deadly force--violating the Fourth Amendment’s right to be free from unreasonable seizures.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Structural Coercion: Plea Agreements and the Dilemma of the Innocent

There is a thought that only the guilty would admit their guilt and enter into plea agreements. Because why would an innocent person accept the guilty verdict of a crime they in fact did not commit? That theory, however, simply is not true. The plea bargaining process is driven by prosecutorial dominance and is overly coercive to induce guilty pleas. The problem is that our criminal judicial system is plea oriented; dominance that begins with the state offices prosecutor and extends as high as to the judge. The plea bargaining process presents an attractive out for the state in that it is efficient and requires less of an allocation of resources. However, that same out is not as defense friendly. The scenario can be as simple as plead guilty and take 15 years in prison or take your chances at trial and get life. This is a decision that could rest on the shoulders of a guilty defendant, who arguably may deserve the sentence. However, it could also rest on the shoulders of an innocent defendant who would be forfeiting many constitutional rights in order to avoid the huge risk of a jury trial.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Fighting for Justice in Ferguson: The Role of Attorneys During National Protests

With the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, the controversial issues of systematic racism and police brutality have captivated American citizens. In a time when the public outrage and qualms not only about police officers, but also the legal system that seems to protect those who fail to “protect and serve” citizens is at an all time high, people are calling for justice. Attorneys from across the nation have traveled to Ferguson, Missouri to take their place within the heated protests to provide legal assistance to protesters who have been arrested, to monitor and document police behavior, and to provide legal assistance to those who may not be able to afford representation. As citizens fight for justice surrounding the incidents in Ferguson, attorneys have been there on the ground to aid in the fight.     

Friday, December 12, 2014

Riley v. California: The Pandora’s Box in A Digital Age Restructuring of Fourth Amendment Law

This summer, the United States Supreme Court made a huge leap in upholding the people’s right to privacy under the Fourth Amendment in the unanimous decision, Riley v. California.  Riley created a bright-line rule, curbing police discretion, that cell phones (not only smart phones) are not reasonably subject to a search incident to arrest unless an extenuating circumstance is present. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

California’s Criminal Immigration Reform

As of January 2015, a new Californian law will reduce the maximum possible sentence for a misdemeanor from 365 to 364 days. The single day reduction will remain a seemingly inconsequential change for United States citizens; however, the law, S.B. 1310, will have a drastic impact on the lives of noncitizens convicted of misdemeanor offenses.

Under the previous law, many misdemeanors were punishable by up to one year in prison. “That one year sentence, or even the possibility of a one year sentence,” can have a significant impact on a noncitizen’s immigration status. This is because the basis of deportation is not the actual length of the sentence, but rather is contingent on whether an offense is "punishable by a year or more."  Because sentences of exactly one year created this one-day overlap in definitions, many California misdemeanors were deportable offenses under the prior version of the law, even if they are relatively minor and resulted in little or no jail time.

Friday, December 5, 2014

“I-Witness” Testimony: The Problem of Remembering What Happened in Ferguson

*Author’s Note:  First and foremost, I extend my deepest sympathy to the family of Michael Brown.  Regardless of the circumstances, it does not change the fact that a young life was lost; a mother yearns for the warm embrace of her son; a family mourns the loss of a loved-one; a community struggles to understand and heal; and a nation is confronted with an opportunity to define its legacy. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Dealing with Juries Full of “Experts”

The CSI Effect. If you practice law, no doubt you’ve had firsthand experience with this phenomenon, as ubiquitous as it is. For the rest of you, you may not even be aware that there is a problem in the first place. Even if you haven’t watched the show or its many spinoffs, you probably know what it’s about: people solving crimes with the power of forensic science. There are a dozen or so shows on TV right now with this central theme. Millions of people watch CSI, with 8.59 million last week alone. At one point, it was the most watched show in the world and with CSI: Cyber premiering mid-season, it’s clear that these shows are popular and not going anywhere.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Grand Juries: A Balancing Act

No matter your opinion on the ongoing events in Ferguson, Missouri, it is safe to say that this week’s grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson has thrust the topic and function of the grand jury into the national spotlight.  While the purpose and function of a grand jury is nothing new to those practicing criminal law, especially those prosecutors tasked with handling grand jury presentations, it never hurts to review some basic strategies of grand jury presentation.  For while a good prosecutor might be able to indict a ham sandwich, it is also possible to make mistakes that could cost an indictment.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

