Archive for the 'Criminal Law' CategoryPage 2 of 44

13 Charged in Deadly Hazing Incident

Share on TwitterSubmit to StumbleUpon

Most of us have heard of hazing. Some see it as an essential element of being admitted into a new social group, which could be anything from a college fraternity to a bridge club.

Some might claim that hazing – any type of ritual that involves putting a new initiate to a social group through some type of physical and/or psychological ordeal – is deeply ingrained into human psychology, and that we often engage in it at a subconscious level, without even being aware of it.

Indeed, most of the time, rituals or behaviors that could reasonably be classified as “hazing” are pretty harmless.

However, there are cases where hazing rituals, particularly when alcohol and testosterone are involved, can go way beyond simple pranks, and can become dangerous or even deadly. In one tragic case, a drum major in a marching band at a Florida university died during a hazing gone awry. 13 of his former band-mates are now being charged in his death, with crimes including both felony and misdemeanor hazing.

The exact details of the victim’s death are not entirely clear. It’s known that he collapsed on a bus while returning from a football game in Orlando, and that the coroner ruled his death a homicide. He died of internal bleeding caused by blunt-force trauma. The coroner also found that he had suffered multiple severe blows. From what it sounds like, he was essentially beaten to death.

Whatever the exact details of the incident might be, it’s clear that something went very, very wrong.

Hopefully, as more information leading up to the trial comes to light, we’ll learn more about exactly what happened.

Over the last decade or so, a few high-profile incidents of hazing involving high school and college students have brought the issue to national attention, and led to many states passing laws specifically targeting the practice.

While the general criminal law of almost every state would cover the conduct that can occur in the most extreme hazing incidents (including torture, battery, and sexual assault), anti-hazing laws are more targeted, and are designed to eliminate all violent hazing, and preventing instances where the conduct in a hazing ritual was clearly deplorable, but did not quite rise to the level of criminal conduct under a state’s existing criminal laws.

Additionally, these laws send a message that hazing of any type, even “harmless” hazing, is not something that society should tolerate anymore. After all, many hazing incidents that ended in death or serious injury probably did not start out with that as the intended result. But when you get a bunch of (usually) young men together, and mix in alcohol, machismo, and an atmosphere that at least tacitly encourages the group to violently gang up on an individual, you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

This type of conduct goes far beyond “boys being boys.” Some might say that hazing is simply part of human nature, and that attempting to suppress it is pointless. It may be true that conduct such as hazing is a manifestation of the darkest, basest aspects of human nature, but part of it nonetheless. But the same can be said for crimes like rape and murder, and nobody will seriously argue that the law shouldn’t try to curb such behavior.

After all, one of the main reasons for the existence of a legal system is to elevate society above the baser impulses of its individual members. Laws against hazing, I think, are an example of one of the positive steps we can take to that end.

Obviously, these laws need to be sensible, and should probably only apply when a hazing incident actually results in somebody being harmed. I’m not advocating a “zero-tolerance” policy, in the traditional sense of the term. After all, we’ve all heard stories where laws that are intended to “get tough” on a given problem, whether it’s illegal drugs, weapons in schools, sex crime, etc. have been stretched to absurd lengths, sometimes ruining the lives of people that the laws could not possibly have been intended to affect.

I don’t want to see a situation where people are going to jail for drawing things on the face of a passed-out fraternity pledge, for example. But, if anti-hazing laws make it a little bit easier to prosecute the people involved in incidents that result in death or serious injury, I think they’re a good idea, on balance.

States that have not done so already should begin adopting anti-hazing laws as soon as possible.

Incoming search terms for the article:

Judge Reduces Penalty for Death Row Inmate With Racial Justice Act

Share on TwitterSubmit to StumbleUpon

American history has been marked by struggles for racial equality since the nation’s founding.  Slavery, the elimination of indigenous peoples and the long establishment of “separate but equal” institutions have marred the legacy of the United State’s founding ideals of freedom. Today’s story adds another section to this long debate.

