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Department of Justice

Kathleen Parker [Washington Post/syndicated] on the Sierra Pacific/Moonlight Fire case, in which judicial findings of misconduct by the state of California have now mushroomed into allegations that the U.S. Department of Justice was party to a fraud on the court. Sidney Powell, author of “A License To Lie,” has been calling attention to the case for a while.

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“Fox Business Network’s John Stossel interviews US Consumer Coalition’s Brian Wise and Kat O’Connor, owner of TomKat Ammunition LLC, on the Justice Department’s Operation Choke Point.” The Gaithersburg-based ammo seller was cut off from credit card processing services and suspects that the federal Choke Point program was the reason. [cross-posted from Free State Notes; earlier on Operation Choke Point].

P.S. There are signs that House Republicans may move to rein in Operation Check Point. Let’s hope so. [USA Today/Fond du Lac Reporter; HalfWheel (cigar news and reviews)]

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NPR’s This American Life digs into some bizarrely counterproductive sting tactics by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, which might have gone unchallenged had the bureau not stiffed a Milwaukee landlord badly enough to provoke him into taking his story to Journal Sentinel reporter John Diedrich. “The whole effort has resulted in some attempts to actually disband the entire ATF, which might not be such a bad idea.” BATF is part of the U.S. Department of Justice. [Mike Masnick, TechDirt citing Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and This American Life]

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Prosecution roundup

by Walter Olson on November 28, 2014

  • If you like civil forfeiture, you’ll love AG nominee Loretta Lynch [Rare Liberty]
  • NYT “Room for Debate” tackles deferred prosecution agreements with contributions by James Copland, Lawrence Cunningham, others;
  • Book by Ross Cheit seeks to rehabilitate mass-child-abuse prosecutions of 1990s, Cathy Young not convinced [Reason] “When miscarriages of justice occur, prosecutors must answer for actions” [Boston Globe on Bernard Baran case, earlier here and here]
  • As Sierra Pacific case implodes, federal judge raises prospect that U.S. DoJ may have defrauded judges [Paul Mirengoff, earlier]
  • Video of panel on shaken baby syndrome doubts, relating to new film “The Syndrome” [Univ. of Missouri, K.C. School of Law, related earlier]
  • Ambiguous statutes in a regulated environment: time for a limit on the criminalization of business? [Matt Kaiser, Above the Law]
  • Las Vegas: federal judge calls “super seal” clandestine-forfeiture effort by U.S. prosecutors “constitutionally abhorrent” [Balko]

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  • New Cato paper finds little evidence that pot legalization in Colorado has much affected rates of use, traffic safety, violent crime, ER visits, health, education outcomes [Jeffrey Miron working paper via Jacob Sullum]
  • Ferguson narrative changes as new evidence supports officer’s story on Michael Brown confrontation [Washington Post, Marc Ambinder/The Week, New Republic]
  • Why Obama was smart to choose Loretta Lynch as AG rather than knocking Republicans’ cap off with a pick like Thomas Perez [Cato; Todd Gaziano on confirmation questions]
  • Plea bargaining system: “Why Innocent People Plead Guilty” [Judge Jed Rakoff, New York Review of Books]
  • “There’s not much to do about catcalling, unless you’re willing to see a lot more minority men hassled by the police” [Kay Hymowitz, Time] Peer pressure seems to be a factor in restraining it [Andrew Sullivan] The “practice of catcalling is most taboo among members of the upper classes.” [Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic, earlier]
  • San Diego says it retains discretion over when to release cop camera footage [Radley Balko] How body cameras can vindicate cops [same]
  • Elderly Wisconsin man “was never considered dangerous, [but] was known to be argumentative,” so send in the armored vehicle [Kevin Underhill, Lowering the Bar, related] “The [SWAT-raided] Tibetan monks were here on a peace mission, for Christ’s sake. Well, not for Christ’s sake, but you know what I mean.” [same] Sen. Coburn quotes Madison: standing military force with overgrown executive will not long be safe companion to liberty [WSJ]

October 23 roundup

by Walter Olson on October 23, 2014

  • I’m quoted by Nicky Woolf of Great Britain’s Guardian on the police militarization angle in Keene, N.H. civil disturbances (also: Van Smith, Baltimore City Paper). Also quoted regarding the ominous move to heavy armaments of Wisconsin prosecutors investigating their political opponents in the dawn-raids “John Doe” proceeding [Watchdog, and second post, earlier] Humor in The New Yorker from Bruce McCall ["Pentagon Cop Aid Hits Snags"] And here’s a previously unlinked Cato panel last month on cop militarization with David Kopel, Mark Lomax, and Cheye Calvo, moderated by Tim Lynch;
  • Australia prime minister declares “repeal day” with “bonfire” of regulations [Jeff Bennett and Susan Dudley, Cato Regulation mag; earlier on Minnesota legislative "unsession" to dump outmoded or pointless laws]
  • “After dawdling for a year, panel tosses bogus complaint against Judge [Edith] Jones” [@andrewmgrossman on Houston Chronicle via Howard Bashman, Richard Kopf, Tamara Tabo, earlier here, here, and here]
  • Making waves: Michelle Boardman review of Margaret Radin book on boilerplate, adhesion contracts, fine print [Harvard Law Review, SSRN]
  • Why litigation lobby could cost Democrats Senate majority this year [Tim Carney]
  • Online-services companies, better not do business in Maryland since the state has a very special law that one law professor believes sharply restricts your customer research [Masnick/TechDirt]
  • Picking Thomas Perez as Attorney General would (or should!) ignite firestorm of opposition. Is that why President’s waiting till after Nov. 4? [Washington Examiner]

Eric Holder to resign

by Walter Olson on September 25, 2014

Many aspects of Eric Holder’s tenure as Attorney General appalled me. I assume, however, that they reflect conscious policy from higher up and will continue under whoever replaces him. Earlier mentions of Holder here and here.

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There’s an element of self-interest involved: when foreign states arrange to participate in the seizure of property of alleged wrongdoers even absent proof that can withstand trial, it can redound as a revenue source to U.S.-based law enforcement under various cooperation schemes. But remember the days when the U.S. sought to export the rule of law, property rights and strong constitutional protections to other lands? [Eapen Thampy, Forfeiture Reform]

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“The Justice Department has a suggestion for banks hoping to avoid criminal charges: Rat out your employees.” By agreeing to throw individuals under the bus, the company as a whole will qualify for valuable cooperation credits. [Ben Protess, New York Times "DealBook"] On a similar culture-of-informants theme, Eric Holder is proposing to further boost bounties for Wall Street informants into more massive contingency-fee territory: “Mr. Holder will urge Congress to allow bigger whistleblower rewards under the 1989 Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act…. Current law caps any Firrea whistleblower payment at $1.6 million.” [Wall Street Journal, earlier coverage and specifically]

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FOIA findings: “Dozens of Justice Department officials, ranging from FBI special agents and prison wardens to high-level federal prosecutors, have escaped prosecution or firing in recent years despite findings of misconduct by the department’s own internal watchdog. … In at least 27 cases, the inspector general identified evidence of possible criminal wrongdoing but no one was prosecuted.” Many cases ended in oral admonishment of errant employees. While various legitimate reasons can underlie a decision not to prosecute, such as a poor prospect of securing conviction, low stakes, or unclear law, the rate at which public integrity cases have been prosecuted has dropped significantly since the previous administration. [McClatchy] More: AP, Tim Cushing/TechDirt, Scott Greenfield.

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On July 24 Cato held a book forum on Sidney Powell’s new book, “Licensed to Lie: Exposing Corruption in the Department of Justice” (earlier). Participants included the author Sidney Powell, with comments by Alex Kozinski, Chief Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit; and Ronald Weich, Dean, University of Baltimore Law School. My colleague Tim Lynch, who directs Cato’s work on criminal justice issues, moderated. From the description:

In Licensed to Lie, attorney Sidney Powell takes readers through a series of disturbing events, missteps, and cover-ups in our federal criminal justice system. According to Powell, the malfeasance stretches across all three branches of our government — from the White House to the U.S. Senate, to members of the judiciary. Even worse, the law itself is becoming pernicious. Americans can now be prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned for actions that are not crimes. And if acquitted, there is no recourse against prosecutors who hid evidence vital to the defense.

Powell gives a detailed account of the prosecution and imprisonment of individual executives of well-known firms such as Merrill Lynch based on creative new theories of criminal liability, following dubious prosecutorial conduct including the withholding of evidence favorable to the defense, so-called Brady violations.

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The U.S. government was intent on “repatriating” the ancient remains of Kennewick Man for burial to Indian tribes in compliance with the perceived spirit of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), though any relation between those remains and current tribes is at best notional. The U.S. Department of Justice and Army Corps of Engineers had thrown their full weight on the side of immediate burial, even threatening criminal charges against individual scientists who insisted on litigating the case. “If it weren’t for a harrowing round of panicky last-minute maneuvering worthy of a legal thriller, the remains might have been buried and lost to science forever.” Fortunately, scientists won in the end, leaving the “most important human skeleton ever found in North America” finally free to disclose his secrets. [Smithsonian, earlier]

P.S. Welcome Popehat readers (“Science in the Hands of Angry Liberal Arts Majors”). And as several commenters point out, my summary above overstates the extent to which scientists actually prevailed, since the U.S. government continues to fight tenaciously to prevent further testing of the remains, and reportedly dumped a thousand tons of fill on the discovery site early on in case it hadn’t made its stance clear.

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According to the U.S. Department of Justice, a Fremont, Calif. apartment building’s rule against children’s playing in grassy common areas amounted to “family status” discrimination. Resulting settlement: $80,000. [DoJ complaint, press release]

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And so the experiment begins. The politics are pretty interesting, with neither the teachers’ unions nor the voters in places like Baltimore city necessarily thrilled about this development. It’s far more popular with various legal services groups, liberal foundations, and of course the Obama Administration’s Department of Education and Justice Department. [Washington Post, earlier on similar Los Angeles initiative and on the race angle]

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The tests “disproportionately screened out female applicants, resulting in a disparate impact against those applicants.” Officers who are highly fit have more options in a situation where force is required — subduing a suspect without resort to a gun, for example. Still, courts have often gone along with demands to weaken tests and standards. [DoJ press release] More: TV and Treadmills (FBI uses higher standards than the ones DoJ is suing over).

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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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I’ve got a longer write-up at Cato at Liberty (earlier) on the extraordinary outcome of a federal investigation into larcenous raids on bodegas by Philadelphia narcotics cops pursuant to sales of banned plastic zip-lock bags: U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger has closed the case without charges, the statute of limitations now having run.

This was a story that really got to me on many levels, as with this passage from the Philadelphia Daily News’s coverage: “Anh Ngo, like the Nams, said that she was never interviewed by investigators about what unfolded in her family grocery store in the Lower Northeast during a 2008 raid. Ngo, 30, said the officers smashed the [security surveillance] cameras with a sledgehammer and stole about $12,000, taking her mom’s diamond ring and emptying their wallets.” They took her mother’s ring! “‘To think that some light was shined on this by the Daily News and then the investigation just died, it’s really very frustrating,’ she said…. ‘[The cops] are living nice off of the money they stole from us.'” Notes one journalist: “The shop owners were all legal immigrants. None had criminal records. Nor had they ever met – they hailed from four corners of the city and spoke different languages.” Yet they told essentially the same stories.

The local press, specifically the Philadelphia Daily News, did everything one could reasonably wish to bring the story to light. In fact reporters Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman won a Pulitzer Prize for their investigation, “Tainted Justice,” and in March published a book on the scandal. The paper’s coverage of the dropping of charges has been likewise hard-hitting, including video of a bodega raid. In the end, none of it seemed to have worked in obtaining justice for the store owners.

I go on in the Cato piece to ask a few other questions about whether laws banning common items like mini-zip-lock bags are really a good idea given that they readily allow police to obtain search warrants against unsuspecting businesses; and whether we insist that store owners like these organize to defend their interests in the political process because the legal process will afford them no protection. Read it here.

And one other question: If we told these immigrant store owners that the American legal system works, would they believe us?

P.S. Internal police department discipline? The local Fraternal Order of Police union, according to its president, has been “standing behind the officers from the minute it happened.” Some don’t expect much:

“This is no big deal,” [the president of the police union lodge] said. “They’ll be handed some discipline and we’ll probably win in arbitration. . . . I don’t see anyone losing their jobs.”

On the other hand

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