How a Murderer Becomes a Terrorist: Eric Frein and Domestic Terrorism

Although the 48-day manhunt for suspected murderer Eric Frein came to a close last month, new charges against the fugitive were just released last week.  The charges, two counts of terrorism, were derived from a letter that Frein allegedly wrote to his parents last year, and which he edited as recently as October of this year.  Frein is charged with attacking two Pennsylvania State Troopers at the Blooming Grove barracks this past September.  One trooper was killed and the other was wounded in the sniper attack.  Accordingly, Frein is also charged with, among other things, first degree murder and attempted murder.  Based on the response to the charges in various media outlets, adding the two counts of terrorism to Frein’s list of charges may seem counterintuitive.  This new development certainly raises a number of questions:  What is required for an individual to be charged with terrorism and how does Frein’s letter relate to these charges?  What other domestic terrorists can Frein be compared to?

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Need to Seize the Abuse: Civil Asset Forfeitures and the Efforts at Reform

At a time when the public is becoming more aware and informed of law enforcement related abuse, some have begun to take note of one of the most common, and most profitable, forms of abuse: civil asset forfeitures.

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the federal government encouraged state and local police departments to play a more active role in searching for both suspicious people and suspicious activity. This encouragement, reinforced with millions of dollars on training and education, has resulted in an environment in which police officers routinely confiscate money and property from individuals who have not been, nor are, accused of a crime. The government need only show by preponderance of the evidence that the property was being used for illegal purposes.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Jailing Lolita: Juveniles as Defendants in Prostitution Cases

“Imagine you’re a teenager . . . and you’re having your worst day, a day when you feel sad or ugly . . . and an older man comes up to you and tells you, with sincerity and warmth ‘you’re so beautiful’ or ‘you’re so amazing.’”  According to Alameda County officials, that’s how countless girls as young as twelve or thirteen are ensnared into juvenile prostitution networks.  Over the last three years, juvenile prostitution has proven to be a burgeoning problem in America’s urban environments.  According to the Department of Justice, over forty percent of all human trafficking cases are related to the trafficking of children for the sex trade.  

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Whitfield v. United States: De Minimis Movements

Whitfield v. United States
Docket No. 13-9026
Argument Date: Dec 2, 2014

On December 2, 2014, the Supreme Court of United States will decide whether 18 U.S.C. § 2113(e), which applies to a bank robber who forces another person to accompany him while in flight from the crime scene, requires proof of more than a de minimis movement of the victim.  § 2113(e) states: “whoever, in committing any offense defined in this section [bank robbery], … forces any person to accompany him without the consent of such person, shall be imprisoned not less than ten years, or if death results shall be punished by death or life imprisonment.”  Federal circuit courts differ on how to interpret the words “to accompany him.”  The Fifth and Tenth Circuits have held force-accompaniment only happens upon a showing of substantial movement of a victim as compared to what usually happens during a bank robbery.  However, the Fourth Circuit held that this section applies to all forced movements no matter how insubstantial.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Federal Supervised Release System: Kicking an Offender Down When He Is Trying to Get Back Up

In 1984, the Sentencing Reform Act abolished the Federal Parole System and replaced it with the Federal Supervised Release System. Though the Federal Supervised Release System was supposed to serve the same rehabilitative function for offenders as the parole system, supervised release has led to many negative consequences for offenders. Instead of serving as a system promoting offender rehabilitation as Congress intended, the supervised release system has actually served as more of a leash, pulling offenders right back into prison.
Under the previous parole system, a defendant would be sentenced to a term of imprisonment and after serving the minimum sentence for his prison term, a parole board would determine whether the defendant was ready for release. When the inmate was released from jail on parole, a parole officer would then monitor him or her in the community. The effect of the parole system was that the individual was serving a portion of his or her jail time out in the community under supervision. It seemed reasonable that if one were let out of jail early, that there would be some type of supervision of the individual while out in the community completing his sentence.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

How Real is a Facebook Threat?