In a first test case, Judge Weeks utilized a recent 2009 state law, the Racial Justice Act, to overturn a death sentence for Marcus Robinson and handed the defendant life without parole instead.  The Racial Justice Act permits a defendant to overturn his or her death sentence by arguing that race was a determining factor in the trial if the defendant can prove at least one of three factors. The factors are 1) the sentence was imposed because of the defendant’s race 2) the sentence was imposed because of the victim’s race or 3) racial bias influenced jury selection. Robinson’s attorneys successfully convinced Judge Weeks that Robinson’s trial had been tainted by a racially biased jury selection process. Almost all 157 dead row inmates in North Carolina have filed for similar hearings. Other states, such as California, are expected to pass similar laws.

Proponents of capital punishment assert that the objective of this law is not racial justice, but the dismantlement of the death penalty. Although the majority of those on death row are African-American, not all of them are. Moreover, this law overwrites the inmate’s sentence not based on innocence or guilt, but on questions about the fairness of the criminal justice system’s objectivity. Indeed, the fact that Robinson’s sentence is reduced to life without parole is an indication that the man is still proven guilty of kidnapping, burglary and murder of a teenager. Even Judge Weeks, the judge who spared Robinson’s life, committed that Robinson’s crime was “unspeakably horrendous.” Robinson’s guilt was established in his trial and the question of a biased jury has had no impact on that status. In essence, Robinson’s sentence is being overturned because of society’s wrongdoing against Robinson’s ethnicity, NOT because of society’s wrongdoing against Robinson.

The assumption which drives racism, that ethnicity is more important than individual actions, is at work behind the Racial Justice Act. The difference is that while some innocent people are prosecuted because of the misbehavior of other members of their ethnicity, Robinson is not delivered the sentence he deserves because of the upstanding citizenship of fellow African Americans. Make no mistake, either outcome is horrible, but it seems America is becoming too focused on race rather than actual factors which prove innocence or guilt.

When we look at the history of other cases, such as the OJ Simpson Trial or the Trayvon Martin shooting, people are becoming divided over race rather than innocence or guilt. With regards to the Robinson case, this trend towards racial cheerleading does a great disserve to the victim and the victim’s family because Robinson has avoided his sentence on a technicality rooted not in the case, but in history which neither Robinson nor the victim’s family took part in.

For all the ironic pitfalls of this case though, we should remember that the criminal justice system exists to serve society as a whole. Although this particular inmate has already been proven guilty, future defendants whose guilt is actually in question may greatly benefit from the questions raised by this case and by the Racial Justice Act. More importantly, the criminal justice system must preserve its integrity and objectivity where possible. The judiciary may not want to become involved in politics, but that doesn’t mean politics won’t become involved with the judiciary.

Incoming search terms for the article:

Government Lawyer Convicted of Hate Crime in Harassment Case

Share on TwitterSubmit to StumbleUpon

In a classic case of “he should have known better,” a lawyer (or, more likely, a soon-to-be-former lawyer) in New York has been convicted of a felony for making harassing phone calls to his African-American neighbors, which included threats and the use of racial slurs. He tried to make it look like members of the Ku Klux Klan were responsible for the calls, and routed the calls through an Internet service that prevented the source of the calls from being identified through caller I.D. However, the police were able to track the calls back to him.

This lawyer also happened to work for the government of the state of New York. The calls were made in 2010, and after being charged, he resigned from his $104,000/year job in Albany.

And now, finding new employment in a job market that’s notoriously bad for legal professionals is the least of his worries: the defendant has been sentenced to 1-3 years in state prison for criminal harassment, with a felony hate crime enhancement. The prison term is the maximum allowed for the crimes he was convicted of.

I predict that, on some quarters of the Internet, there will be the predictable howling about how this case is another example of “political correctness” run amok, and how hate-crime laws are chipping away at free speech, they give racial minorities special protection, etc., etc.

