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Published: Sun, 21 Jan 2018 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Sun, 21 Jan 2018 03:55:49 -0500


New York Gov. Cuomo Proposes Positive Criminal Justice Reforms

Thu, 04 Jan 2018 08:00:00 -0500

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has announced a new push for criminal justice reform in his state. If he gets his way, there will be fewer unnecessary pretrial detentions, fewer delays in bringing people to trial, and tighter restrictions on civil asset forfeiture. Cuomo announced the reform effort as part of his state of the state address yesterday. As always, the devil will be in the details. But Cuomo's list of proposals is certainly laudable on the basics. The biggest would be to eliminate cash bail for misdemeanor and nonviolent felonies, replacing it with a pretrial system of freeing folks if they're not dangerous and keeping track of them to make sure they return to court. In many states, a reliance on cash bail has led to an unbalanced environment where people languish in jail based on whether they can pay, not on whether they're a danger to their communities or a flight risk. The end result is that poor people charged with low-level crimes end up stuck in jail awaiting a court date. And they can end up waiting a very long time. Sometimes defendants end up pleading guilty just because they've essentially served their likely sentence while waiting for their trial. Simply being arrested for low-level crimes ends up being the equivalent of being convicted and sentenced. New Jersey changed its pretrial system last year to all but eliminate cash bail and replace it with a risk-based assessment designed to determine who remains in jail and who is freed. This year we will see a legislative push for such a shift in California, where a similar effort stalled last year. State-level bail reform may be the central criminal justice reform of 2018, particularly given Attorney General Jeff Sessions' lack of interest in federal reforms and given the new drug war panic sparked by opioid-related deaths. In addition to the bail reform, Cuomo is proposing that police be banned from seizing your stuff unless you've actually been arrested. In other words, he's tackling civil asset forfeiture, where police and prosecutors are able to take and keep people's property without actually convicting you of a crime. Disappointingly, Cuomo's proposal will not go as far as to require a conviction. But requiring an arrest will at least reduce some really abusive roadside stop forfeiture situations, where police pull a vehicle over, search it to see if the driver has lots of cash, and—if he does—declare that the driver must be involved with some sort of illegal drug activity and seize the money. Because they have no actual evidence, they don't actually arrest the suspect; they just take the cash. Then the owner has to fight in court to try to get his money back, essentially having prove his innocence. Cuomo has also called for better disclosure of evidence between prosecutors and defense attorneys, and he wants to require that the defendants themselves (not just their lawyers) agree to waive the right to a speedy trial. He also hopes to remove some rules that ban people with criminal backgrounds from getting state licenses for various occupations outside of law enforcement fields, and he plans to stop the practice of suspending people's driver's licenses for drug convictions when the crimes did not involve driving. The full list of Cuomo's proposed reforms can be read here. This is not the actual legislation itself, though, and he's going to have to battle police, prosecutors, and the bail bond industry to get this passed.[...]

Here's a Novel Idea: Hold Both Caller and Police Officer Responsible for Deadly 'Swatting'

Tue, 02 Jan 2018 12:25:00 -0500

A Los Angeles man has been arrested for telling police a hostage situation was underway at a home in Wichita, Kansas. His claim was a lie, and the police fatally shot a man in the ensuing raid. Tyler Barriss, 25, is accused of calling city hall in Wichita claiming that a shooting and hostage situation were unfolding at a local home. Barriss apparently was attempting a "swatting" prank on somebody he was having an argument with online over the video game Call of Duty. "Swatting" pranks are nasty stunts where a caller draws a SWAT team out to an innocent party's home by calling the authorities and pretending a dangerous crimeis taking place there. They've grown increasingly popular over the past few years as a way of frightening or getting revenge on somebody. Barriss was not having a dispute with Andrew Finch, 28, a father of two in Wichita, nor anybody else at the address he sent police to. The person Barriss was arguing with had given him a fake address. A SWAT team showed up at Finch's door, and when he went outside to see what was going on, a police officer shot and killed him. This appears to be the first time somebody has been killed by a swatting prank, though people have previously been shot and injured. Barriss has a criminal background and was previously arrested for calling in phony bomb threats to ABC Studios in Los Angeles. An example of how pioneering this case is: Right now the police and prosecutors don't seem able to tell the media what Barriss is actually being charged with. He's being held on a felony warrant without a bond, but the charges might not be revealed until his first court appearance this week. The case has unfortunately quickly and predictably turned into a "Who's to blame?" question. It's literally in the headline of New York Times' coverage of Finch's death: "Fatal 'Swatting' Episode in Kansas Raises Quandary: Who Is to Blame?" Is it Barriss, who fabricated a crime? Or is it the officer, who shot an unarmed, innocent man? This is a false dilemma. Both are to blame. If Barriss is indeed the man who called the police, he is responsible for sending a group of armed people into an environment where they believed violence was happening and innocent lives were at stake. Now, what that looks like in terms of holding Barriss criminally responsible is a complicated and challenging problem. Libertarian lawyer Ken "Popehat" White has suggested rewriting laws to make swatting somebody a felony. Read his explanation here. But that doesn't mean the officer who shot Finch behaved appropriately. It's frustrating and depressing to see that, even when the police know they made a very serious mistake, they are circling the wagons. From The New York Times: Chief Livingston said Mr. Finch, who was unarmed and apparently not the intended target of the online prank, did not immediately comply with officers' commands and moved his hands to his waistline, leading one officer to fear he had drawn a weapon. That's right—they went straight to the well-worn "The officer thought he was reaching for a weapon" defense even though we all know by now that he was just some random guy. Finch's mom says the police never announced themselves. Finch had no way of knowing that he was in danger of getting shot. And yet police are instinctively trying to pin the mistake on Finch. The Times notes that laws typically allow officers to shoot people when they "reasonably believe" they are in danger. This has created an environment where police officers are incentivized to exaggerate a sense of danger because it will allow them an excuse for mistakes and even for reckless behavior. Livingston's responses to the shooting are very much a concern, because they don't suggest that he sees any sort of problems in the way his police responded to this call. In the Times piece, University of Kansas Law Professor Jean Phillips even suggests that Livingston's insistence on defending the cop could actually undermine efforts to hold Barriss responsible for Finch's death. If Finch's shooting is deemed "justifiable," w[...]