The Supreme Court agreed in June 2014 to hear the case of Elonis v. United States, an important First Amendment challenge that will attempt to clarify after years of ambiguity and split decisions in the lower courts the question of when threats, specifically internet threats, should be taken seriously by the law.  The case will be heard on December 1st of this year, and will clarify whether threats of violence made on social media sites such as Facebook, should be judged by (1) whether the speaker intended to harm anyone, or (2) whether the recipient was genuinely afraid of being harmed.  Essentially, it is a decision that will decide whether the crime should be judged by the actor’s subjective intent or the target’s subjective belief.

Online death threats are becoming all too common.  Recent examples include an 11-year-old who faced death threats through Facebook over his love of hunting, a mayor whose life was threatened by his paper boy, and hundreds of Harvard students who received emails from a sender who threatened to “shoot all of you” and “kill you individually.”

Friday, October 31, 2014

New Marijuana Policy In Brooklyn, New York

District Attorney Kenneth Thompson announced back in July a new policy in regards to marijuana possession. Under the new policy, the Kings County District Attorneys Office in Brooklyn, New York will no longer prosecute first-time offenders who were arrested for low-level misdemeanor marijuana possession. Low-level possession is twenty-five grams or less. DA Thompson’s policy reasons for this change included making better use of limited resources, and preventing otherwise good young men from being saddled with a criminal record due to a minor, non-violent offense. Before the policy was in effect, seventy percent of those arrested for marijuana possession in New York had no prior criminal record. Furthermore, eight-five percent of those who were arrested, were minorities, specifically blacks and Hispanics.  In 2012 alone, more than 12,000 people were arrested for small amounts of marijuana possession.  The District Attorney also cited that most judges in the county already tended to dismiss Class B misdemeanor marijuana possession, and that the focus should be on more serious crimes.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Rodriguez v. United States; De Minimis Car Searches

Rodriguez v. United States
Docket Number: 13-9972

Argument Heard: TBD

The Supreme Court has previously held that, during an otherwise lawful traffic stop, asking a driver to exit a vehicle, conducting a drug sniff with a trained canine, or asking a few off-topic questions are "de minimis" intrusions on personal liberty that do not require reasonable suspicion of criminal activity in order to comport with the Fourth Amendment.[1]  This case poses the question of whether the same rule applies after the conclusion of the traffic stop, so that an officer may extend the already-completed stop for a canine sniff without reasonable suspicion or other lawful justification.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Texas Protects Harassers’ Constitutional Rights in the Name of “Self-Expression”

A decision from the highest criminal court in Texas is the latest seeking to define the line between privacy and constitutionally protected speech.  Last month, the Texas Court of Criminal appeals struck down a portion of a state law that prevented people from taking “upskirt” pictures, holding that the law was unconstitutional on its face because it violated free-speech rights and penalized people’s thoughts at the expense of trying to protect people from harassment. The case involved a Texas statute, which made it a felony crime to photograph or record someone without the other person’s consent and “with the intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person.”

The Texas court found this statute to be unconstitutional under the Texas Constitution, and the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment’s right to free speech and individual thought.  The law was meant in part to protect against predatory photographers who covertly take pictures under women’s skirts or down their blouses than then post them on the Internet.  Complaints of such incidents have become common across the nation as mobile phones equipped with cameras are on the rise.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Life in a Box: The Plight of American Youth Growing Up in Solitary Confinement

Imagine being locked behind a steel door in a room so small you can barely stretch your arms out all the way.  All of your meals come in through a narrow slot in the door.  On the left side of your tiny cell is a rusted metal bed with a thin, rubber-foam mattress that is spotted with mold. Graffiti is scrawled all over the dirty walls.  To your right is a stainless steel toilet-sink combination.  The room smells of urine, sweat, and drool. In the cell next to you, you can hear someone screaming.  You are caged in this six-by-eight foot concrete box for twenty-three hours a day.  The days blend into each other.  You cry and scream and yell.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Officer Safety: A Detriment to Society?

In today’s society, there seems to be an emerging trend of distrust related to police officers, where the public often feels that the police overstep their bounds and exercise poor judgment. I think most people would agree that there is inherent danger in the practice of police work, and that as a matter of public policy we want our officers to be safe. However, the question that keeps presenting itself in the news is: are the current laws we have protecting officer safety actually causing harm to citizens?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Digital Service of Process: Turning to Social Media

Technology has historically outpaced the law. The prevalence of social media throughout society indicates an inherent ability to transition methods of Service of Process in the near future. Given social media’s rapid technological advances in other fields, perhaps it will find its place within the framework of the legal system. There are already precedents being set.

