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Militarized Police Forces Cause More Problems than They Solve

A few years ago, the Occupy movement was alive and kicking. It meant a lot of things to a lot of people. But one thing that it gave to nearly everyone was a glimpse into militarization of modern police forces. Stories of protesters being hospitalized after being shot with tear gas canisters and rubber bullets in Oakland may have initially conjured images of extreme violence by hordes of unruly citizens in the streets.

militarized police forcesQuite to the contrary, reports told of peaceful protesters being the target of these attacks. In any event, amounts of unruly protesters are almost irrelevant; law enforcement is not allowed to shower unsuspecting families in chemical weapons because of one house on the corner nearby is causing problems.

The recent demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent militarized call to action by law enforcement, has catapulted an important question into the headlines: why do police increasingly resemble soldiers?

Where Are These Weapons Coming From?

As our armed conflicts abroad are winding down, the federal government is finding itself with a surplus of military equipment. Under a program referred to as “war-fighter to crime-fighter,” over $4 billion dollars of wartime equipment has been re-purposed to local law enforcement. In addition to assault rifles, armored vehicles and personnel carriers are among the most common to be cruising the mean streets of Anytown, USA.

What’s the Big Deal?

Undoubtedly, there are those who may not see this as a problem. Some may even go as far as to imply if it weren’t for the unruly few alluded to earlier, police would not need to resort to such extreme measures. The problem with these positions is they miss the point entirely. Here are four of the biggest issues with police militarization.

1) Poor Police Tactics – First and foremost, bulking up law enforcement with instruments of destruction doesn’t neutralize what is most likely a constitutionally protected assembly and exercise of free speech. However, it does neutralize communication between the demonstrators and the police. Since the tragedies surrounding protests in 1960s, many police forces have made efforts to make communication and transparency with activists a priority.

Police know – or should know – that their first priority is to protect the community. This also includes protecting the Constitution. It is well settled that the best way to do so is to foster civility. Militarization only mounts tensions, and time and time again has all but guaranteed overreactions and incidents of violence.

2) Threatens Constitutional Principals - Similar to above, but much more ominous, is the likelihood that the First Amendment will not be respected. Scholars debate that the First Amendment, specifically the freedom of expression, was first priority to our founding fathers because it sits at the foundation of every other amendment. Meaning, quite simply, without it, the rest of the Constitution is remarkably toothless.

Sadly, where a police force is militarized, history has shown that any number of specific lawbreakers are not silenced exclusively, but rather tear gas, riot gear, and rubber bullets are used to just shut the entire event down. Otherwise lawful assemblies are declared, rightly or wrongly, unlawful, and chaos ensues.

As a result, citizens who were engaged in lawful political speech are violently and abruptly silenced. Frequently, journalists, who are not engaged in the demonstration at all, are arrested. The result is otherwise protected speech is crushed under the heel of a combat boot.

3) Excessive Force – A helpful illustration of how valuable our nation views the First Amendment is the $4.5 million settlement the city of Oakland reached with documentary photographer Scott Olson. The settlement is to compensate him for his injuries; both from the fractures to his skull as a result of being struck by a lead-filled bean bag bullet, as well as to the deprivation of his constitutional rights.

Olson is no stranger to the dangers of a militarized police force, and as an ex-marine and war veteran, to conflict as a whole. However, his incident is not an isolated one. The Oakland Police Department’s approach to the Occupy protests lead to several other lawsuits and federal oversight. The situation is not looking much better in Ferguson, where the Missouri Highway Patrol has largely replaced the police force, and the federal government has similarly issued staunched warnings over excessive force.

4) Lawsuits – As an overarching theme of all of the above issues are the slew of lawsuits that will inevitably follow. Far from frivolous, these suits are designed to make victims of over-policing whole again. At the risk of repetition, these lawsuits, while necessary to protect victims, ultimately weaken the local community. Money that could have gone to improving safety training for officers or upgrading more important equipment, like jail cells and squad cars – or even pay salaries – will be diverted to compensate victims.

What’s the Solution?

Often times, there is no clear answer to legal dilemmas. Fortunately, when it comes to a militarized police force, the answer seems plain and simple: stop. Just stop. Don’t do it.

Proponents may insist militarization helps taxpayers by reducing federal government waste, and how proper military training may actually be beneficial in the future and thus militarization just needs to be given a chance. Finally, some may argue that armored cars and assault weapons help keep officers safer.

