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crime and punishment

Brian Aitken at Cato

by Walter Olson on December 18, 2014

In several 2010 posts we covered the story of Brian Aitken, who was imprisoned by the state of New Jersey simply for carrying unloaded guns and ammo in his trunk (really, that was the extent of the crime). Last week Cato hosted Aitken to talk on his new book The Blue Tent Sky: How the Left’s War on Guns Cost Me My Son and My Freedom. Tim Lynch of Cato moderated, and I gave comments. Event description:

In 2009 Brian Aitken, a media consultant and web entrepreneur, ran afoul of New Jersey’s draconian gun laws when he was arrested while transporting two handguns unloaded and locked in the trunk of his car. Despite the fact that Aitken owned the guns legally and had called the New Jersey State Police for advice on how to legally transport his firearms, he found himself sentenced to seven years in prison.

In 2010 New Jersey governor Chris Christie commuted Aitken’s sentence. But Aitken’s experience, like that of other law-abiding gun owners who’ve faced long prison sentences for honest mistakes, raises troubling questions about gun-law overreach, prosecutorial discretion, and judicial abdication.

I recommended the book as a riveting and outrageous read, yet leavened with hope because of the story of the strong public movement that formed to protest the injustice of his incarceration. In my comments, I mentioned the feds’ heavily armed raid on an Indiana antiquities collector. More on that story here.

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Police and community roundup

by Walter Olson on December 15, 2014

  • Oh, no: “Ferguson to Increase Police Ticketing to Close City’s Budget Gap,” because three arrest warrants per household is still too low [Bloomberg News via Zach Weissmuller (& thanks for quote), earlier]
  • In years 2011/12 alone, one Buffalo officer “killed as many dogs in the line of duty as the entire NYPD.” [WGRZ]
  • “He believed the poor had the right to buy and sell.” Tunisia yes, Staten Island too? [David Boaz, USA Today]
  • “The language of protest: Race, rioting, and the memory of Ferguson” [Abigail Perkiss, NCC/Yahoo, mentions me]
  • “Red light cameras to go dark in New Jersey” [Josh Kaib, Watchdog Wire] “Public opinion swings hard against traffic cameras” [AutoBlog]
  • On interpreting statistics on race and policing, point counter-point [Scott Alexander, Ezra Klein, Alexander] Reminder: increasing ranks of black officers does not necessarily lead to fewer shootings of black civilians [Jamelle Bouie, Slate]
  • “Sex, Spice, and Small-Town Texas Justice: The Purple Zone Raid” [Reason.tv video]

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“… the political class… uses the multiplication of criminal offenses as a form of moral exhibitionism.” [George Will, Washington Post/syndicated]

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A question of consent: “The case has produced no evidence thus far that the couple’s love faded, that Donna failed to recognize her husband or that she asked that he not touch her, said Rayhons’ son Dale Rayhons, a paramedic and the family’s unofficial spokesman.” Mrs. Rayhons, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, is dead now and can’t testify. “In interviews, Rayhons said his life and reputation are already ruined. … He says he’s most distraught about being kept from Donna during the last weeks of her life.” [Bryan Gruley, Bloomberg, via @amyalkon] (& Scott Greenfield, Eugene Volokh)

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Eric Garner, asphyxiated during his arrest on Staten Island, had been repeatedly picked up by the NYPD for the crime of selling loose cigarettes. Washington Examiner:

The crime of selling “loosies” was not considered a serious one in the past. Many corner stores in New York City once sold them quietly upon request. But former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s cartoonish anti-tobacco crusade changed that and everything else. Smoking in public places was banned. Punitive taxes and a legal minimum price of $10.50 were imposed in an effort to push prices ever-upward, so that a brand-name pack of 20 cigarettes now costs as much as $14 in New York City.

As a result, the illicit sale of loose and untaxed cigarettes became more commonplace.

