Monday, July 27, 2015

Suspected Killer Dylann Roof: Is Punishment for a “Hate Crime” Necessary?

On June 17th, 2015, a mass shooting took place at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Nine people, all of whom were attending an evening prayer meeting at the time, were shot and killed while a tenth survived. Among those killed was the senior pastor of the church and state senator Reverend Clementa Pinckney. The morning after, police officials arrested 21-year old Dylann Roof as the primary suspect in this shooting. Dylann Roof attended the prayer meeting the night before and opened fire after standing up and saying he was there to “shoot black people”. He stated African-Americans had “raped [white] women and are taking over the country. In his confession at the police station, Roof stated he wanted to start a “race war”.

Today, Roof faces nine murder charges and three attempted murder charges for the events of that night in June. If convicted, the death penalty is certainly on the table as South Carolina still offers it as punishment for murder. In addition, federal authorities are investigating the crime to determine whether the federal government will prosecute Roof for a hate crime

The reasoning behind prosecuting Dylann Roof for a hate crime reaches far beyond this killing. Since the events of the Charleston Church Shooting, it has been discovered that this young man was indeed a racist and a white supremacist. Pictures have surfaced on line of Roof wearing a jacket that had the apartheid South Africa flag embroidered on it, as well as others where he is seen burning the American flag and proudly waving the Confederate flag instead. Roof had a website that laid out why he decided to terrorize this church specifically and what fueled his anger toward the Black community. He had written a racist manifesto that explained his path toward hatred and even talked to his friends about doing “something crazy” after of six months of careful planning. None of the people around him had ever taken him seriously, until now.

Prosecutors have the discretion to charge whatever crimes fit the defendant at hand, given the evidence provided. This means the prosecutor is the one in most cases to wield the initial power. Prosecutorial discretion is more than just what it appears to be on its face; the types of crimes with which prosecutors charge defendants can potentially send a message to prosecutors in future cases. In this case, this means that if Dylann Roof is only charged with nine murders and three attempted murders, future prosecutors will see this as a typical murder case. However, if he is charged with a hate crime, a message would be sent that this specific type of murder stands out and should be treated differently. This could also potentially deter others from committing violent acts of racism and prejudice.

There are some who argue charging Dylann Roof federally for a hate crime is too excessive. Federal charges are sentenced with more severity than state charges, and there are differing detention centers for those convicted. Unlike in other recent race-related cases, most of the evidence is in place; Roof has even confessed to the crime and will almost certainly be convicted for his state charges. However, since South Carolina does not have a specific law targeting hate crimes, that particular charge is not an option at the state level. Therefore, any hate crime charge would have to be brought at a federal level.

Supporters of a federal charge for a hate crime say that Roof’s actions call for something beyond a conviction for a series of murders. This crime was racially motivated, and the evidence of this is staggering. The purpose for having hate crimes on the books is not just to punish criminals who may, for whatever reason, evade harsher punishment on the state level, but to actively criminalize behavior that is rooted in hatred for another’s race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or any other type of status. The American criminal justice system does not punish a person’s ideologies or political leanings. But, left unchecked, such ideologies coupled with heinous acts viewed through the lens of historical racial tension in this country, could be very dangerous and detrimental to general safety. Finding Dylann Roof guilty of a hate crime is not a futile endeavor; doing so could help to inform future prosecutorial discretion in charging these types of crimes. It would also send a message that Americans view crime against others on the basis of racial prejudice to be a capital offense.
By Calvin Walker
CLP Senior Staffer

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

High Times, Fiscal Lows: Washington D.C.’s Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Amendment Act Does Not Apply Retroactively


On February 26, 2015, District of Columbia passed the Legalization of Possession of Minimal Amounts of Marijuana for Personal Use Initiative of 2014 (hereinafter “possession law”). The possession law made the possession of two ounces or less of marijuana legal for adults 21 years or older.  Nonetheless, any federal law enforcement officer in the District can arrest an individual for possession or use of any amount of marijuana because marijuana is still illegal under federal law.  The main point of this new law was to allow individuals to grow a few plants in their home (up to six), use marijuana within their own residence or on private property, and stop making criminals out of those who transfer (not sell) small amounts (one ounce or less) of marijuana to others.  However, the Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Amendment Act (MDA) made the “the possession or transfer without remuneration of marijuana weighing one ounce or less”* a civil violation with a fine of $25.  This amendment strictly prohibits the use of marijuana in public spaces, and it flows in tandem with the possession law which decriminalizes the possession of two ounces or less and the paraphernalia associated with such possession.  Yet recently, the legislature has added a new subsection to the MDA to make clear that the new possession law does not limit any part of the MDA.**  The Emergency Amendment of the MDA further clarifies that “any public place to which the public is invited” includes private clubs**, or simply that clubs cannot provide marijuana to their patrons.

