Author Archive for Ashley Roncevic

Alford Plea: How a 19 Year-Old Teen Gets Community Service for Sexual Assault

A 19-year old Idaho teen that was accused of kicking a coat hanger up the rectum of a mentally disabled teammate plead guilty and received a mere sentence of 300 hours of community service.  Former high school football player, John R.K. Howard, was originally charged with forcible penetration by use of a foreign object, but the case was later found not to be about sexual assault and the teen was ultimately sentenced on a felony injury to a child charge.

According to the victim’s account of what happened, one of his friends motioned him over for a hug whereupon another teammate shoved a coat hanger into his body, after which Howard kicked the hanger pushing it further into his body.  Howard admitted he kicked the victim, but denied that he intentionally kicked the hanger itself; in fact, his attorney argued Howard may not have even known about the hanger.

The case caused quite an uproar in the small town of Dietrich, Idaho.  The victim’s family argued the victim had been continually bullied, while those in support of Howard and the other students charged urged the victim had fabricated the whole incident at the request of his parents for the sake of the financial gain that would come out of a lawsuit.  Despite the murky facts the case presents, Howard chose to plead guilty under an Alford Plea.

alford plea“I’m Guilty, But Not Really”

When a defendant enters a guilty plea, they’re admitting their guilt to the crime, usually as a trade-off for a reduced charge and a lesser sentence.  An Alford Plea gives the defendant the benefit of the lesser sentence without admitting guilt—the defendant gets to maintain his or her innocence for the crime.

Judges do have discretion to either accept or reject a plea, so maintaining innocence isn’t normally something that you would see when entering a guilty plea.  The Alford plea originated from a U.S. Supreme Court decision that held a judge can accept a guilty plea from a defendant that doesn’t really want to admit guilt; this allows the defendant to get the benefit of the bargained-for sentence even though they’re wavering on actual guilt.  When entering this kind of plea, Judges will ensure:

  • Whether the defendant is making a smart decision. Does the defendant understand what the plea means?  Does the defendant understand the rights they’re giving up?  Does the defendant understand that, even though they’re maintaining their innocence, they’ll still be considered (and treated as) guilty?  It will still be a criminal record just the same.
  • Is there enough evidence against the defendant for a guilty verdict at trial? You can’t plead guilty under an Alford Plea if there isn’t enough proof you’ve committed the crime.

Alford Plea Benefits Both Sides

Under an Alford Plea, a defendant admits that the evidence against them would likely persuade a judge or jury to find a verdict of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but maintains his or her innocence.  That doesn’t exactly sound like a real guilty plea then, so why are they even allowed?

In the case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court that led to the development of the Alford Plea, at the defendant’s guilty plea hearing he testified that he didn’t commit the crime he was charged with, but was pleading guilty to avoid getting a death penalty sentence.  That’s the plus side to any guilty plea—pleading guilty to a lesser crime to avoid a heavier sentence.  For the state, it’s about judicial efficiency, but for a defendant it’s about not gambling the odds.

Not every state allows Alford Pleas and in those states a defendant would have to plead “not guilty” to maintain their innocence.  For all intents and purposes, this costs time and money because it leads to a lengthy trial.  Plea deals keep cases off the docket, ensure time served, and give defendants the benefit of a lesser sentence.

Teen Could Get Conviction Dismissed

The evidence against Howard must have been damning for him to take the plea, but it paid off for him because he won’t have to serve any jail time.  The sentenced Howard to 300 hours of community service, but granted a withheld judgment.  Under Idaho law, judgments can be withheld to get them off the docket.  The benefit of this kind of judgment is that it gives the defendant a chance to have his record cleared later.

Here’s how it typically works—a defendant pleads guilty, is granted a withheld judgment, the case is closed, and, if the defendant abides by the term of their guilty plea, the conviction gets dismissed.  Think of it like putting your case on hold—a probationary period if you will.  If you behave, don’t get in any more trouble, and follow the terms of your guilty plea agreement with the state, then your case gets dismissed at the end of the probationary period.

Immigration: Understanding the United States’ New Policies

Under the Obama administration, enforcing immigration policies meant focusing on dangerous criminals and keeping families together, not a hard-lined approach that would deport every undocumented immigrant.  Times have changed, though, and Trump’s executive orders, titled Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements and Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States, changes the enforcement practices of our nations’ immigration laws.