After defendant Gökhan Örün, who is allegedly located in Turkey could not be located and served personally or by letter, the plaintiff, WhosHere, offered to serve process on Örün by email and through the social networking sites, Facebook and LinkedIn. On February 20th, 2014, U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Rawles Jones, Jr. (Eastern District of Virginia) authorized a first-ever Service of Process by social media. Judge Jones held that, since Turkey “has not specifically objected to service by email or social media networking sites which are not explicitly listed as means of service,” under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 4(f)(3) email, Facebook, and LinkedIn were reasonable methods of delivering the summons and complaint.

Friday, October 3, 2014

No Such Thing as Behind Closed Doors: How Technology Has Outdated the Third-Party Doctrine

Most people would agree with the assertion that if you want to keep something private, then you just shouldn’t tell anyone! And that is just the rule that the Supreme Court developed in Katz v. United States when it contemplated matters that are not considered “private,” in regards to the Fourth Amendment. The Court stated that “what a person knowingly exposes to the public . . . . is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection.” A little over a decade later, the Court expanded this notion in Smith v. Maryland to create the third-party doctrine, which states that “a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.” The idea behind the doctrine is that citizens should take steps to protect their privacy or to preserve their secrets; and if a citizen puts their personal information out to another party (usually a business with the third-party doctrine), then that information is obviously not private—and more importantly, it is not protected under the Fourth Amendment from government intrusion.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Privacy in a Tech World: Cellphone Data Requires a Warrant

After Apple Inc. announced the release of the iPhone 6 models for September 19th, the tech community roared in excitement about all of the new capabilities, and what a new smart phone could do for them.  With more than 1.2 million apps available, it’s pretty much a guarantee that “there’s an app for that.”  Increasingly, many people use apps for issues they may wish to keep private, such as sending confidential emails, or more controversially, for the “sexting” phenomenon.

Friday, September 26, 2014

“High Crime Area” Undefined

Map of US Murder Rate in 1965
The phrase “high-crime area” is often thrown around, but what does it mean exactly?  The term "high-crime area" was first used by the Supreme Court in Adams v. Williams, where the Court stated: "While properly investigating the activity of a person who was reported to be carrying narcotics and a concealed weapon and who was sitting alone in a car in a high-crime area at 2:15 in the morning, Sgt. Connolly had ample reason to fear for his safety." In a series of Fourth Amendment cases from Adams v. Williams to Illinois v. Wardlow, the Supreme Court of the United States has considered the character of the neighborhood to be one factor in finding "reasonable suspicion" to stop someone. Specifically, in Wardlow, the Court found that "officers are not required to ignore the relevant characteristics of a location in determining whether the circumstances are sufficiently suspicious to warrant further investigation." 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Recent Issues in Using Midzolam in Executions

File:SQ Lethal Injection Room.jpg
In late July, the United States Supreme Court lifted a stay issued by the Ninth Circuit that required the State of Arizona to provide information about its lethal injection drug cocktail to inmate Joseph Rudolph Wood.  Mr. Wood was executed that same day.  His death was characterized by reporters as taking more than two hours and he took more than 600 gasps for air.  Most executions are complete in ten or eleven minutes.  Mr. Wood’s lengthy execution comes on the heels of another lengthy execution where Mr. Dennis McGuire took more than 20 minutes to die in Ohio, and also repeatedly convulsed and fought for breath after being injected.  An inmate in Oklahoma took more than a half an hour to die in his execution.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Justified Homicide and the Diminishing Duty of Reasonability

