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Should Police Officers Be a Protected Class Under the Law?

Should police officers be given special protection under hate crime law? Louisiana thinks they should—on May 26th, Governor John Bel Edwards signed the so-called “Blue Lives Matter” bill into law. This legislation makes Louisiana the first state in the nation where police officers (along with firefighters and other first responders) are considered a protected class under the law.

The passing of “Blue Lives Matter” raises several important questions. First, what does it mean if a class of people are “protected” under the law? Also, what are the possible consequences of the passage of the “Blue Lives Matter” legislation?

What Does It Mean to be a Protected Class under the Law?

The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 laid the foundation for future anti-discrimination laws and defined the first protected classes. Under the Civil Rights Act, it became illegal to discriminate against people based on their race, color, religion, sex, national or ethnic origin. Before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, schools as well as workplaces were legally segregated along racial lines. Police 2

The subsequent Civil Rights Act of 1968 prohibits physical violence or intimidation towards those in protected classes. Federally protected activities include attending school, patronizing a public place, applying for employment, acting as a juror in a state court or voting. Penalties for violating this law with crimes resulting in bodily injury include up to 10 years in prison. Such crimes involving kidnapping, sexual assault, or murder can be punished by life in prison or the death penalty.

Federal hate crimes can also be prosecuted under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. This legislation expanded federal hate crime law to include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. Also, unlike in 18 U.S.C. § 245 (b) (2), victims are not required to be engaged in a federally protected activity at the time of their crime.

What about State Hate Crime Laws?

Currently, 45 states and the District of Columbia have laws against hate crimes.

Louisiana is one of the states with anti-hate crime statutes. Louisiana makes it unlawful to victimize someone through crimes including “first or second degree murder, manslaughter and sexual battery” because of their “…actual or perceived race, gender, religion, color, creed, disability, sexual orientation, national origin.”

Even before the Blue Lives Matter bill passed, police officers could be seen as a kind of protected class in Louisiana, as it is one 37 states with enhanced penalties for assaulting a police officer.

Is the Blue Lives Matter Legislation Even Necessary?

Those in favor of Blue Lives Matter say that the law is essential because of what they perceive as increased hostility towards law enforcement. After all, Blue Lives Matter was named in response to Black Lives Matter, the activist group that has protested the deaths of young, unarmed African Americans at the hands of white police officers.

However, according to Seth Stoughton, an assistant law professor at the University of North Carolina, the perception that more officers are being murdered in the line of duty than ever before is actually false.

Stoughton says that instead of a steady uptick in officer killings in recent years, there have been only slight fluctuations, with 2013 the safest year for officers ever. In fact, only about half as many police are murdered every year now in comparison with the 1970s.

What Are Some Implications of the Passage of Blue Lives Matter?

In order for someone to be found guilty under hate crime law, it must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed their crime because of bias toward a protected group. If the defendant does not admit to bias as a motive, the prosecution must find another way to prove their prejudice.

To prove bias, the prosecution can take into evidence information like the defendant’s membership to a group that is thought to espouse hatred for a protected class. It is not hard to imagine that those charged under the Blue Lives Matter law could argue that their First Amendment right to freedom of expression was violated by the law. After all, a defendant could argue that just because they belong to a certain group does not mean that they intended to commit a hate crime.

Additionally, the passage of Blue Lives Matter not only opens the door for other states to make police officers a protected class, it invites the possibility of other professions attempting to become protected under the law. While no one wants to feel that they are the victim of a hate crime, it seems disingenuous to state that just because someone has chosen to work a certain job, they are entitled to enhanced penalties under hate crime law.

The inclusion of more and more protected classes under the law could dilute what hate crime legislation was supposed to accomplish—protection of marginalized groups against historical indignities which prevented them from living their lives equal to those of other Americans.

Should the Parents of the Boy Who Fell Into a Gorilla Enclosure Have Been Held Liable?

What would you do if your child wandered away from you in public and you found yourself facing national scrutiny as well as possible criminal liability? That’s just what happened to Michelle Gregg and Deonne Dickerson after an incident with their three-year-old son at the Cincinnati Zoo over Memorial Day weekend.

On May 28th, the three-year-old boy climbed over a 3-foot barrier before falling 15 feet into a moat inside a gorilla enclosure. The boy was then confronted by Harambe, a 450- pound silverback gorilla. Harambe violently dragged and tossed the child around the enclosure before he was fatally shot by zookeepers.

Harambe’s death sparked international outrage. Critics lambasted the zookeepers for resorting to killing a member of an endangered species, as well as the boy’s parents for what they saw as their negligent behavior. In fact, a petition posted on calling for Michelle Gregg to be investigated by Child Protective Services has over 60,000 signatures.