Veiled Rule Really Includes All Undocumented Immigrants

immigrationAlthough Obama took a more progressive approach during his first term, deportations dropped during his second term and priority was given to dangerous criminals—not to those immigrants whose only violation was being in the country illegally.  In 2014, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) created the Priority Enforcement Program, which focused on deporting undocumented immigrants that posed threats to public safety, national security, and border security.  This program within the DHS has now been terminated because under Trump’s executive order undocumented immigrants that:

  • have been convicted or charged of any criminal offense,
  • have committed a chargeable criminal offense,
  • have engaged in fraud (think visa fraud) or willful misrepresentation in connection with any official matter or application before a governmental agency,
  • have abused any program related to receipt of public benefits,
  • are subject to final order of removal, but have not complied with their legal obligation to depart the U.S., or
  • in the judgment of an immigration officer, otherwise pose a risk to public safety or national security are to be given priority for deportation.

Let’s be clear here.  The policy includes virtually every person in the country that is here illegally.  Under this new policy, any unauthorized immigrant that has committed a chargeable criminal offense is to be deported.  Crossing the border illegally is in and of itself a criminal offense, so all those campaign promises that he only wanted to deport criminals wasn’t entirely true.  The only other way an immigrant could be here illegally is by overstaying a visa.

Department of Homeland Security Memos Shifts Policies Further

Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, John Kelly, released a set of implementation memos that give guidelines on how to enforce Trump’s policies under his executive orders.  According to the DHS, these memos are “designed to answer some frequently asked questions about how the Department will operationally implement the guidance provided by the president’s order”.

In short, the memos expedite deportation, tighten immigration laws for asylum seekers and unaccompanied minors entering the country, could send immigrants awaiting immigration proceedings in the United States back to Mexico, seek to publicize crimes by undocumented immigrants, build new detention facilities, strip immigrants of privacy protections, and enlist local police officers to enforce immigration policies.

Here’s a closer look at some of the changes.

  • Although the memos do list specifics about who is to be given priority for deportation in accordance with Trump’s executive order, the memos direct that the DHS will no longer exempt classes or categories of removable aliens. This is contrary to the policies under Obama, who worked to keep illegal immigrants with strong ties to their communities and this country, including those with citizen children, here in the United States.
  • Establishes the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) Office. This one allows the VOICE office to release information about the offender to victims and their families.  Further, it terminates any and all resources used to advocate on behalf of illegal aliens; all resources are reallocated to the VOICE office.
  • Directs establishment of regulations to collect civil fines and penalties from illegal aliens.
  • Strips Privacy Act protections from any person that is not a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident.
  • Expanded expedited removal processes for undocumented immigrants that haven’t been here long. Immigration law says undocumented adults captured within 2 years of entering the U.S. can be removed without a hearing.  In the past, DHS policy limited this policy to those captured within 14 days of entering the country, but, even though the memo doesn’t give a specific change of time frame, this will likely no longer be tolerated based on the essence of the memos.
  • Criminalizes those who help unaccompanied children. Any individual who “facilitates the illegal smuggling or trafficking of an alien child into the United States” is subject to deportation and/or prosecution.
  • For those that entered the country through a neighboring territory, the memos authorize their return to that territory where they will wait for the outcome of their removal proceedings. This is true even if that territory isn’t their country of origin.

Although some of the information contained in the memos references already existing laws, the message is clear—violating immigration laws will no longer be tolerated.  Under these policies, the government no long considers violating immigration laws a secondary offense and the memos direct Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hire 10,000 additional officers and agents to implement these new policy changes.

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Immigration Ban 101: Understanding Trump’s Executive Order

Trump’s executive order on immigration has created mass confusion, waves of legal battles, and incited outrage across the nation.  In the chaos that ensued after the executive order dropped, legal professionals began filing lawsuits that eventually led to a temporary suspension of the ban. Although the initial decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is foretelling the executive order would ultimately be held unconstitutional, let’s take a closer look at the immigration policies Trump wants to implement.

Immigration Ban

Who’s Covered?

  • The order suspended new refugee admissions for 120 days, which suggests new vetting procedures were on the way. Although Trump says he wants a heavier regulated process, the U.S. refugee admissions system is already strict.  Refugees typically apply through the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which then goes through several databases, including the State Department, the National Counterterrorism Center/FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Interpol, Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Department of Defense.  Currently, it can take anywhere from 18 to 24 months for the vetting process.
  • The order suspended the Syrian refugee system Last year, Trump’s Vice President, Mike Pence, tried to stop resettlement of Syrian refuges into the State of Indiana, but was blocked by an appeals court who ruled his attempt as “nightmare speculation”.  The order also requests review of a state’s right to accept or deny refugees for resettlement in their state, which is no doubt a nod to Pence.
  • The order bans entry into the U.S. from seven majority-Muslim countries for 90 days. Those countries include Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, but more countries could be added at any point under the discretion of the Department of Homeland Security.  The ban was unclear as to whether the restriction included legal U.S. residents, which created chaos for individuals that were traveling when the order hit.  The Department of Homeland Security later clarified that some legal residents that didn’t pose a legal threat would be allowed in.  I’m not sure you can call that much of a clarification, though, as it’s still vague.
  • The ban included denial of entry of dual-nationals. This means even if you hold a passport from another country, but also one from one of the 7 above-listed countries, you could be banned from entering the U.S.
  • Prioritize refugees based on religion. While Trump claims it isn’t a ban on Muslims, there is a small provision within the executive order that says priority should be given to those of a minority religion, implying those religions other than Muslim will be given preference.
  • Lower the total number of refugees to be accepted from any country in 2017. This isn’t a new concept, as each year the president determines how many refugees will be admitted into the U.S., but the number is down from the previous 110,000.  While the U.S. has traditionally been one of the largest refugee resettlement countries in the world, this could easily change as Trump lowered the number to 50,000.