I noted at yesterday’s Repeal Day panel at Cato that according to figures last year, New York’s unusually high cigarette taxes had brought it an unusual distinction: an estimated 60 percent of consumption there is of smuggled or illegal cigarettes, much higher than any other state. Another way to think of it is that New York has moved closer to prohibition than to a legal market in tobacco. [earlier 2003 Cato study]

In his history of Prohibition, Last Call, Daniel Okrent cites (among many other law enforcement misadventures) the fatal shooting of Jacob Hanson, secretary of an Elks lodge in Niagara Falls, New York, in a confrontation with alcohol agents — though Hanson had a clean record and was not carrying alcohol. At the time, many saw Hanson’s death as reflecting poorly on the Prohibition regime generally. For some reason, though, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has drawn fire from some quarters for making a parallel observation about Garner’s death. [BBC; note however that while Garner's frictions with the local NYPD seem to owe much to his repeated cigarette arrests, the proximate event leading to his arrest seems to have been his attempt to break up a fight]

Yale’s Stephen Carter: “On the opening day of law school, I always counsel my first-year students never to support a law they are not willing to kill to enforce.” [Bloomberg View via Ilya Somin]

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Quoted in USA Today and other papers on what can be the very long road back once a reputation for riots tanks a community’s business climate and property values. [Yamiche Alcindor, USA Today]

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The separatism-minded Spanish region of Catalonia has enacted a law under which “the person accused of homophobic acts will have to prove his innocence, reversing the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.” [El Pais, TheLocal.es] The law includes fines for anti-gay occurrences in the workplace. Advocates defended the shifting of the burden of proof onto the accused to prove innocence as a “positive discrimination measure [that] is already in place for other offenses, such as domestic violence against women, in instances when it is very difficult to prove.” [VilaWeb] (& welcome Andrew Sullivan readers)

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Justice Scalia on the rule of lenity in U.S. v. Santos, 2008:

This venerable rule not only vindicates the fundamental principle that no citizen should be held accountable for a violation of a statute whose commands are uncertain, or subjected to punishment that is not clearly prescribed. It also places the weight of inertia upon the party that can best induce Congress to speak more clearly and keeps courts from making criminal law in Congress’s stead.

Vikrant Reddy (footnotes omitted):

Although this understanding should be perfectly ordinary, the application of the rule of lenity has in fact begun to erode dramatically in recent years. This has happened in concert with a troubling phenomenon: the dramatic growth of criminal law in a variety of non-traditional arenas, generally involving freely agreed-upon exchanges between adults. These “business crimes” (which include such things as harvesting oysters at the wrong time of day, improperly thrashing pecan trees, or even mislabeling citrus fruit) are increasingly exempt from the ordinary application of the rule of lenity in the minds of many judges and prosecutors.

Tim Lynch of the Cato Institute has even argued that the ordinary application of the rule of lenity “has been turned on its head.” He has observed that “When an ordinary criminal statute is ambiguous, the courts give the benefit of the doubt to the accused, but when a regulatory provision is ambiguous, the benefit of the doubt is given to the prosecutor.”11 What is troubling is that while defendants found guilty of these business crimes are subject to criminal sanctions—including prison—they increasingly do not enjoy the fundamental due process protections that are supposed to be guaranteed by the rule of lenity.

His paper for the Texas Public Policy Foundation recommends:

• Texas should formally codify the rule of lenity in the state code.
• The rule of lenity is a partial solution to a larger problem — the overall trend towards overcriminalization in American life.
• Fewer “business crimes” would mean fewer crimes for whichthe rule of lenity is disregarded.

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Both houses of the Pennsylvania legislature have passed and sent to Gov. Tom Corbett a bill “allowing judges to issue injunctions, or grant any other ‘appropriate relief’ if there is ‘conduct’ by a criminal ‘offender’ that ‘perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim.” Such an effect is specified to include, though it is not limited to, a “temporary or permanent state of mental anguish.” The “revictimization remedy” bill, S. 508, is apparently aimed at providing a way to go after a much-cooed-over convicted cop-killer for delivering recorded speeches at college campuses, to the distress of the family of the policeman he shot; Paul Alan Levy describes the bill’s use of the word “conduct” as a “fig leaf” for its intent to restrict speech. What Levy calls the “exceptional breadth” of the bill’s language could imperil or chill a wide range of other activity that might tread on victims’ feelings, such as campaigns to rally public opinion against a conviction or in favor of clemency. The bill, Levy says, “threatens to make Pennsylvania a national laughing stock.” [Consumer Law & Policy; Fox News; NBC Philadelphia; more, Joel Mathis, Philadelphia mag] More on the ever-popular “victims’ rights” cause from Steve Chapman and Roger Pilon.

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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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