I should make a few things clear at the outset: hate crimes laws do not give any particular racial group “special” protection. Hate crime laws do not actually create any new crimes. They do not enhance punishments because of the race of the victim. Rather, they enhance punishments for crimes that were motivated by the victim’s race (or other classification, such as religion, gender, or sexual orientation). So, in theory, a white person who robs, assaults, murders, or commits any other crime against another white person specifically because of the victim’s race, could be charged with a hate crime.

Furthermore, hate crime laws do not have any impact of free speech. They don’t make it illegal to express racist, sexist, or homophobic sentiments, if one is so inclined. However, the First Amendment right to free speech has never been interpreted to allow harassment or credible threats of violence against individuals. So, this man’s conduct would have been a crime even without the racial element.

And the fact that he made racist statements in the phone calls was not, in itself, a source of criminal liability. Rather, it was simply used to prove the fact that his actions were motivated by the race of his victims, therefore warranting the hate crime enhancement.

Reasonable minds can differ on whether or not hate crime laws are a good idea. However, there’s a lot of confusion around about what these laws actually do. And when any high-profile hate crime case enters the public discussion, these misconceptions are often repeated by pundits as if they’re fact, which further increases the public’s misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of these laws.

For example, in 2009, Congress passed, and President Obama signed, a law that extended federal hate crimes laws to apply to crimes committed against individuals based on their sexual orientation.

Conservatives in Congress opposed this, because they claimed it might end up being applied in ways that limit free speech and freedom of religion. Presumably, they were concerned that it could be used against religious leaders who speak out against homosexuality.

Predictably, these fears proved to be groundless. Of course, anyone who knew about how hate crime laws actually work could have told them this, because criticizing homosexuality is not, never has been, and never will be, a crime.

After all, hate crime laws that cover crimes motivated by race have been around, in various forms, for decades. Yet groups such as the KKK and neo-Nazi organizations are still around (and, sadly, have shown signs of growing in recent years). I don’t like those groups, nor do I like homophobia. I do, however, love the fact that such groups are allowed to freely express their views, no matter how repugnant I find them.

And I would strongly oppose hate-crime laws if I believed, even for a second, that they would have any impact on our constitutional right to free speech.

However, I believe that crimes motivated by something as irrational as hatred are particularly egregious, and should be subject to heightened punishment. And it’s not as if there isn’t precedent for enhancing the punishment for certain crimes based on their motivation. For example, in every state, murder is illegal (obviously). However, many states have heightened penalties for certain types of murder. For example, in states that have capital punishment, a murder committed primarily for financial gain (such as contract-killing) is often one of the aggravating factors that can make a homicide eligible for the death penalty.

Now, some would say that we shouldn’t care why a particular crime was committed. Rather, we should simply focus on the result of the criminal’s actions when considering a punishment. This, in my view, is a terribly shallow view of culpability and justice. If criminal punishment is, at least in part, about casting moral blame onto the perpetrators of criminal acts, we should look at their actual culpability. And a person’s mental state when committing a crime is obviously an element of that.

Incoming search terms for the article:

Should Death Row Inmates Be Allowed to Donate Their Organs?

Share on TwitterSubmit to StumbleUpon

You’re probably familiar with the long-running debate about the death penalty- including arguments over its morality, effectiveness, cost, and fairness. The argument over whether or not the death penalty should exist is well-trod ground.

However, there are many ancillary debates relating to the death penalty, which do not directly relate to whether or not we should have capital punishment. Most of these debates start from the premise that the death penalty should exist, or that, for better or worse, it won’t be going away anytime soon.

These include questions from the exact method should be used to execute convicts, what crimes should be eligible for the death penalty, who should be subject to the death penalty (the debate focuses primarily on minors and the mentally disabled).

However, there’s another debate that has long been simmering below the surface, and has recently grown in prominence: the question over whether or not inmates on death row should be able to donate their organs after they are executed. In March of 2011, an inmate on Oregon’s death row wrote an opinion piece in the NewYorkTimes, in which he explained his desire to donate his organs after he is executed. He has even offered to drop all of his appeals, if he is allowed to donate his organs.