What Can We Expect to See Next?

While the current executive order was blocked by a federal court, this could all be a moot point as Trump has already announced his plans to rescind the current order and issue a new one that’s tailored around the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision.  Sounds like a façade, only to appease the constitutional issues raised by ban, as Trump has made his intentions clear about who he wants to allow in the country.

One of the main arguments against the ban is that it’s unconstitutionally discriminatory based on religion.  Even if a new executive order is issued, it doesn’t seem likely Trump can avoid another lawsuit for discrimination because who he wants to prohibit from entering the country is entirely grounded on a person’s religion and nationality.  At this rate, we’re likely to see a constant stream of legal battles over the next 4 years.

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Trump Faces a Record Amount of Lawsuits for a President

In a mere two-week period, Trump faces a slew of lawsuits that already amount to 10 times the average of the three presidents who preceded him.  Over 50 lawsuits have been filed and, at the rate he’s going, it doesn’t look like it will slow down any time soon.  Plaintiffs from 17 different states include religious groups, state attorneys general, doctors, professors, students, refugees seeking help, and Iraqis who have worked for the U.S. military.  While most lawsuits are in reference to Trump’s immigration ban arguing civil rights violations, the President is also facing a financial conflict of interest suit and a lawsuit regarding federal funding.

Trump Lawsuits

Travel & Refugee Ban

Civil rights cases starting flying out of the wood works once Trump signed his executive order restricting travel.  The immigration ban not only restricts access into the United States for those from select black-listed countries, but it halts entrance for refugees seeking political asylum.  Although a federal judge has temporarily blocked the executive order from taking effect, Trump has appealed the lawsuit.  Here’s a closer look at what the executive order will do if Trump prevails his appeal:

  • Suspend the entire U.S. refugee admissions system for at least 120 days.
  • Suspend the Syrian refugee program indefinitely.
  • Ban entry from 7 majority-Muslim countries, including Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen for at least 90 days. This includes dual-nationals that hold passports from other countries as well.
  • Prioritize refugee claims on the basis of religion, with a strong implication that non-Muslim religions would get preference.
  • Lower the total number of refugees to be accepted in 2017 from any country.

The lawsuits allege violations of the 1st, 5th and 14th Amendments, citing religious inequality, due process and equal protection violations, denials of asylum, as well as discriminatory visa processing practices.  Here’s a closer look at the expanding list of who’s suing Trump based on this executive order:

  • Washington state has brought suit on a national level and claims the ban violates both the 1st Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. The state of Minnesota joined in on the lawsuit, as well as 16 other states who have joined as friends of the court to argue against the ban. At least 127 tech companies have also filed briefs with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in opposition to the ban.
  • The ACLU brought multiple lawsuits by different plaintiffs arguing the ban discriminates against Muslims. Among the plaintiffs are two Iranian national University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth associate professors were detained while returning from an engineering conference and an Iraqi soldier (with a valid visa) was detained in New York while trying to join his family.
  • The Council on American Islamic Relations also brought suit alleging the ban discriminates against Muslims and is unconstitutional on 1st Amendment grounds because it disfavors groups based on their religious faith.

Conflicts of Interest

We’ve been hearing about the numerous ways Trump’s business dealings present conflict of interest issues since his election.  The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) brought a lawsuit against Trump alleging he violated the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which basically says those holding office can’t profit from their power in office.

CREW’s lawsuit alleges because of the payments Trump receives from foreign organizations as through his many businesses, he’s profiting from his presidency.  The argument rests on the notion that these profits limit his ability as President to make unbiased decisions for the benefit of the United States over the betterment of himself.  Although, there’s a good argument CREW doesn’t have standing to win their case, it doesn’t negate the legitimate conflicts of interest.