The Cincinnati police announced that they would look into filing criminal charges against the boy’s parents. However, on June 6th Ohio prosecutors announced that they would not be pressing charges.

But exactly what sort of legal liability could the boy’s family have faced? And could a case against the parents be seen as anything but frivolous?

Could the Boys Parents Have Been Charged For Harambes Death?

The outrage directed at Michelle Gregg and Deonne Dickerson after Harambe’s death is reminiscent of the backlash against Minnesotan Walter James Palmer. In 2015, Palmer shot and killed Cecil the lion while on a hunting expedition in Zimbabwe.

Like Harambe, Cecil was a member of an endangered species. Also like Harambe, Cecil lived under human observation—he resided in a national park where he was popular with tourists. While zookeepers shot Harambe in order to protect a child, Palmer hired two guides to assist him in killing the lion. Once in Africa, Palmer allegedly assisted in tying an animal carcass to the back of a vehicle to lure Cecil out of the park. Palmer later shot and killed Cecil after 40 hours of stalking him through the wilderness. Gorilla

However, the most important difference is that Palmer potentially faced charges under the Lacey Act, which makes it a federal crime to trade in wildlife killed in violation of foreign law. Palmer’s accomplices faced $20,000 in fines and up to 10 years in jail on poaching charges. There isn’t a comparable statute in the Harambe case. Ultimately, however, Palmer was not charged with a crime in Cecil’s death.

In lieu of a law that could directly charge anyone with Harambe’s death, outraged animal lovers urged supporters to sign a petition to instate “Harambe’s Law.” The petition, which will be delivered to an Ohio representative and a senator, asks that in the event of an incident similar to Harambe’s death “…the negligent party and or party’s [sic] be held financially and criminally responsible for any harm and or loss to an animal, specifically when said animal is Critically Endangered.”

Could the Parents Actions be Considered Child Endangerment?

If the boy’s parents had been found criminally liable, they might have been charged with child endangerment. According to Ohio Revised Code (ORC 2919.22), a caregiver commits child endangerment when he or she creates a “substantial risk to the health or safety of the child, by violating a duty of care, protection or support.” In other words, a parent or guardian who puts the child under their care in a situation where it is likely that the child will be exposed to harm could be found guilty of child endangerment.

While it might seem that a prohibition against exposing a child to harmful situations could make allegations of child endangerment a slam dunk to prosecute, this is not always the case. For example, while leaving a toddler unattended in a bathtub for up to four minutes could possibly be a situation that poses a “substantial risk to the health or safety” of a child, an Ohio court ruled that the mother in the case was not guilty. Similarly, another Ohio mother was not charged after she left her child unsupervised in a car in a mall parking lot.

However, there is an example of a parent who was held legally liable for an incident at a zoo. In 2015, a woman was sentenced to probation and parenting classes after she dropped her young child into a Cleveland zoo’s cheetah pit. The two-year-old child lunged out of his mother’s arms after she dangled him over a railing. The woman was charged with child endangerment, but eventually pleaded no contest to aggravated trespassing.

Although some animal lovers have been critical of what they see as Michelle Gregg’s parenting failure that day at the zoo, the charge of child endangerment does not hold up so easily in her case. According to witnesses, Gregg lost track of her child for perhaps two minutes. Unlike the Cleveland Cheetah case, Hamilton County prosecutor Joe Deters stated that he did not believe she acted in a way that put her son in danger.

So Would Charging the Boys Parents Have Made Any Sense?

While the death of Harambe was a loss to the Cincinnati Zoo and animal lovers everywhere, the prosecution’s decision not to press charges against Michelle Gregg is correct. After all, Michelle Gregg did not poach Harambe, as was alleged in the case of Walter Palmer. Additionally, the couple of minutes Gregg lost of her son does not rise to the standard of child endangerment.

Man Held Hostage Demands Portion of Award Money for Aiding Capture of Jail Escapees

If you’ve been kidnapped and convince your kidnappers to turn themselves in, should you get a share of the reward for their capture? A 71-year old taxi driver was reportedly kidnapped by 3 escapees from a California jail and held hostage for at least a week. Lon Hoang Ma, the victim, has sued in a court of law for a share of the $200,000 reward that was posted for the capture of the 3 escaped men.

After escaping from jail, inmates Bac Duong, Hossein Nayeri, and Jonathan Tieu called for a taxi. The unsuspecting taxi driver happened to be Ma, who drove them, at their request, to a local Walmart and Target shopping center. All seemed normal until the men walked out of Target with a gun, threatened Ma, and forced him to drive to a hotel where he was held hostage. Tieu and Nayeri, according to Ma, would often argue about wanting to kill Ma, but Duong was against it. Even so, Ma feared for his safety, as all 3 men were violent felons.