On its surface, it seems perfectly logical that the organs of death row inmates should be harvested and donated to those who need them, presuming that the organs are suitable for donation. In fact, some might argue that organ harvesting should be standard procedure, with the inmate having no say in the matter. After all, if the state has already stripped a person of his legal right to live, taking away their legal right to determine what’s done with their organs after they die seems like a triviality.

Most people who favor letting inmates donate organs, however, seem to believe that the choice should be up to the inmate.

In either case, the argument is simple: whether you favor the death penalty or not, it probably isn’t going away anytime soon. So in the meantime, why not let the death of a person (which is never a pleasant thing, even if they were convicted of a horrible crime) save or improve the lives of several other people?

After all, there are over 100,000 people in the United States awaiting donor organs, and almost 20 of them die every day. Across the U.S., about 3,000 people are on federal (both civilian and military) and state death row. A single healthy person, by donating their heart, liver, kidneys, lungs, and other vital organs, can save the lives of up to 8 people. And by donating their corneas, skin, and even (thanks to advances in medical technology over the last decade or so) their faces and entire limbs, they can vastly improve the quality of life of many additional people. And currently, no jurisdiction in the United States allows prisoners condemned to death to donate their organs. They are buried or cremated right along with the rest of an executed prisoner’s body. To many, this seems like a huge waste.

However, there are some reasons why we should think long and hard before changing the rules to allow these organ donations. First of all, there’s the issue of consent. When a person is on death row, it’s arguable that they are totally incapable of making a truly free and rational choice about anything, let alone something as profound as organ donation.

Furthermore, there are laws in the United States that make it illegal to sell human organs, or exchange them for any other type of “valuable consideration,” which would presumably include leniency in sentencing. However, if the inmate is going to be executed either way, that doesn’t seem to be an issue.

There are also concerns that the need for donor organs, and the ability of inmates to donate them after they’re executed, might lead to prison officials and court systems trying to hasten the execution process. For example, suppose an inmate has agreed to donate his organs in the event that he’s executed, but still maintains his innocence, or at least believes that he has legal grounds to have his sentence reduced to life in prison without parole. One could imagine a scenario where the courts try to rush his appeals through the system, in order to have him executed as quickly as possible, so that other people can benefit from his organs.

And finally, there’s the issue of medical ethics: a team of doctors would have to be on hand at the site of the execution to harvest the prisoner’s organs. The vast majority of doctors, however, believe that the Hippocratic Oath requiring that they “do no harm” prohibits them from using their medical expertise to participate in executions, in any way. It may be hard to find a doctor who’s willing to harvest the organs from a just-executed inmate, because they might believe that they are, in effect, participating in the execution process. But I think it should be up to individual doctors to make the decision of whether or not to participate in the process.

All in all, I think that some type of system which would allow inmates to make the choice to donate their organs is a good idea, on balance. Like every decision related to both the death penalty, and organ donation, that we have to make as a society, this is not a perfect solution. It certainly wouldn’t make the controversy over the death penalty go away, and would probably heighten the debate. Furthermore, it seems that this country is on a (very slow) path toward eventual abolition of the death penalty – with a few states recently eliminating it, and the Supreme Court regularly placing new restrictions on when it can be used. I don’t think making this one change should change our course in that direction.

In my view, allowing condemned criminals to donate their organs would be a good policy which might save hundreds of lives. However, I think it’s a decision that should be completely independent from the debate over the death penalty’s existence.

Incoming search terms for the article:

Is There a Right to Use Marijuana for Religious Purposes?

Share on TwitterSubmit to StumbleUpon

The current federal policy on marijuana is, to say the least, confusing. When President Obama took office, his Department of Justice said that it would not make prosecutions for the possession of marijuana a major priority, and that medical marijuana operations that are legal under state law will not be a target for federal prosecution.