Withholding Federal Funding

Cracking down on sanctuary cities is a campaign threat Trump followed through on.  In addition to his immigration ban, Trump issued an executive order that would cut federal funding from sanctuary cities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration officials.  San Francisco, a sanctuary city, has taken a stance and brought a lawsuit arguing the order violates the 10th Amendment.  While the federal government can put conditions on the money they give out, the conditions cannot be coercive, which gives San Francisco a strong argument.

What Happens When a President is Sued?

Qualified immunity can be tricky.  On a general level, public officials are protected from lawsuits alleging they violated a plaintiff’s rights.  Exceptions come into play when there’s an allegation that the official violated a clearly established statutory or constitutional right.  If cases were brought against a president for actions not related to their official capacity, the case would most likely be postponed until their term is over.

There are numerous lawsuits pending against Trump that were filed before his inauguration and don’t relate to his presidency.  The fraud lawsuit regarding Trump University was settled, but most of the other cases will resume once Trump’s time in office is over.   All of the cases filed within the past couple of weeks relate to Trump’s actions as President and pose constitutional violations, so they’ll be able to move forward through the judicial process.

Trump’s Immigration Ban: Domestic and International Rights at Threat

Banning a whole class of individuals based on their nationality is not only hateful, but legal professionals around the globe agree Trump’s immigration ban has a number of constitutional and international human rights issues to overcome.  The immigration ban not only restricts access into the United States for those from select black-listed countries, but it temporarily stops entrance for refugees seeking political asylum and permanently stops entrance for Syrian refugees.

Trump Immigration Ban

First Amendment

The Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment guarantees religious equality and restricts the government from establishing (or supporting) any one particular religion.  While Trump’s team insists the immigration ban is not a blanket ban targeting Muslims, it’s hard to refute that argument based on Trump’s previous campaign statements.

On its face, the text of the order doesn’t exclude Muslims, but the text of the ban does state priority is to be given to refugees of a minority religion.  Since the ban affects 7 Muslim-majority nations, this language strongly indicates a preference for non-Muslim religions.  I can’t stress enough how much this practice would be in direct contradiction to the establishment clause.

Fifth & Fourteenth Amendment

Trump’s executive order singles out individuals based on both their nationality and religion and encourages discriminatory visa processing procedures, all of which raise discrimination issues that violate due process rights.

Due Process rights under the 5th and 14th Amendment require fair treatment, both procedurally and substantively.  Both the way the law pans out and the way the law is written matter.  Not only must the government provide fair and sufficient notice before denying someone their life, liberty, and property, the government cannot enact laws it doesn’t have the authority to enact.  While executive orders have been traditionally accepted, presidents don’t have the authority to enact laws that are discriminatory and contrary to the principles of the Constitution and laws of our nation.

Trump’s blanket ban provides no processes or procedures for denying entrance into the U.S., which left many stranded, including legal visa holders.  There’s a strong argument those travelers were denied their procedural due process rights.  They were given no notice or chance to make alternative travel plans.  Attorneys scrambled to file writs of habeas corpus demanding that, as asylum seekers on U.S. soil, the government was required under the Immigration and Nationality Act to at least grant asylum hearings, something the order didn’t allow for.

U.N. Experts Say Ban Violates International Human Rights Obligations

In the midst of lawsuit upon lawsuit demanding a halt on the immigration ban for constitutional violations, a group of U.N. human rights experts have weighed in and say the United States is now in violation of its international human rights obligations.  Under non-refoulement principles, the U.N. has long held that nations cannot expel or return a refugee to an area where their life or freedom are threatened.

Will the Ban Hold Up in Court?

After multiple lawsuits were filed, judges across the country issued injunctions blocking certain aspects of the executive order.  The state of Washington filed suit on the order as a whole and U.S. District Judge James Robart blocked the order in its entirety.  Although Trump appealed the decision, normal screening procedures commenced and will remain in effect until a decision is handed down.

Despite Trump’s offensive tweets that questioned Judge Robart’s opinion, Trump seems to be a minority on this one.  Sixteen other state attorney generals have joined the lawsuit.  Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Maine, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and the District of Columbia have filed a brief as “friends of the court” to argue against the ban.  At least 127 tech companies have also filed briefs in opposition to the ban.

Trump cited a need to protect our nation from terrorist threats as the basis for the executive order, but it’s arguable the ban will do nothing to actually prevent future attacks.  Media attention has focused on the fact that none of the most recent attacks in the U.S. have originated from the countries on Trump’s list.  Certainly, national security interests can undoubtedly outweigh constitutional protections, but that should only be on a case-by-case basis and not a blanket ban based on nationality.  While courts traditionally have given the executive branch great leeway when it comes to immigration policy, it’s not likely this particular order will pass constitutional muster.