Ma reported that Duong was often cordial to him, despite the fact his partners wanted to kill him. Eventually, while Nayeri and Tieu were out with a stolen van, Ma claims he was able to persuade Duong to flee. Ma convinced Duong that the other 2 men would eventually kill him and that Duong would be an accessory to that crime even if he didn’t take part. Presuming Duong didn’t want to be an accessory, the pair decided to flee and took off on roughly a 400-mile drive south. It was during that drive that Ma says he persuaded Duong to surrender himself to the police. Wanted Poster

Duong was arrested and Ma proceeded to give the Sheriff’s department more information about the events that took place during his kidnapping, which included information identifying Tieu and Nayeri’s known location and information regarding the stolen van that was in their possession. This information was then broadcast on local airways. A homeless man saw the broadcast and realized he had just spotted the missing men and flagged down a police officer. As a result, Tieu and Nayeri were ultimately caught.

The homeless man got $10,000 for reporting that he had spotted the men to a police officer, the owner of the stolen van received $20,000 for making a vehicle theft report, and 2 Target employees received $15,000 for recognizing that the men had purchased cell phones at their store. Ma received nothing even though he provided information leading to the capture of the escapees.

Who Qualifies For Reward Money?

In terms of contract law, a contract exists when there is offer, acceptance, and consideration. A reward offer is an offer for a unilateral contract, which is accepted by performance and that performance would be providing information leading to an arrest.

Ma isn’t the first to sue for reward money, but rewards will often not be issued to a victim while a case is pending because it can affect the outcome at trial when an eyewitness has to testify and disclose that they’ve received a reward. That doesn’t mean Ma shouldn’t be entitled to a portion of the reward, it just may need to be a delayed reward.

It’s Probably a Slippery Slope…

Consider a man commits a crime, decides to turn himself in, and then tries to claim the reward money for his own crime. Does the criminal have a legally valid claim to do so? No. The problem arises with the consideration portion of the equation. Consideration can come in the form of a promise (or performance) to do something that you’re not legally obligated to do or a promise not to do something you have the right to do (like file a lawsuit). A criminal can’t claim his own reward because he doesn’t have any consideration to give.

You obviously don’t want criminals claiming reward money for turning themselves in, but a hostage should be entitled to a portion of the reward if his information helped lead to the arrest of his captors. Ma accepted the offer when he provided information that ultimately led to the arrest of the jail escapees.

Ma wasn’t obligated to provide any of that information, so that’s his consideration. Whoever is paying out the reward has the ability to set the terms of eligibility for claiming the reward, but unless there is some missing information, the fact that Ma was a hostage shouldn’t hinder his ability to claim part of the reward.

Batman Shooting: Should Movie Theaters Provide Extra Security?

When people go to see a movie in a movie theater, the last thing they expect is to be a part of a shooting massacre. That’s exactly what happened in Aurora, Colorado in 2012 when approximately 400 movie enthusiasts went to see the premiere of the Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises.

During the midnight showing, a heavily armed and gas mask-clad gunman entered the movie theater, set off tear gas grenades, and shot into the audience. He killed 12 and wounded 70 during the shooting rampage. The gunman was sentenced to life in prison without parole and was convicted of 24 counts of first-degree murder – two for each of the slain victims.

After the gunman’s conviction, the victims and their families filed a civil suit against Cinemark USA Inc., the movie theater where the shooting occurred, claiming Cinemark and the property owners should be held liable for lapses in security which contributed to the tragedy.

According to plaintiffs’ attorney, Cinemark failed to have armed security, roving guards around the building, and silent door alarms on the auditorium exit. The jury ruled that Cinemark was not liable for the mass shooting because it was completely unpredictable, unforeseeable, and unpreventable.

The lawsuit brings up an interesting question. When can a property owner be held liable for a personal injury sustained on their property?

Visitors on the Premises

When you enter someone’s property, you have a reasonable expectation of not getting injured. This means the property owner is responsible for maintaining a safe environment. Whether the property owner is subject to liability depends on the state in which the injury occurred. Movie Crime Scene

Many states focus on the status of the visitor to the property. In general, there are three labels for visitors:

An invitee is someone who either has express or implied consent of the owner to enter the premises, such as a customer to a store. They can also include friends, relatives, and neighbors. Because the visitor is “invited” onto the property, it is implied that the owner has taken reasonable steps to assure the safety of the premises.

A licensee has the either express or implied consent of the owner to enter the property, but is coming onto the property for his or her own purposes. Licensees are usually salesmen or mail carriers. The landowner owes a licensee a lesser duty only to warn the licensee of dangerous conditions that create an unreasonable risk of harm if the landowner knew about the condition or the licensee is not likely to discover it.