Supporters of marijuana legalization or decriminalization were pretty excited, believing that, after years of federal crackdowns, a president was finally taking (in their view) a more sensible approach to marijuana.

However, over the last year or so, the federal government seems to have taken a harder line on marijuana. While there’s no question that the drug is illegal under federal law, and that federal law trumps state law (so the federal government can still prosecute people who use medical marijuana, even if they’re complying with the laws of their state), the federal government does have a good deal of discretion in deciding which cases it wants to prosecute, and under what circumstances to do so.

This controversy usually comes up in the context of medical marijuana. After all, there is mounting evidence that marijuana, while certainly not a cure-all, has a wide range of medical uses that are, at the very least, worth exploring. For example, it is one of the most powerful anti-nausea drugs known, which makes it a very effective treatment for some of the side effects of chemotherapy, greatly improving the quality of life for some cancer patients. And there is some evidence (though it’s far from conclusive) suggesting that it may even be able to prevent or treat some forms of cancer.

So, it’s not surprising that a lot of people get a little riled up when the federal government starts shutting down medical marijuana dispensaries.

However, there’s another non-recreational use of marijuana: religious rituals. Many indigenous religions treat marijuana as an entheogen (a substance that triggers what its user believes to be a religious experience), and use it ritualistically.

And as you probably know, the First Amendment enshrines the right of all Americans to freely exercise whatever religion they like.

So, a Native American group that uses marijuana for religious purposes should be exempt from laws against marijuana use, right? Not exactly. The Supreme Court has long ago held that laws of general application (i.e., laws that apply to everyone) that happen to place a burden on some religious practices are generally valid, though they do still warrant some scrutiny under the Constitution.

These generally-applicable laws are typically subject to “rational basis” review, meaning the government only needs to show that the law is related to a valid government interest. And whether you agree with them or not, most courts have held that preventing illegal drug use is definitely a valid governmental interest.

The Native American group sued the DEA in federal court after it seized a FedEx box containing marijuana, with a member of the group as its intended recipient. A federal district court dismissed the case. However, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals just ruled that the case can continue. The appeals court is not handing the plaintiffs a victory – it’s just saying that their lawsuit should be allowed to proceed.

The court largely relied on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires federal courts to examine laws that burden religious practices under a more stringent “strict scrutiny” standard, requiring that the government prove that any law that substantially burdens religious practices be justified by a compelling government interest, and that the law is narrowly tailored to advance that interest.

The government argued that the religious group did not have a right to bring the lawsuit, because the Department of Justice had no plans to prosecute any of its members for transporting or using marijuana. In its ruling, the appeals court disagreed, holding that the threat of prosecution is not required to give the religious group standing to sue, because the government had already seized their marijuana, raising a legitimate issue over whether or not it had a right to do so.

The lower court will now have to rule on the merits of the case, deciding whether there is a constitutional and/or statutory right to use marijuana for religious purposes, laws generally prohibiting its use notwithstanding.

This is an interesting issue. Instinctively, I’m inclined to believe that there should be an exception to marijuana laws for religious use, since many different religions have used it in their rituals for thousands of years. However, this view is largely informed by my strong belief that marijuana should be decriminalized altogether.

Obviously, when the court is making its decision, the judge’s view on whether or not marijuana should be legal generally should not enter into his or her decision-making process. Of course, not being a judge, I have the luxury of letting my views on these issues be informed by whatever factors I see fit.

But taking a more detached view, I still don’t see why the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act wouldn’t protect the rights of people to use marijuana, or most other drugs that are otherwise illegal, for bona fide religious purposes, provided that the drugs are used in moderation, and possibly under the supervision of people who will remain sober, to ensure that the drug use poses absolutely no threat to anyone who is not directly involved in it (to make sure that nobody drives under the influence, for example). I don’t think the overall goals of anti-drug laws would be seriously impaired by carving out a narrow exception.

Incoming search terms for the article: