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crime and punishment

Police and prosecution roundup

by Walter Olson on September 11, 2014

  • Enviro activists unlawfully block coal ship, Massachusetts prosecutor expresses approval by dropping charges [James Taranto, Jacob Gershman/WSJ Law Blog, ABA Journal]
  • Unfortunately-named Mr. Threatt charged with “robbery that happened while he was in jail” [Baltimore Sun via @amyalkon]
  • “How conservative, tough-on-crime Utah reined in police militarization” [Evan McMorris-Santoro, BuzzFeed] More: What if we needed it someday? San Diego Unified School District defends acquisition of armored vehicle [inewsource.org] And Senate hearing [AP]
  • “Machine-based traffic-ticketing systems are running amok” [David Kravets, ArsTechnica]
  • Thanks, Fraternal Order of Police, for protecting jobs of rogue Philadelphia cops who could cost taxpayers millions [Ed Krayewski; related earlier]
  • Study: returning from 6- to 12-person juries could iron out many racial anomalies at trial [Anwar et al, Tabarrok]
  • Courts can help curb overcriminalization by revitalizing rule of lenity, mens rea requirement [Steven Smith]

First a house fire killed Cameron Todd Willingham’s three tiny daughters. Then the state of Texas killed him. Mistakes were made, notes the Washington Post. The forensics testimony on accelerants has long since been discredited, and now the jailhouse informant whose words sent Willingham to execution, who has wavered between recanting and not-recanting, has given a recantation with much more circumstantial detail about the lies he says he told on the stand.

Here’s a Texas Monthly article (linked a while back) on the unsettling history of arson forensics over many years, in which the use of accelerants was deduced from dubious evidence in such a way as to shift many fires from the “likely accidental” to the “deliberate” category, with dire legal consequences for family members and others on the scene. Earlier on the Willingham case, including pro-prosecution links, from five years ago. More: Jonathan Adler.

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That’s a widely shared objective right now, but at what price? In New Zealand, one of the two main political parties, Labour, is now contemplating rolling back the presumption of innocence, while the other, incumbent National, is contemplating allowing the criminal process to infer guilt from silence. [New Zealand Herald, more]

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“Busted for Off-Leash Dog, Man Ordered Not to Leave Southern California,” reads the headline. John Gladwin lives right next to a national park in the mountains outside Los Angeles, and has had a series of run-ins with park police after letting his Australian cattle dog, Molly, roam on both sides of the boundary. Now Gladwin “cannot leave a seven-county area, for any reason, without permission from his probation officer.” [L.A. Weekly]

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The federal government has prevailed on a grand jury to indict Federal Express for servicing what it should have known were illicit online pharmacy operations. FedEx says it repeatedly asked the government to supply a list of shippers it considered illicit so that it could cut off service, but that the government refused; the Department of Justice contends that circumstantial evidence should have been enough to alert the package shipment company. Writes Mike Masnick at TechDirt: “we don’t want shipping companies to be liable for what’s in packages, because then they have not just the incentive, but the mandate to snoop through all our packages.” Amy Alkon has more on reactions. Earlier, UPS paid the government $40 million to resolve similar allegations, and Google agreed to pay a fine of $500 million for (as we put it at the time) “matching willing buyers with sellers through Canadian pharmacy ads… a forfeiture geared to the revenue the pharmacies (not it) took in from the ads.”

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In the upcoming case of Yates v. United States, the Supreme Court will decide whether a fisherman can be prosecuted under Sarbanes-Oxley’s prohibition on destroying or concealing “any record, document, or tangible object” to impede an investigation. The records, documents, or tangible objects in question were undersized fish, which Mr. Yates threw overboard instead of bringing back to the dock as instructed by inspectors. Cato has filed an amicus brief urging the Court to rule that Mr. Yates was not adequately put on notice of the reach of “tangible object” to include not just business items such as hard drives, but small marine creatures, lest the law “potentially criminalize an unfathomable range of activities.” [Trevor Burrus, earlier]

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  • Sad and bad: “House Republicans vote to block Obama’s new pardon attorneys” [MSNBC, Jacob Sullum, my Cato take]
  • Ready for sorghum-patch unrest? More than 100 U.S. Department of Agriculture agents are armed with submachine guns [Matt Welch]
  • “Cop who punched Occupy Wall Street protester gets tax-free disability pension” [New York Daily News, video of punch]
  • “Officials could identify just one [Bronx] prosecutor since 1975 … disciplined in any respect for misbehavior while prosecuting a criminal case.” [City Limits via Radley Balko]
  • Georgia drug raid: flash-bang grenade thrown into crib badly burning toddler [Tim Lynch, PoliceMisconduct.net "Worst of the Month"]
  • New book by Sidney Powell critical of USDOJ explores Ted Stevens, Enron prosecutions, has foreword by Judge Alex Kozinski ["Licensed to Lie": Craig Malisow/Houston Press, Legal Ethics Forum, Amazon]
  • Two times over the legal limit, hmm. Would it help to flash my badge? [Prosecutorial Accountability on state bar discipline against San Francisco deputy d.a.]

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So instead it will require private businesses to invest in security measures. I explain in a new Cato post. In January I noted an unsuccessful bill in the Maryland legislature to require gas station owners to maintain videocamera system.

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Last week I did a Cato podcast about how nickel-and-dime fines and fees arising from low-level law enforcement can spiral to the point of overwhelming poor persons’ lives. Now take a look at this appalling AP story from Pennsylvania [via Brian Doherty, Reason]. “More than 1,600 people have been jailed in Berks County alone — where Reading is the county seat — over truancy fines since 2000.”

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A twelve-minute Cato podcast in which I talk to Caleb Brown about how government can roll minor fines over routine offenses into crushing financial burdens and years of entanglement in the criminal justice system. A particular problem: systems that assign fines and payments to the account of actors in the justice system and for-profit private contractors which can operate under a perverse incentive to trip up petty wrongdoers and keep them in the system. The National Public Radio special “Guilty and Charged,” based on a yearlong investigation, is here. Many of my examples are taken from it, including the persons drawn into the system after fishing out of season and making an illegal left turn, and the woman saddled with a $10,000 debt on emerging from prison. Radley Balko discusses. I’ve written earlier on the problems with private probation, on a Shelby County, Alabama judge’s 2012 finding that the town of Harpersville was engaged in a “judicially sanctioned extortion racket,” and more broadly on law enforcement for profit and its forfeiture branch.

Related: Tyler Cowen on a new book about persons living at the margins of the law, Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City.

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  • Radley Balko weighs in on Philadelphia bodega-robbery scandal: “I want to refer to these thugs as ‘rogue cops,’ but given that [they've thrived] how rogue can they really be?” [Washington Post, earlier here, here, here, etc.]
  • Speaking of Philadelphia cops: “16 Philly police, firefighters earned more than $400,000 in overtime since ’09″ [Brian X. McCrone and Emily Babay, Philly.com]
  • Also from Balko: “Police cameras are great, except when the video goes missing“; “Police shooting 377 rounds into a car occupied by two unarmed men “raises concerns.” That’s one way of putting it.” And a not very funny t-shirt;
  • “Mission creep”: Department of Homeland Security has its fingers in many more pies than you might realize [Albuquerque Journal]
  • Felony murder rule: “Sentenced To Life In Prison For Loaning His Roommate His Car And Going To Sleep” [Amy Alkon] Sentencing reform is bipartisan issue on both sides [L.A. Times]
  • How many parents and caregivers are behind bars on scientifically bogus “shaken-baby” charges, and is there any urgency to finding out? [Matt Stroud, The Verge; earlier]
  • Milwaukee cop drives into sober woman’s car, charges her with DUI [WITI via Greenfield]

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On “The perils of privatized probation,” Radley Balko seems convincing to me [Washington Post], quoting The Economist’s “Democracy in America“:

I’ve written about these fees before, but here’s a quick refresher: if you get hit with a $200 ticket you can’t pay, then a private-probation company will let you pay it off in instalments, for a monthly fee. Then there may be additional fees for electronic monitoring, drug testing and classes—many of which are assigned not by a judge, but by the private company itself. When probationers cannot pay, courts issue warrants for their arrest and their probation terms are extended—a reprehensible practice known as “tolling”, which a judge declared illegal last year. These are folks who had trouble paying the initial fine; you have to imagine they’ll have trouble paying additional fines. It’s plausible to posit that these firms’ business models are based on assigning unpayable fees to people who lack the sophistication, time, will or whatever to contest them. One might even say these predatory firms treat the long arm of the law as sort of lever on a juicer into which poor people are fed and squeezed to produce an endless stream of fees.

The incentives of the private companies do not, to put it mildly, appear well aligned with the interests of the public. More in our law enforcement for profit tag. Update: Sarah Stillman in the New Yorker with a damning investigative article.

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News of criminal babies

by Walter Olson on April 11, 2014

Nine-month-old infant fingerprinted after being charged with assault and attempted murder in Pakistan [Lowering the Bar, BBC]

Follow-up: baby gets off on technicality. @DavidBCohen1 on Twitter: “This sends a bad message to violent babies.”

It’s no longer a specifically enumerated crime to do that on the streets of Houston in an annoying or flirtatious way [Volokh]

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  • After criticism of heavy-handed Ankeny, Iowa police raid on persons suspected of credit card fraud, not actually reassuring to be told militarized methods needed because one house occupant had firearms carry permit [Radley Balko, more, more]
  • Advocates strain mightily to fit unpopular Dunn verdict into Stand Your Ground theme [David Kopel, Jacob Sullum] More: sorry, pundits, but Rasmussen poll shows public’s plurality SYG support unshaken [Althouse]
  • “‘Drop the Cabbage, Bullwinkle!’: Alaskan Man Faces Prison for the Crime of Moose-Feeding” [Evan Bernick, Heritage] “Criminalizing America: How Big Government Makes A Criminal of Every American” [ALEC "State Factor"]
  • “We’ve also bred into dogs … an eagerness to please us.” Bad news for K-9 forensics [Balko]
  • “Has overcharging killed the criminal trial?” [Legal Ethics Forum] Is the “trial penalty” a myth? [David Abrams via Dan Markel, Scott Greenfield]
  • What if cops, as opposed to, say, gun owners, were obliged by law to purchase liability insurance? [Popehat]
  • That’s productivity: North Carolina grand jury managed to crank out roughly one indictment every 52 seconds [Tim Cushing, TechDirt]
  • “When do awful thoughts, shared with complete strangers, become criminal actions?” [Robert Kolker, New York mag]
  • Why grants to local police departments are among the federal government’s most pernicious spending [Radley Balko, whose new Washington Post blog/column is thriving]
  • How bad did you think Florida prosecutor Angela Corey was? She might be worse [Balko, earlier]
  • “The unintended consequences of compensating the exonerated” [Will Baude]
  • Thousands of Americans are behind bars following shaken-baby convictions. How many are innocent? [Jerry Mitchell, Jackson Clarion-Ledger/USA Today, earlier here, here]
  • Private probation as “judicially sanctioned extortion racket” [The Economist]
  • “DOJ to Prohibit Profiling Based on Religion, National Origin, and Gender in Federal Investigations” [FedSoc Blog]

An official with the Department of Justice has signaled that the administration may be willing to consider much more extensive use of presidential clemency for inmates serving long sentences for nonviolent drug offenses under the former sentencing regime, a development I welcome in a new Cato post. Further observations from Mark Osler and Doug Berman (“there are currently over 3,500 pending pardon and commutation applications at the White House right now” which makes it a little odd to suggest that the missing ingredient is more applications) and more [excerpts from speech by Deputy Attorney General James Cole].