In the wake of the Mike Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, it is difficult not to reflect on the constant expansions of affirmative defense doctrines that seem to be increasingly lenient. Specifically, self-defense laws and the fleeing felon doctrine demonstrate how the law has steered away from “defending”, and has empowered the attacked to become the aggressor. By removing the duty to retreat, and not creating any sort of alternative action provisions to prevent deadly force, self-defense, in some states, has become a license to kill. The fleeing doctrine, on the other hand, allows trained law enforcement, which are skilled in using defensive methods to apprehend suspects, to use deadly force if the felon resists and flees. Instead of using other techniques to stop and subdue, deadly force is permitted if it is reasonable to believe that the officer is in danger of deadly force or physical injury, or if others are. While justifiable homicides are commonplace in our criminal law system, this shift from trained police to everyday citizens having these rights is concerning. On the one hand, there is a necessity to permit reasonable force to defend against injury/assaults on one’s person. On the other hand, where is the line between reasonable force and vigilante justice? When does that line begin to get disturbingly blurred at the hands of our judicial system? This entry will discuss state self-defense laws, their application in controversial cases, and potential reform efforts. 

Traditionally, the law allows the use of deadly force only when one reasonably believes that they are in imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm.  As it stands, the defense of self allows for individuals to use the necessary force to protect their person and their life. What is troubling is the constant expansion that states are using to create more lenient self-defense laws. From states that do not require there to be imminent danger of death to states that allow you to murder over property, the boundaries are constantly tested, pushed back, and blurred. This was exhibited in a study that showed the expansion of self-defense laws lead to more homicides by a significant 8%.

This 8% increase should raise eyebrows, as it directly impacts the role of the prosecutor.  That is an additional 600 homicides per year across states that have expanded the castle doctrine. Homicides are on the rise because they are “justified” through states permitting the use of unnecessary force. This will increase prosecutorial workloads. For those who are taken to trial, it takes up the court’s time, it is costly, and victims’ families are forced to listen to testimony that indicates deadly force was okay, even though the harm had passed. The prosecutorial role contains a duty to be an administrator of justice. That justice shouldn’t extend to self-proclaimed warriors, using the statutes as a shield to commit murder, but instead it should be used to ensure that self-defense is only allowed when there is a life to defend. These laws are tying the hands of prosecutors who wouldn't be able to bring forth a case where one of these expansions prevented it. So where is the accountability for those that intentionally manipulate the law in order commit these crimes?

In Texas in 2007, Joe Horn chased and shot down burglars after they stole property from his home. At the time he was on the 911-dispatch call and was alerted that there were officers en route. Since he was chasing them, there was also no apparent harm. However, a grand jury refused to indict him. It should be noted that throughout the call, Horn continuously said to the dispatcher that he had a right to defend himself and his property, and as he chased the burglars he stated “I’m going to kill them.” The law protected Horn as he chased down the burglars, and gunned them down.  

The “stand your ground” law that Texas modeled its castle doctrine after has long been deemed the vigilante justice doctrine that hands people a gun and a license to kill. By having no duty to retreat, even outside the home, states are empowering the attacked to become the attacker. This concept of allowing pursuance even when the danger has ceased brings us to present day Ferguson, Missouri. Legal experts in the media frenzy surrounding the Mike Brown killing have reported that self defense includes consistent pursuance until deadly force is used. In Tennessee v. Gardner, the Supreme Court ruled on this issue in relation to law enforcement. The Fleeing Felon Rule allows law enforcement to use deadly force to retrieve a felon. This justifiable homicide, which can be conducted while the felons are subdued, seems to deter the entire goal of the doctrine itself. By not requiring some level of retreat or at least avoidance, this doctrine can easily lead to a game of hunter and hunted. It completely contradicts the “reasonable” force expectations.

The modifications to justifiable homicide defenses for both citizens and law enforcement continue to be a rising issue. The attacked are given a license to kill and not a permit to protect. When states permit deadly force to the extent that one can hunt down their initial attacker, burglar, etc., it sends a very inconsistent message to communities. That message conflicts with the initial message of protecting your home, protecting your person, and protecting your community, because it contains no responsibility to retreat or use a lesser force.  That same message is being echoed through the application of the fleeing felon doctrine. Even though there must be a reasonable belief that serious injury or death from the hands of the felon may occur, there is still no requirement for an officer to first attempt a lesser level of force for apprehension before deadly force is used. Instead of taking measures to stop the criminal, they are permitted to kill. These steps taken by states are sending a message that it is okay to kill when you have to, but it is also sending a message that says you can kill if you want to. There is no duty to retreat, no duty to use a lower level of force, and therefore no duty to be held accountable.

Amber Cleaver
Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner 

Photo by Mike Licht, via Flickr