Breaking News Before Local Cops Do Lands Laredo Vlogger With Felony Charges

Tue, 19 Dec 2017 07:55:00 -0500

Posting local crime news online before the cops do could land you felony charges in Texas. That's what Priscilla Villarreal—who runs a hyper-local Laredo news page on Facebook called LaGordiloca—found out last week. LaGordiloca's nearly 84,000 followers and Villarreal's wide range of posts (often in both English and Spanish) on community events haven't earned her consideration as "official" media from the Laredo Police Department (LPD), apparently. And the department doesn't seem too keen on honoring the First Amendment rights of ordinary folks. Police last Wednesday charged Villarreal with two counts of "misuse of official information," a third-degree felony. The information she allegedly misused was provided to her by a longtime patrol officer with the department charging her. We're not talking about whistleblower stuff or private details about investigations. This wasn't information classified as non-public or prohibited from disclosure under Texas public-information law. It concerned things like local arrests and traffic accidents—information that was already or would soon be made publicly available. But LPD's Public Information Office would generally control the timing (and framing) of its release, with selective tips given to professional media outlets and an official statement posted to the LPD website and to social media. Villarreal subverted this process. According to the Laredo Morning Times, this is the first misuse of information case prosecuted in Webb County. Police have been investigating since July and have already pored through Villarreal's phone records. Phone records reveal hundreds of texts since the beginning of the year between Villarreal and LPD Officer Barbara Goodman, according to the criminal complaint against Villarreal. (Goodman, a 19-year veteran of the department, was placed on administrative leave last week pending internal and criminal investigations.) These tips helped Villarreal break stories before "official news media" did and post them to the LaGordiloca Facebook page before the LPD posted it to theirs. And this allowed Villarreal to gain "popularity in 'Facebook,'" the complaint states. That last bit—police saying Villarreal's goal in sharing information was personal attention, not public dissemination of the news—is crucial to the charges against her. Of course informing the public and gaining Facebook popularity aren't mutually exclusive, no more so than selling advertising and breaking local news is for more traditional media outlets. But for police purposes here, it's only the personal-gain part that matters. Texas law says a person can be guilty of misuse of official information if they solicit or receive information from a public servant, the official "has access to [that information] by means of his office or employment," the info "has not been made public" yet, and the person receiving it does so "with intent to obtain a benefit or with intent to harm or defraud another" (emphasis mine). Villarreal was clearly not trying to harm or defraud anyone by publishing local news to LaGordiloca, so police must show that she did so "with intent to obtain a benefit" in order to make the misuse-of-information charge stick. On a GoFundMe page soliciting help to pay for an attorney, Villarreal describes LaGordiloca as performing services that "local media outlets fail to provide" and going behind closed doors "whether it be the City Council Chambers, The Judges Chambers or the Police Department." "I strongly believe that censorship only hinders the advancement of a society," writes Villarreal. "I strongly believe in freedom of information and freedom of speech. I am in NO way a scholar of a higher learning institute but I am in my own way a graduate of the school of life most importantly the curriculum of what is right and what is wrong. … I continue to be adamant that transparency in the political and law enforcement theater is the base for trust." Villarreal's attorney told the Laredo Morning Times that she denied the all[...]

Florida Bill Would Make it a Crime to be the Victim of Auto Theft

Tue, 12 Dec 2017 11:00:00 -0500

(image) Florida state Rep. Wengay Newton (D–St. Petersburg) is so tough on auto theft that he wants to punish the crime's victims as well.

Newton has introduced a bill that would make it a criminal offense to have your car stolen if you leave it unlocked with the keys inside. His legislation would make this a second-degree misdemeanor; violators would face fines of up to $500 and jail time of up to 60 days.

But only if the person who steals the car is a minor. Having the same unlocked car stolen by an adult would not be a criminal offense.

"We have a lot of juveniles getting access to vehicles unlawfully. However, these juveniles are not using guns or force. These vehicles are pretty much just left running with keys in them," Newton told WTSP. He claims his bill would "close this floodgate of a crime of opportunity."

Leaving one's car unlocked can already lead to a citation in Florida, but a Tampa Bay Times analysis found that these are rarely issued.

Not surprisingly, this proposal has prompted some pushback from people who say it's unfair to crime victims. That includes a number of law enforcement officials.

"I don't think it would be appropriate to charge a victim for a crime," Clearwater Police Chief Daniel Slaughter told the Tampa Bay Times. "When we're trying to build trust in the community, it wouldn't really breed a culture of trust between victims and law enforcement." St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway expressed similar sentiments, pointing out to the paper that "people won't report it, or they'll lie to us."

Newton insists his bill wouldn't punish real victims. "I had a lady follow me after a panel, saying let me get this straight, Representative, you want to punish me because they steal my car?" Newton said to WTSP. "I said no ma'am, only when you give it away."

Final Vision Fails to Shed New Light on a Famous Family Murder Case

Fri, 08 Dec 2017 15:00:00 -0500

Final Vision. Investigation Discovery. Sunday, December 10, 8 p.m. The Jeffrey MacDonald case poses powerful arguments in favor of reincarnation. It has lived more lives, in more guises, than any Hindu priest. In 1969, when MacDonald was the sole survivor of a savage attack on his family by what he reported as a band of kids chanting "Acid is groovy, kill the pigs," barely a year after the Manson Family murders, the case seemed like the second chapter of Helter Skelter, further evidence that the 1960s counterculture was coming unhinged. (The fact that MacDonald was a Green Beret doctor who lived on a military base at a time when anti-war feelings were peaking only reinforced the political framework.) Then, when first military police and then civilian cops changed their minds and charged MacDonald with the murder of his pregnant wife and two little daughters, the case turned into an episode of Perry Mason, with melodramatic twists upending the plot. Not only did the accuser become the accused, but a journalist named Joe McGinniss—who was given full access to MacDonald's defense team—switched sides, declaring the doctor a drug-addled sociopath who slaughtered his entire family because one of the kids wet the bed. (And enhanced the television metaphor when his book became a wildly popular TV miniseries.) By the 1990s, the case had become a centerpiece for a growing skepticism about the motives and ethics of mainstream media reporters. In a searing two-part New Yorker story that evolved into a book, writer Janet Malcolm declared that journalists—and in particular, McGinniss—were nothing more than "a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse." Other books argued that McGinniss, in pursuit of a best-seller, had helped put an innocent man in jail. Investigation Discovery's Final Vision is, perhaps, the MacDonald case's last manifestation: As a tattered wraith, a ghost of American cultural obsessions past, still capable of inflicting some chills but mostly beaming the subliminal message, "What was that all about?" Final Vision is not based on McGinniss' original book, Fatal Vision, or the 1984 miniseries it spawned, both of which were true-crime whodunnits. Rather, it's adapted from a wan essay-length e-book McGinniss published in 2012 as he was dying of cancer that rebuts various theories of the crime advanced in MacDonald's endless appeals of his conviction. The result is that McGinniss himself becomes a character in this TV version, which is as much about the relationship between the journalist and the doctor as it is the crime itself. The scenario, the gumshoe reporter vs. the charismatic celebrity doctor, is not unpromising. And the two principal actors, Dave Annable (Brothers & Sisters, 666 Park Avenue) as McGinniss, Scott Foley (Scandal, The Unit) as MacDonald, are both capable. The script, however, isn't. The 1980s miniseries had four hours of screen time to tell its story, while Final Vision must make do with half that. The result is a teleplay that often feels cramped and talky. Screenwriter Denis O'Neill (The River Wild) does a reasonably good job at following the meandering path of the basic story—MacDonald goes back and forth from victim to perpetrator several times as first military and then civilian courts delve into the case—but he lacks the time to really develop the characters. The screenwriter gets a lot of help when it comes to MacDonald. Foley is dazzling as MacDonald, whose breezy big-man-on-campus shell gradually melts away to reveal something much harder, and darker, beneath. Annable doesn't do badly in his role as McGinniss, but the script never makes the journalist much better than a backboard against which the case's evidence is banged. The bare-bones characterization is a disservice to an interesting character. McGinniss was a peculiar choice as MacDonald's bard, a little-known writer known ma[...]

Brickbat: Adding Injury to Insult

Tue, 05 Dec 2017 04:00:00 -0500

(image) Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, City Council member Cindy Bass says it is an insult to the residents of some neighborhoods that stores in those neighborhoods have bulletproof glass between the cashiers and customers. She has authored a bill that would require stores to remove such glass. She says its sends a message that the customers of those stores are dangerous. She also says that many of those stores get too much of their revenue selling alcohol, which those neighborhoods don't need.

Jose Garcia-Zarate, at Center of "Sanctuary City" Controversy, Acquitted on Murder and Manslaughter Charges

Thu, 30 Nov 2017 22:00:00 -0500

When a bullet fired from a gun in the hands of Jose Garcia-Zarate, a non-citizen in the U.S. who had been arrested and deported multiple times, ricocheted off the ground and killed sightseer Kate Steinle on a San Francisco pier in July 2015, it set off a national debate, which then-candidate Donald Trump inflamed, over the merits or demerits of certain cities' policies of not actively enforcing federal U.S. immigration law or cooperating in handing over illegal immigrants to federal authorities. If Garcia-Zarate had been deported again (he had already been five times) as federal law insisted he should have been (he had been recently released from San Francisco city custody on a warrant regarding fleeing from an old marijuana charge from 1995, moved to them from federal custody for felony illegal re-entry to the U.S.) prior to Steinle's being shot, went the argument, she would still be alive. Today after six days of deliberation, a Superior Court jury in San Francisco acquitted Garcia-Zarate on murder, manslaughter, and assault charges, finding him guilty only on a lesser charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm. That carries a minimum sentence of 16 months, according to this Courthouse News report by Dave Tartre. The maximum sentence he faces is three years, according to a detailed report on the outcome from Vivian Ho at the San Francisco Chronicle. The jury seemed to have been convinced by defense arguments that Garcia-Zarate had no direct intention of firing the .40-caliber Sig Sauer pistol that he found that day on the waterfront, four days after it had been stolen from a U.S. Bureau of Land Management ranger's car nearby. The defense insisted, as per the Chronicle, that Garcia-Zarate, "who had a history of drug crimes but no record of violence, found the gun wrapped in a T-shirt or cloth under his seat on the pier just seconds before it discharged in his hands." His public defenders insisted he "had never handled a gun and was scared by the noise, prompting him to fling the weapon into the bay, where a diver fished it out a day later." Assistant District Attorney Diana Garcia for the prosecution insisted in closing arguments that Garcia-Zarate was playing "his own secret game of Russian roulette." The defense on the contrary painted the incident as pure accident, and the jury accepted that interpretation. Even the involuntary manslaughter charge would require the jury's belief that he had been acting recklessly. I wrote in July 2015 critiquing Rand Paul's unlibertarian approach to the sanctuary city issue in the wake of Steinle's death, noting that: as Nick Gillespie pointed out last week, despite immigration restrictionist fantasies that illegal immigrants = crime wave, a sanctuary city such as San Francisco...has a lower murder rate than many comparable non-sanctuary cities. Much-touted increased deportations of "criminal immigrants" are much more often about violators of traffic laws, not laws against person or property. Higher rates of immigration do not equal higher rates of actual crime. It's curious for Rand Paul, or any Republican, to get outraged in this case that laws exist that, if more toughly enforced, could potentially have saved a life—even though in the staggeringly vast majority of cases enforcing deportation laws would save no lives but but merely bedevil or harm someone trying to peacefully live and sell his labor or services to others. A selection of Reason TV videos on the facts about sanctuary cities can be found here, concluding that "New immigrants, including illegal immigrants, are less likely to commit violent or property crimes than U.S. citizens, and there's little evidence that crime rates are higher in sanctuary cities than in non-sanctuary cities." UPDATE: Associated Press tweeting that Garcia-Zarate will now be deported (again), and President Trump tweets his predictable dismay: "disgraceful verdict in the Kat[...]

Critical Data Is Missing From The FBI’s Annual Crime Report And Researchers Want it Back

Thu, 30 Nov 2017 17:02:00 -0500

Criminal justice researchers are alarmed at missing data from the FBI's latest annual crime report and say it will hamper efforts to study drug arrests and violent crime, two of the Trump administration's biggest priorities.

(image) The new outlet FiveThirtyEight first reported in October that the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) for 2016—the first year it was released under the Trump Administration—were missing many key fields from previous years. The report is the most comprehensive annual survey of crime in the U.S. and an invaluable tool for researchers and public policy experts.

In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and acting FBI Director Christopher Wray on Tuesday, the Crime & Justice Research Alliance, a Washington, D.C. organization representing roughly 5,000 criminologists, urged the Justice Department and FBI to re-issue the report with the old data fields intact.

"The unnecessary and surprising removal of the majority of the data tables does not reflect the FBI's stated commitment to meeting the needs of the users of these data," the group wrote. "Given the administration's public statements about addressing violent crime, victims' rights, the opioid epidemic and terrorism, it is unfortunate that the 2016 report removes key data about these topic areas."

According the organization, the removed data fields include such information as the relationship between homicide victims, their killers, and the circumstances of the crime. The removed fields, the group argues, will prevent researchers from gaining insight into family and intimate partner violence, as well as gang and drug-related homicides.

Also missing are data on arrests related to specific drug types, making it hard for researchers to track trends in law enforcement efforts to combat drugs such as heroin and opioids, a major focus of the Trump administration.