However, the reality is that whatever benefit to tax payers simply cannot outweigh local communities suffering as excessive force lawsuits stack up, let alone at the peril of long held constitutional principals. Additionally, proper training clearly needs to be implemented, but not with respect to combat weapons in the streets of suburbia. In no scenario should an assault rifle mounted to a tri-pod atop of an armored vehicle – and pointed at protesters with their hands up – be tolerated. Moreover, in the rare occasion a hostile situation calls for more force, departments should all already have highly trained SWAT teams to efficiently diffuse the event.

Finally, with respect to safety, police are already armed with deadly weapons they carry during the course of their daily duty, as well as crowd control gear and tactics. Further adding to their deadliness does not necessarily make them safer. It only makes innocent citizens markedly less safe.

As a result, not only is the Constitution put at risk; life itself is as well.

Don’t Worry NSA, Google Has E-mail Surveillance Covered

It shouldn’t be surprising that Google monitors Gmail for child pornography. After all, this is the same company that scans e-mails and bombards uers with advertising for legal services. However, the scans of John Skillern’s Gmail will likely result in a lengthy prison sentence rather than annoying advertisements.

gmail surveillanceIn 2008, Google applied new software to its e-mail system. The software consists of a “database” of child abuse images (only data, no actual pictures!) which is compared to Gmail attachments. If there is a match, child protection agencies are alerted, who then send tips to local police.

The system is automatic, so Google employees aren’t involved in the process. Since Google’s e-mail system is the world’s largest web-based e-mail service, with about 425 million users worldwide, this system is one of the largest surveillance systems in human history.

A few weeks ago, Google’s new software led to the arrest of John Skillern. Skillern is a registered sex offender, convicted of sexually assaulting an eight year old boy in 1994. After Google scanned Skillern’s Gmail, police obtained a search warrant and allegedly found child pornography on his phone and tablet. The 41 year old Houston City restaurant cook was charged with one count of possession of child pornography and one count of the promotion of child pornography.

“Those Who Sacrifice Liberty for Security Deserve Neither”

Pedophiles who thought the “right to be forgotten” could shield their evil online are in for a rude awakening. There is no doubt that child pornography and the child abuse it promotes is profoundly wrong and people like Skillern deserve to rot in the deepest prison cells.

However, this type of surveillance is morally ambiguous at best and outright dangerous at worst. First, there’s the slippery slope argument. If Google can monitor private communications for child pornography, could they also monitor Gmail for drug use or criminal conspiracies? Can the software scan for politically sensitive issues like religion or terrorism? How about activists’ movements like Occupy or Tea Party? Surveillance always starts with good intentions. If the NSA has proven anything, it’s that employees of massive surveillance technology abuse it at the first opportunity.

Of course, slippery slopes are an easy argument, even if America’s legal system tends to ride slippery slopes all the way to crazy town. Google currently has little potential for employee abuse since Google’s system is automatic, with almost no human control. The software automatically compares data, not even actual photos, for a match. When Detective David Nettles said “I can’t see that photo, but Google can,” he was misleading reporters.

So what could go wrong when a computer system does all the surveillance? Ignoring the obvious Terminator reference, machines don’t understand context. Many child pornography laws require that the defendant have a certain state of mind, a criminal intent, for the defendant to be convicted. Suppose a defendant’s Gmail was hacked. Or a virus spread images of child pornography across random computers. Or if a child protection agency employee Gmailed a district attorney the photos as evidence. Google would pick out the transmissions, even though none of these cases would result in a conviction. Skillern looks like he possessed child pornography for the purpose of looking at and selling young children, but with 425 million users, there could easily be grey area cases.

Can Police Lie?

We’ve all seen or heard the rumor: if you ask a police officer if they are a police officer, they have to tell you.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The reality is, police can, and often do, lie. They can lie about being undercover. They can also lie about anything.

can police lieWhy Can Police Lie?

One word: efficiency. After all, a police officer wouldn’t be able to do their job very well if they had to just recite actual facts to suspects.

For example, let’s assume there are two suspects who are arrested on suspicion of drug trafficking. And, let’s also assume they were actually transporting illicit substances, but the police don’t have any concrete evidence. So, they tell one suspect that his cohort just sold him up the river, confessed to everything, maybe even some extra stuff too just to get them to deny some crimes but admit to other crimes, and that person in turn admits to everything. In an instant, an otherwise evidence-less case is looking significantly stronger.

Put simply: the easiest and best way for police to get real, concrete evidence is to manufacture a story and sell it to a suspect.

What Can Police Lie About?