A trespasser is someone who is not given permission to be on the property. Landowners typically do not owe a duty to trespassers unless the trespasser is a child.

Premises Liability

Premises liability is a typical cause of action in personal injury cases where the injury was caused by an unsafe or defective condition on someone else’s property. Premises liability cases are based on the theory of negligence. To win a premises liability case, the injured person must prove that the property owner was negligent in some way with respect to his or her ownership and maintenance of the property. In that regard, the injured party must show the property owner knew or should reasonably have known that the premises were in an unsafe condition and, despite this knowledge, failed to take proper steps to remedy the unsafe condition.

Liability in Shooting Massacre

In this case, the jury ruled that it was not reasonably foreseeable that a crazed gunman would open fire on opening day of the movie Batman. If the plaintiffs could demonstrate it is common practice of movie theaters in Aurora to have extra security for movies that involve extreme violence, they may have prevailed in this lawsuit. Without such a common practice, the movie theater could not be found liable. The ruling is certainly a blow to the victims and their families who are trying to move forward from the tragedy, but it also goes to show that some random acts of violence are only the fault of the perpetrator.

Pennsylvania Just Made Divorcing an Abusive Spouse Easier

Currently, most states either have no-fault divorce laws where no blame can be placed upon either spouse or laws that require proof of fault that can draw out the length of the divorce process. Prior to the passage of the bill, Pennsylvania’s no-fault law required mutual consent for the divorce to proceed—if one party refused to give consent, the other party could be forced to wait up to 2 years before the divorce could be finalized by a judge. The state does have a fault-based divorce option as well, but that process can be expensive and takes longer if there is no agreement.

Governor Tom Wolf signed House Bill 12 (HB 12) into law, effectively changing the way courts will handle divorce cases involving domestic violence. Essentially, the victimized spouse will be treated the same as a couple that has mutually consented to a divorce—presuming consent from an abusive spouse—which means there will be a minimum 90-day (versus 2-year) waiting period before finalization.  Additionally, the law will prevent any court-ordered counseling that can typically be required and lengthen the process. Help and support signpost

The bill came from abuse victim advocates, who urged legislators to change the law.  In 2014, Pennsylvania alone had over 32,000 citizens filing protective orders for domestic violence.  Pennsylvania’s law allowed an abusive spouse to drag out a divorce  up to 2 years, which only encouraged a continued pattern of abuse.  Even if the abuse isn’t physical, prolonged waiting times during the divorce process can leave room for further emotional and mental abuse.

No Fault and At-Fault Laws Play a Major Role

Every state has laws on the books that allow a party to file for a no-fault divorce (think “irreconcilable differences” or “irretrievable breakdown of the marriage”).  Some are considered purely no-fault while others are called no-fault but require consent from both parties. The latter is where Pennsylvania’s law falls and what ultimately led to the push for new legislation.

Currently, 17 states and D.C. have purely no-fault laws. Most of the time, these courts don’t care why you’re getting divorced. Pure no-fault laws don’t require the filing spouse to prove fault on behalf of the other spouse. This prevents any issues that may prolong a divorce because one spouse disagrees with the divorce entirely.

Although some may consider domestic abuse in terms of property distribution, most will only consider it in circumstances that the domestic abuse caused any economic fault of marital assets. Despite the fact that most courts can’t legally consider abuse as a factor, it definitely provides a certain degree of shock value in favor of an abuse victim and, ultimately, that could always sway a judge’s decision in favor of an abuse victim on a property award.

The remaining states are similar to Pennsylvania and these types of laws can lead to a breeding ground for continued patterns of abuse.  Requiring abuse victims to 1) definitely prove a pattern of abuse or 2) obtain consent from an abusive partner is unreasonable.   Abusive interactions are 70 times more likely to result when a spouse is leaving an abusive spouse—the change couldn’t come soon enough.

The good news is that every state, regardless of varying law, will take domestic abuse into consideration when deciding things like child custody and visitation.

Will Others Follow Pennsylvania’s lead?

Senate Bill 2418 was recently struck down in Mississippi. That law would have added domestic abuse as grounds for an at-fault divorce, which is not currently listed within any of the 12 statutory grounds. Republican Senator Sally Doty plans to reintroduce the bill in the next session in the hopes that it will pass next time with a few changes.

Most state laws regarding consequences for domestic violence pertain to criminal charges, protections for child custody and visitation, and orders of protection. However, many states do not lay out specific abuse laws when it comes to divorce and domestic violence.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner—that number likely would only increase when mental and emotional abuse is included in the equation.  With Pennsylvania taking the lead, others with stricter at-fault laws may be soon to follow.