The purpose of both the MDA and the new possession law is to reduce the number of marijuana possession arrests and convictions since the District had the highest percentage of such arrests per capita in the nation.  In ACLU’s June 2013 report, it further noted that 90.9 percent of people arrested in the District for marijuana possession were black, which elucidates the profound racial bias in the application of the District’s marijuana laws.  Therefore, ostensibly, the point is to eliminate or reduce the racial bias, criminalization, and derailment of minority lives and careers with petty possession offenses.  Even though the MDA is meant to prevent future petty offenses, it should also apply retroactively.  The District of Columbia Court of Appeals has recently spoken on the MDA in Washington v. United States, making it clear that the Act does not apply retroactively.  Thus, individuals who were arrested, charged, or convicted before July 17, 2014—when the MDA took effect—will still suffer some collateral consequences of their offenses despite the ability to seal their records under the Record Sealing Amendment.


In Washington v. United States, the appellant was charged on July 5, 2013, with “one count of unlawful possession of marijuana and one count of unlawful possession of drug paraphernalia.”  He was tried and convicted on both counts and sentenced to two concurrent terms of time served.  The main issue here was that “[i]f the police had found [the] appellant’s marijuana one year and thirteen days later, he would have been subject to a $25 fine.”  Instead, he has two convictions on his record.

The court found that the MDA does not apply retroactively because the DC Council did not expressly provide for retroactive application in the act, and the legislative history did not explicitly mention pending prosecutions.  However, the court highlights the Record Sealing for Decriminalized and Legalized Offenses Amendment Act of 2014 (hereinafter “Records Sealing Amendment”), which the judiciary committee designed to “address[] the collateral consequences of marijuana possession arrests and convictions for individuals who were arrested, charged, or convicted before July 17, 2014.  The court concludes that this separate bill supports the inference that the legislature did not intend to apply the MDA retroactively.  Yet the opposite conclusion could be drawn as well.


Scholars and practitioners could read both the MDA and the new possession law as intentionally preventing collateral consequences of petty convictions because those convictions would no longer impact the future of individuals.  Yet the D.C. Court of Appeals decided that the Records Sealing Amendment serves that purpose, and the MDA will not apply retroactively.  In the Records Sealing Amendment, the legislature realized that “the decision to use marijuana should not render someone a criminal for life, but under this bill an eligible offender must still seek legal counsel and file a motion to seal his or her record of arrest, charge, or conviction.  So in the end, the legislature is accomplishing little for those still suffering the collateral consequences from offenses now decriminalized because many past offenders cannot afford the assistance of legal counsel or do not even know that such a records sealing bill exists.

The fiscal impact of past marijuana possession offenses will still be felt within a great majority of affected low-income minority communities in the District.  And the true legislative intent of both acts will not be served without some form of retroactive application.  The key take-away here is that practitioners, including the prosecutor’s office, and other agencies, like the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA), need to help past offenders seal their criminal marijuana possession records to limit the collateral consequences they still suffer.

Written by Miranda Dore
Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner

*Marijuana Decriminalization Act § 101(a), 61 D.C. Reg. 3482 (2014)
**  Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Clarification Emergency Amendment Act of 2015, 2015 District of Columbia Laws Act 21-19, approved March 26, 2015; D.C. Code § 48-911.01

Monday, July 6, 2015

Asset Forfeiture and the Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel of Choice: Should Crime Pay?

On June 8, 2015, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the issue of whether a criminal defendant’s rights to due process and counsel of choice under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments are violated if the court orders a pretrial freeze of the defendant’s assets; assets which may be necessary for the defendant to hire private.

In Luis v. United States, the defendant, Sila Luis, was charged with Medicare fraud in the Southern District of Florida.  Luis was indicted in 2012 on fraud charges involving around $45 million in illegal Medicare payments.  The FBI said Luis, president of a healthcare provider, paid kickbacks and bribes to Medicare patient recruiters and submitted false claims for work done on behalf of its beneficiaries.  Once indicted, federal prosecutors froze Luis’s assets the same day, but Luis argued that the frozen assets were in no way connected to the alleged crimes and that prosecutors violated her Sixth Amendment rights since she needed the money to hire an attorney to mount a defense.  In a motion responding to the prosecutor’s temporary restraining order, Luis argued, “the Fifth and Sixth Amendments, individually and in combination, require that the court exempt from restraint and forfeiture those assets needed for (and ultimately expended on) [] legal defense to the charges pending before [the court].”  Further, she argued that by freezing her untainted assets before trial, the government not only “cripple[d] [her] ability to retain [private] counsel,”  but it also deprived her of money she would have invested “for the best and most industrious investigators, experts, paralegals, and law clerks, to at least attempt to match the litigation support available to the United States Attorney’s Office.

However, the lower court ruled against Luis after federal prosecutors argued that freezing the assets was necessary because she had already spent the tainted money on travel and luxury goods, and freezing the remaining funds were necessary to recover the full value of alleged fraud if convicted.  The court, in conclusion, stated that there is “no Sixth Amendment right to use untainted, substitute assets to hire counsel.”  The court also quoted an analogy from the Fourth Circuit’s decision in In re Forfeiture Hearing As to Caplin & Drysdale, Chartered, which illustrated a bank robbery involving $100,000, after which, the defendant is arrested in possession of the $100,000.  The defendant, without proof, argues his innocence and claims the money to be a gift from a friend.  The Fourth Circuit provided that no reasonable person would “contend that the $100,000 must be made available to pay for the defendant’s lawyer, and not be kept available for return to the bank in the event the defendant is found guilty.”  In reliance on the analogy, the Fourth Circuit held that prosecutors may take steps to freeze a defendant’s assets. 

The Luis case differs from the case that was before the Fourth Circuit.  In Luis, the defendant’s frozen assets were not traceable to the fraud scheme.  The lower court again relied on the Fourth Circuit’s analogy, adding that the bank robber spent the $100,000 shorty after stealing it, but it just so happens he has an extra $100,000 obtained legitimately sitting in a bank account.  The court provided that Congress authorized restraint of those substitute assets in 18 U.S.C. § 1345 and therefore, the bank has the right to have those substitute, untainted assets kept available for return.
The Eleventh Circuit also rejected Luis’s arguments without any further explanation.  The Supreme Court granted certiorari to decide whether Luis’s Sixth Amendment right to hire counsel of choice should outweigh prosecutorial efforts to recover the full value of alleged fraud against the government.

The Fifth Amendment provides that “No person shall be … deprived of … property, without due process of law.”  Further, the Sixth Amendment provides that criminal defendants “enjoy the right … to have the assistance of Counsel for his defense.”  The Supreme Court has subsequently found in Powell v. Alabama that “a defendant should be afforded a fair opportunity to secure counsel of his own choice.”  This right to counsel of choice has been upheld even recently in the 2006 United States v. Gonzalez-Lopez decision, when the Supreme Court found that a defendant’s right to counsel is violated “whenever the defendant’s choice is wrongfully denied,” and such an error “pervades the entire trial.”

However, last term, the Supreme Court in Kaley v. United States reaffirmed the government’s ability to freeze property and/or money if there is a chance it could be tied to illegal activity.  The Court first approved of the government’s ability to freeze a defendant’s assets in the 1989 United States v. Monsanto decision, where the Court approved the constitutionality of such an order as long as it is “based on a finding of probable cause to believe that the property will ultimately be proved forfeitable.”  The Kaley Court held that standard to apply even when the defendant seeks to use the disputed assets to pay for counsel.  Since Monsanto, lower courts have provided hearings to defendants seeking to remove an asset restraint to pay for counsel.  In these hearings, defendants have been allowed to litigate the issue of whether the assets in question are connected to the crime; however, the Kaley Court “[did] not opine on” whether pretrial restraint of untainted assets could pose constitutional problems.  Lower courts since then have differed.  For example, the Fourth Circuit has held that defendants are still guaranteed the right to counsel of choice and are allowed to use untainted assets to hire counsel, but the Court of Appeals in Luis found that Monsanto, Kaley, and Caplin & Drysdale “foreclose[d]” constitutional challenges to pretrial restraint of untainted assets needed to hire counsel of choice.

The Luis decision will be worth following because the government has increasingly used asset forfeiture as a “potent weapon” to ensure “crime doesn’t pay,” as put by Warren Richey of The Christian Science Monitor.  Many fraud cases are a result of government claims on property or stolen proceeds that are directly traceable to criminal activity; however, prosecutors have sought to freeze and preserve assets and/or proceeds that may or may not be linked to criminal activity as a form of insurance that the government will be able to collect if the defendant is convicted.  The problem with this strategy is that pretrial freezing of the defendant’s money may leave the defendant short of funds—funds necessary to hire a lawyer.

It is difficult to predict how the Supreme Court will decide in this case.  The case raises issues of the defendant’s presumption of innocence, right to counsel of choice, fairness, and property rights, all of which are rooted in the Constitution.  Chief Justice Roberts touched on the issue last year in a dissenting opinion, in which he said, “[f]ew things could do more to undermine the criminal justice system’s integrity than to allow the government to initiate a prosecution and then, at its option, disarm its presumptively innocent opponent by depriving him of his counsel of choice … [such a move would be] fundamentally at odds with our constitutional tradition and basic notions of fair play.”  

Although the Luis decision will most likely affects federal practitioners, state-level practitioners should follow this case.  Some states have various statutes providing for the forfeiture of property and/or money that was either used in criminal activity, or traceable to criminal activity.  For example, Wisconsin’s statute does not explicitly provide for or prohibit pretrial seizures of assets and there have been no cases to address the issue.  Practitioners in similarly situated states should be wary of this decision because any limitations the Supreme Court places under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments would apply to the states.

By Mahira Khan
CLP Staffer