Anything. Well, almost anything. A better way to put it is more like they can lie about nearly anything related to the crime, and some things that are not closely related to the crime to a certain degree, depending on the facts and circumstances of the specific case.

However, that’s a lot to remember. The take away here is the police can lie about practically anything.

Here are some common scenarios where a lie from a police officer tends to dupe those who don’t know better.

1. False Confessions: As mentioned above, it’s pretty common for cops to mince words and put one person against another. They expect emotions to run high, and for the other person to automatically implicate the other, and in doing so, implicate themselves. It sounds ludicrous, but it works surprisingly well.

2. Better Sentence: Cops may also insist that by cooperating a suspect will get a better sentence or may not even wind up being charged at all. Let’s clear up some air about that – the police probably know better than to promise a better sentence, because they have been trained to know that would be illegal (more about that later on).

More importantly, the police have absolutely no power to charge anyone (that’s up the district attorney), and they certainly have no final say in what sentence someone receives (that’s up to the judge). The police simply enforce the law and make arrests when the law is broken, and believe me, they are good at that.

3. Other Suspects: It is not uncommon for law enforcement to insist that a person who is a suspect is not the only suspect, or not a suspect at all, and that this conversation is simply to help them figure out the whereabouts of the “real bad guys.” Again, police enforce the law and arrest people, and someone who is being interrogated or questioned by the police wouldn’t be unless they were at least suspected of one thing or another.

4. “Off the Record”: First of all, this may not technically be a lie because there is no “record.” A record isn’t exactly officially created until the questioning is done under oath. Which, even if a police officer turns off a tape recorder and video camera, is absolutely what they will do after they are arrested and they are called in to testify at the defendant’s preliminary hearing: give statements under oath.

Are There Any Limits?

Fortunately, yes. Unfortunately, they are vague and narrow. Without getting into the legal definitions of how far is too far, the main consideration is whether or not a lie or series of lies was coercive. In other words, if a police officer makes definitive assurances, or anything leaning towards beneficial treatment or situations unrelated to the crime itself, the lie may have gone too far and the confession will be no good.

For instance, a New York Court of Appeals has recently said that where a defendant’s free will is completely overwhelmed, lies stop being lies and become something worse. In one of those cases, a man was being interrogated in connection with the murder of 4-month-old son. He was told “67 times that what had been done to his son was an accident, 14 times that he would not be arrested, and 8 times that he would be going home.” However, most astonishingly, he was told that he needed to explain to the police how the accident happened so doctors could save his son’s life, despite that fact his son was already dead. Ultimately, while many of those assertions on their own did not taint the confession, the totality of all of those statements taken together was coercive that the defendant’s free will was deemed to be entirely destroyed.

Still, If I’m Innocent, I Have Nothing to Worry About. Right?

This perhaps the biggest lie of all. Innocent people wind up confessing to things they did not do all the time. Moreover, even if an innocent person doesn’t confess to a crime, it’s remarkably easy to implicate yourself, even if you are completely without fault. For example, a tall man fits a description of a bank robber, is arrested and questioned, and because he knows he is innocent, he tells the truth and admits to being in the bank, near the time of the robbery. He doesn’t need to admit to committing the crime to have already established more than enough probable cause – with perfectly innocent, legal behavior – to charge him. His situation starts to look worse if he starts answer questions about his financial troubles, all in the name of being innocent and wanting to cooperate.

And one more thing – memory is fickle. It isn’t uncommon for a blue shirt one day to become a yellow shirt another day; if someone if completely innocent buys into a law enforcement lie about “being innocent means nothing to hide” or “off the record, help us out with other suspects,” gives some information, and is later called in for more questioning or to testify and gives different statements, that innocent person is looking a lot like a guilty suspect.

What’s the Right Thing to Do?

Always tell the truth, even if the cops don’t. Ultimately, the specific “right thing to do” depends on many, many more factors than lying cops. However, at the end of the day, being honest is never a quality that makes a person look bad.

But in addition to telling the truth, it’s important for people to know their rights. It’s not against the law or being uncooperative to politely tell a police officer that their questions feel accusatory, irrelevant, or are just uncomfortable. From there, it’s usually best practice for a person being questioned to ask if they are a suspect and under arrest. Depending on the answer to those questions, we shouldn’t be afraid to tell law enforcement that if they are going to ask anymore questions, or make anymore statements (truthful or not) they will have to do so to a lawyer.