The Justice Department referred a request for comment to the FBI, which did not immediately respond.

This week, the White House announced it was appointing Jeffrey Anderson, a former political science professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy and fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, to head the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the federal agency tasked with collecting and analyzing national crime data.

In May, five former directors of the BJS sent a letter to Sessions urging him to appoint someone to head the agency who had "scientific skills; experience with federal statistical agencies; familiarity with BJS and its products; visibility in the nation's statistical community."

Anderson has no relevant experience in criminal justice statistics, although the White House did note in its announcement that he "co-created the Anderson and Hester Computer Rankings, which were part of the BCS formula to determine college football's annual national championship matchup."

Mom Faces Wiretapping Charges for Trying to Protect Child from School Bullies

Tue, 28 Nov 2017 12:20:00 -0500

(image) A mom simply trying to find out whether her 9-year-old child was being bullied is facing felony charges for sticking a recording device in her child's backpack.

Sarah Sims of Norfolk, Virginia, is telling the media that her daughter's elementary school, Ocean View Elementary, was not doing anything about her child's mistreatment, and administrators were not responding to her concerns. So she used a recording device to try to document evidence.

The device was found and confiscated. Then, remarkably, weeks later, Sims was charged with using a device to intercept oral communications and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. That first charge is actually a felony and could lead Sims to prison time.

Take note: Virginia's recording laws do not require both parties to know and consent to having oral conversations recorded. Only one side needs to know. So if the child was aware of the device, it's a bit unclear why the mother is being charged with violating the law.

It's possible that maybe the recording device picked up other nearby conversations not involving the girl, but we don't know because the device has not been returned and the mother is not able to listen to the contents. Regardless, though, even if the device did pick up other conversations, this is an absurdly harsh way to have responded to what has happened.

The school refuses to comment on what happened, saying they don't discuss "pending legal matters." That's the kind of thing that organizations say when they're a party to a lawsuit, which is not the case here. The school is not responsible for prosecuting the mother and the "pending legal matters" are not theirs. So instead, it looks like the school has decided to facilitate the mother's punishment as an authoritarian response to trying to look after her daughter's safety in a way that the school didn't appreciate and might have ultimately made them look bad.

There are a number of good reasons why a school would have a policy forbidding the use of recording devices. But this went far beyond the enforcement of a policy to trying to get a parent criminally prosecuted. There were many ways for the school to handle this situation and they deliberately made the worst choice.

And that's a good as reason as any as to why parents desperately need better school choice. Fortunately Sims was able to get her hands on a lawyer who was confident enough to take this story to the press, and it's now gotten national attention on CNN. What might have happened to Sims had the media not gotten involved? Would she have felt forced into some sort of plea deal that ended in an admission that she had done something bad and let the school to continue to ignore the situation?

Now that there's media coverage, don't be surprised to see the case get dropped before the January preliminary trial. This case highlights how lack of decent educational competition allows school administrators to treat parents and students poorly and get away with it. The easier it is for parents to take their children somewhere else when the schools are not responsive to problems, the more likely administrators will actually handle problems properly rather than try to punish their way out of it.

Watch an interview with the mom at CNN here.

Chicago's Chronic Police Corruption Leads to Its First 'Mass Exoneration'

Fri, 17 Nov 2017 11:50:00 -0500

Guess which city's police department is so corrupt that prosecutors this week performed what they're calling the county's first "mass exoneration" of men framed for drug crimes? It's Chicago, of course. Cook County prosecutors have just tossed out the convictions of 15 men framed by a pack of police led by Sgt. Ronald Watts. Watts was accused of running a drug and protection racket with his fellow officers and was eventually convicted and sent to prison for taking money from a drug courier who was actually an undercover FBI officer. There may be more to come. According to defense attorneys with the University of Chicago's Exoneration Project, Watts was involved in nearly 500 convictions, all of which are now considered suspect. As for the rest of Watts' crew, Chicago Police announced Thursday night that seven other police officers have been put on desk duty while their behavior is investigated. Asked why they're still on the force, a city official said they hadn't been convicted of a crime. Via the Chicago Tribune: Asked earlier Thursday why several officers tied to Watts' corrupt crew were still on the force, police Superintendent Eddie Johnson noted none had been convicted of a crime — unlike Watts. "They have due process and rights just like any citizen in this country," he told reporters after his speech to the City Club of Chicago. "… But we just can't arbitrarily take the job away from people." Apparently, it was even a struggle to get the police to take them off the street during the investigation. Earlier Thursday, the city was adopting a "wait and see" attitude, but they had changed their mind by the evening. In the private sector, employers don't have to wait for somebody to be convicted of a crime to cut ties with them. It's not "arbitrarily" taking a job away to fire a police officer who is deemed to be dangerous or incompetent or corrupt, even if he or she has not been convicted of an actual crime. The Tribune notes that the exonerations will now allow the 15 men to file wrongful conviction lawsuits against the city. Chicago has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements for police misconduct. Two police officers who were blackballed while attempting to expose Watts' misconduct themselves earned a $2 million settlement in a lawsuit. Chicago has a serious police misconduct problem. Chicago also has a serious budget crisis that they're trying to tax and fine their way out of (and failing). It's not "arbitrary" to dump out bad cops that are costing the city millions due to their bad behavior. It, in fact, may be necessary to keep the city solvent.[...]

Minor Violations Lead to Massive Prosecution Fees in Two California Desert Towns

Thu, 16 Nov 2017 12:15:00 -0500

A couple of cities in the California desert have found a novel and remarkably cruel way to make money—force citizens to pay for the privilege of being prosecuted by the attorneys contracting with these cities. We've seen cities across the country abuse their own citizens—particularly its poorest residents and visitors—with vicious enforcement of petty laws designed to create a revenue stream via a cascade of fines and fees. But I don't think we've seen an enforcement mechanism as nasty and cruel as the one the Desert Sun has uncovered out in California's Inland Empire. The cities of Indio and Coachella partnered up with a private law firm, Silver & Wright, to prosecute citizens in criminal court for violations of city ordinances that call for nothing more than small fines—things like having a mess in your yard or selling food without a business license. Those cited for these violations fix the problems and pay the fines, a typical code enforcement story. The kicker comes a few weeks or months later when citizens get a bill in the mail for thousands of dollars from the law firm that prosecuted them. They are forcing citizens to pay for the private lawyers used to take them to court in the first place. So a fine for a couple of hundred dollars suddenly becomes a bill for $3,000 or $20,000 or even more. In Coachella, a man was fined $900 for expanding his living room without getting a permit. He paid his fine. Then more than a year later he got a bill in the mail from Silver & Wright for $26,000. They told him that he had to pay the cost of prosecuting him, and if he didn't, they could put a lien on his house and the city could sell it against his will. When he appealed the bill they charged him even more for the cost of defending against the appeal. The bill went from $26,000 to $31,000. Brett Kelman of the Desert Sun found 18 cases in Indio and Coachella where people received inordinately high legal bills for small-time violations. A woman fined for hanging Halloween decorations across a city street received legal bill for $2,700. When she challenged it, the bill jumped to $4,200. Kelman notes that these thousands of dollars in fees came from a single court hearing that lasted minutes. Silver & Wright representatives declined to talk to the Desert Sun. One of them even claimed attorney/client privilege even though they're serving as prosecutors on behalf of city governments. But the law firm's web site makes it very clear that what happened is not a mistake. It's a law firm focused on helping cities go after private properties for "nuisance abatement" and code enforcement. Among its services is "ordinance drafting." That they offer such services matters because, according to the Desert Sun, the two cities contracted with the law firm first, and then they crafted brand new nuisance ordinances to facilitate Silver & Wright recouping the fees by billing citizens for their own prosecutions without having to go through a judge. "Cost recovery" is another emphasis of Silver & Wright's services. Here's a direct quote from their site: "Our attorneys have developed unique and cutting edge practices to achieve success for our clients and make nuisance abatement and code enforcement cost neutral or even revenue producing." [emphasis added] They're openly bragging about using prosecutions as a way to help cities make money. And then there's this buried deep in the story: Matthew Silver, one of the firm's partners, is also a vice president for the California Association of Code Enforcement Officers. He runs a private law firm but also leads a professional association for government employees responsible for enforcing the laws that lead to his firm's billable hours (or minutes, it seems). In response the Desert Sun's investigations, it appears that Coachella [...]

Hate Crimes in 2016: New FBI Numbers Show Little Change

Mon, 13 Nov 2017 16:45:00 -0500

After widespread worry over a supposed spike in election-adjacent hate crimes last year, many of the alleged incidents turned out to be hoaxes or misunderstandings. Now new data from the FBI further undermines the idea that 2016 saw a sort of crime wave spurred by prejudice. There were 271 more incidents deemed hate crimes in 2016 than the previous year, according to the latest Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) data. There were also 257 more law enforcement agencies reporting last year, so that increase could largely or even entirely be a matter of getting more complete statistics. The higher numbers mostly represent small increases in incidents classified as anti-Hispanic, anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, or anti-white. The most common motive animating hate crimes in 2016—and throughout the past decade—was anti-black bias. That accounted for 2,114 incidents last year. Another 888 incidents were deemed to be based on anti-white bias, 448 incidents on anti-Hispanic bias, and 381 incidents on anti-Islamic bias. Crimes motivated by animosity toward Jewish people and gay men were also high in the 2016 crime data (again, a longstanding trend). About 830 incidents were categorized as anti-Jewish hate crimes and 765 as incidents motivated by bias against gay men. The most common type of crime reported was vandalism or property destruction (31 percent), followed by intimidation (26 percent) and simple assault (24 percent). Aggravated assault accounted for 11 percent of all incidents, and rape and murder for less than one percent combined. Nine people overall were victims of murder or manslaughter. "No human trafficking offenses with a bias motivation were reported during 2016," the FBI notes. A Decade of Hate Crime Reporting White Americans were the most likely to commit offenses categorized as hate crimes in 2016, accounting for 46.3 percent of all known offenders. This is actually down quite a bit from previous years. In 2015, 48 percent of known offenders were white and in 2011 it was 59 percent. In 2007, nearly 63 percent of all known offenders were white. Looking at data over the past 10 years provides some other interesting comparisons, too. While the number of hate crime classifications was higher in 2016 than in any of the four preceding years, it was lower than in 2011 and significantly down from 2006-08. We're also seeing significantly fewer victims (a designation that can encompass individuals, businesses, government entities, religious groups, etc.). Last year, the data show 7,615 individual victims. In comparison, there were 7,713 hate-crime victims in 2011 and 9,652 victims in 2006. These things are important to keep in mind when trying to analyze this year's data. Obviously, small upticks can turn into big ones over time and are worth keeping an eye on. But looking at a decade's worth of FBI hate crime data shows the folly in making too much of year-over-year fluctuations. For instance, this year's data show a slight increase in anti-Hispanic incidents, about 69 more overall—a nearly 20 percent rise over 2015. But last year's number (448) is down from 488 in 2012, 681 in 2010, 735 in 2008, and 769 in 2006. That's a 42 percent decrease in anti-Hispanic hate crimes over the past decade. Anti-Jewish incidents were also at their highest level last year since 2012 (834 in 2016, compared to 696 back then), but down from 921 incidents in 2010 and more than 1,000 per year in 2006–2008. There's even some good news on anti-black bias: The number of such incidents in 2016 was almost identical to the number the year before, and was down significantly from 2006 (when we saw over 1,000 more anti-black incidents). Hate crimes categorized as anti-white, meanwhile, were at their highest level last year since 2006 (though still less than h[...]

LAPD Officers Recorded Themselves Apparently Planting Cocaine on a Suspect

Mon, 13 Nov 2017 12:15:00 -0500

The Los Angeles Police Department's response to demands that its officers' body camera footage be available to the media and the public has been simple and firm: No. A news report from CBS' local affiliate showing what appears to be LAPD officers planting drug evidence during an arrest may challenge how long the department may be able to maintain that policy. Since Los Angeles started rolling out body cameras for its officers two years ago (partly funded by a federal grant, so we're all paying for this), the LAPD has been insistent that body camera footage is not a public record and would not be released. But a CBS reporter got his hands on a dozen body camera videos from the arrest of Ronald Shields, 52, stopped by police and charged with a hit-and-run in North Hollywood. The videos show what appears to be an officer taking a baggie of cocaine, planting it in Shields' wallet, and then acting like he has discovered it on the scene. The case appears to be very similar to a situation uncovered in Baltimore where an officer inadvertently recorded himself planting drugs on a scene. And it happened for the same reason. The body cameras continually record and buffer what's happening, but without sound, for the previous 30 seconds, even when they're not technically "on." When a police officer actually turns the body camera "on," the camera also saves the previous 30 seconds and they are captured in the footage. So the officer's own body camera captured him picking a packet of cocaine off the ground at the arrest scene, putting it in Shields' wallet, and then pretending that he discovered the drugs during the search. Shields' attorney showed the footage in a pre-trial hearing and now the LAPD is investigating what happened. It may well be a situation where the officer was re-enacting "discovering" the drugs for the camera and didn't actually plant drugs on an innocent man. That was the claim out of Baltimore. That's still a terrible, deceptive practice that needs to stop immediately because it jeopardizes everything else about the arrest. You cannot "recreate" the discovery of evidence and expect people to reasonably believe everything else is real. The discovery in Baltimore that the placement of the evidence in a case had been staged ultimately ended up in dozens of other criminal cases being dropped by prosecutors. So the discovery here in this one LAPD case could end up rippling out even further. The LAPD may say they take claims of misconduct seriously and Mayor Eric Garcetti can claim that he "expects the highest integrity from everyone who wears badge," but this case highlights exactly why the police should not have the authority to decide for itself whether body camera footage is released to the public. Watch the footage in the CBS report here.[...]

Real Common Sense on Gun Control

Sun, 12 Nov 2017 08:00:00 -0500

Here's how to judge the pragmatic case for gun control: if the pro-control lobby managed to have each of its favorite restrictions enacted, could we as individuals be more casual about our safety than we are today? The answer clearly is no. So what's the point of the restrictions beyond letting their advocates feel good about themselves? A false sense of security is worse than no sense of security at all. Mass shooters have obtained their guns legally, having had no disqualifiers in their records; used guns legally obtained by someone else; or obtained them despite existing laws. Therefore, the controls most commonly called for would not have prevented those massacres. In the latest massacre, the shooter had a disqualifier—a less-than-honorable discharge from the Air Force after a year in the brig for domestic abuse—but the Air Force failed to report that disqualifier to the FBI and so it never got into the database that was checked when the shooter bought guns from licensed dealers. New controls, such expanded background checks, would not have prevented the shooting because the Air Force was already required to report the shooter's conviction to the FBI. Even a ban on rifles with certain features, misleadingly called "assault weapons," would not have prevented the shooting because equally powerful rifles would have been available Thus the victims of the latest shooter, like the victims of the previous mass shootings, would have been no safer under the sought-after gun-control regime than they were at the time they were murdered. But this is not the end of the story. Even if those shooters had been unable to obtain their guns as they did, it does not follow that they would have been prevented from committing their monstrous offenses. How many times must it be pointed out that someone who is bent on murder is not likely to be deterred by legal restrictions on the purchase of guns? The gun-control advocates pretend that legal methods are the only way to obtain firearms, but we know that is not true. People have always been able to obtain guns through illegal channels. Gun-running—firearms smuggling and trafficking—is probably as old as the earliest gun restrictions. Guns can be stolen and sold. (There are 300 million of them.) Guns can be made in garages. Guns will eventually be made routinely on 3D printers. Supply responds to demand. Black markets thrive whenever products are prohibited. But the black market—by definition—is already illegal. So what are gun-controllers to do, make the black market doubly illegal? I don't think that's a solution. Even more drastic forms of control won't change this story. The Australian tax-financed eminent-domain approach, in which the government ordered people to sell their guns to the government, failed to remove all guns from society. "That policy … removed up to one million weapons from Australians' hands and homes," Varad Mehta writes. "This was, depending on the estimate, a fifth to a third of Australia's gun stock." How many bad people do you imagine surrendered their guns? How would an Australia program—which some Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, favor—do here? Not very well, I'd guess. Think what would happen if the government tried to confiscate people's guns with a heavier hand than that used by the Australian politicians. Individual rights aside, would that be an acceptable outcome for the sake of reducing gun violence? (Do be aware that most gun fatalities are suicides.) If people with bad intent would continue to obtain guns no matter what gun controls were on the books, it follows that people's responsibility for their own safety remains the same in all circumstances. Even beefing up p[...]

Justice Department Bizarrely Uses Madoff to Defend Taking People's Stuff Without Convicting Them First

Fri, 10 Nov 2017 13:40:00 -0500

The Department of Justice has brought out the big guns to defend the largely indefensible law enforcement tool of civil asset forfeiture. In a remarkably deceptive Wall Street Journal piece, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein tries to use the Bernie Madoff fraud case to argue that civil asset forfeiture is an important tool to return stolen money to the victims of a crime: Thanks to civil asset forfeiture, the Department of Justice is announcing today the record-setting distribution of restitution to victims of Bernard Madoff's notorious investment fraud scheme. We have recovered $3.9 billion from third parties—not Mr. Madoff—and are now returning that money to more than 35,000 victims. This is the largest restoration of forfeited property in history. Civil forfeiture has allowed the government to seize those illicit proceeds and return them to Mr. Madoff's victims. Why use civil forfeiture instead of prosecution? Not everyone who possesses illegal proceeds can or should be criminally prosecuted. Many criminals transfer ill-gotten gains to relatives or friends, and others use couriers to transport cash. In such cases, civil forfeiture enables the government to recover property when prosecuting the person caught holding it may not be appropriate or feasible. Rosenstein says that the Justice Department has used asset forfeiture (both civil and criminal) to return billions of dollars to the victims of crimes. He wants Americans to come away from this commentary thinking the government takes property from the worst of our crooks and returns it to innocent citizens. The reality is very different. There's a reason why Rosenstein's piece revolves around a couple of high-profile anecdotes and lacks a lot of specifics. That's because civil asset forfeiture is often used against the poor, not wealthy crooks like Madoff. And the police often don't return the money to victims but keep it for themselves, to make up gaps in their budgets or to go on shopping sprees (cowboy hats!). Rosenstein's aim is to stop Congress from restraining the practice. Civil asset forfeiture is a frequent source of scandal because it allows police and prosecutors to seize property without convicting the owner of a crime or even charging them. There have been dozens upon dozens of stories of police and prosecutors abusing civil asset forfeiture to take property from people who are never shown to be criminals at all. Because it's a "civil" process, the evidentiary thresholds to take the stuff are lower, and the owners of the property have to pay for their own lawyer or attempt to navigate a confusing, opaque court process on their own. Rosenstein knows this, but he deliberately downplays the negative consequences, acting like it's just like any other civil property dispute. He adds, "There is no logical reason to demand the elevated criminal standard in a lawsuit about illicit proceeds." The vast majority of civil asset forfeiture cases look nothing like the Madoff case and everything like a brutal shakedown of citizens amid a never-ending drug war. The Washington Post's Radley Balko reported on a case just the day before Rosenstein's op-ed appeared where a drug task force in Alabama raided a home, the stress of the raid prompted a man at the house to develop heart problems, and he ultimately died. Undaunted, the police then seized the family's home, auctioned it off, and kept the money for themselves. There is indeed a "logical reason" to demand a criminal standard to seize property: It's for the very purpose of making it harder for police and prosecutors to take people's stuff without strong proof it's connected to a crime. The point is to reduce the incentives for [...]