Home Is Where You Park It: The Legality of Living in a Car

It used to be illegal to sleep in your car in Los Angeles. The city’s municipal code outlawed using any vehicle parked on a public street, lot, beach, or harbor as living quarters either overnight, day-by-day, or otherwise.

living in a vehicleIn June 2014, the 9th Circuit handed down a decision invalidating this law. The court unanimously held this language was “overbroad,” meaning quite simply that the municipal code criminalized otherwise innocent, legal conduct. Since it was overbroad, it violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

This may seem like a no-brainer. After all, as written, any activity one would do in a “living quarters” was illegal in a car, meaning eating, talking on a phone, and checking hair in the mirror. More pointedly, a tired surfer couldn’t take a nap before paddling back out, a vacationing family, couldn’t catch a few hours of sleep for the night before hitting the road again, and a struggling software salesman, forced into foreclosure after being hit hard by the recession, couldn’t pull over into a quiet neighborhood to sleep after a hard day’s work.

Of those three examples, the first two typically weren’t the target of law enforcement, but the last one was.

Since the Great Recession, many have taken to sleeping inside of their vehicles. Unsurprisingly, particularly in more wealthy neighborhoods, similar anti-vehicle dwelling ordinances have passed in an effort to give police the ability to eradicate this new type of “homeless” population.

While this opinion only directly invalidates the Los Angeles law, it will also have an impact on any similar law in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, Oregon, and Washington. Those states collectively hold about 62 million people, or nearly 20% of the nation’s total population. Thus, this single decision not only potentially impacts a large portion of the country, but asks an important question to all of us: is living in a car really that bad? Perhaps more importantly, now is a good time to change how our country looks at homelessness.

Recent polls and census efforts indicate that upwards of 55-60% of employed homeless individuals reside in a vehicle. Maintaining and running a vehicle isn’t cheap, but it can certainly be less than rent in larger metropolitan areas. Living out of a car is even a preference for many. Business Week has reported on a trend of successful, young professionals opting to live in their vehicle rather than pay for posh apartments.

One example is Foster Huntington, who left a well-paying design job and apartment in New York City to live and do freelance design work out of his Volkswagen van, amassing nearly a million followers on his social media sites, and leading to the recent publication of his photo book on the subject of “van life.” The carefree, anchorless lifestyle embodied by “van life” is demonstrative of how these laws criminalize perfectly legal, if not remarkably practical and utilitarian life choices.

The other side of the token is that homeowners should be free from finding trash or waste strewn about from vagrants. They should also be free from seeing a camper parked on the street in front of their home for days on end. Considering there are already perfectly valid laws against criminal damage to property and littering in place, the former concern can be dispelled. Moreover, there are also laws in many, many cities against leaving in a vehicle parked on the street in one space for more than 24 hours. This leaves the homeowners complaints seemingly solely against having to see vans, campers, or cars filled with possessions or extra storage, and the unnecessary, perhaps misguided shortsighted stigma attached to their occupants. After all, it’s quite likely the occupant of that vehicle is working, paying taxes, and supporting a local economy.

Homeowners should also consider this: having a vehicle parked on your street is preferable to having someone sleeping on the sidewalk. Where vagrancy has been a real issue, spending more time addressing the causes is certainly more desirable than criminalizing looking for a place to find some rest. In the meantime, Los Angeles will have to adjust to the changes in their law, and other cities should be prepared to either stop enforcing anti-vehicle dwelling laws altogether, or spend some of those complaining homeowners hard earned tax dollars on defending the laws in court.

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California’s Death Penalty Declared Unconstitutional by a Federal Judge

In a decision being described as “stunning” and “path-breaking,” U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney issued an order on July 16, 2014 declaring California’s death penalty system unconstitutional. Not surprisingly, the decision has been met with a considerable degree of shock, with many commenters calling the move judicial activism.

greenbiz sanquentinThe opinion was rendered in the context of a federal appeal by the defendant, Ernest Dewayne Jones, in the case of Jones v. Chappell. Jones has been on death row since 1995 – almost 20 years – and the sentence in his case has yet to be settled. Jones’ lawyer argued, and Judge Carney agreed, that the length of delay and degree of uncertainty surrounding Jones’ sentence constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

Background: California’s Death Penalty System

Jones’ case is not a unique one. Since California reinstated the death penalty in 1978, of over 900 inmates sentenced to death, only 13 have been executed. It takes, on average, more than 25 years for a death sentence to be finalized. A common misconception is that this delay is due to the number of appeals filed by death row inmates. As Judge Carney points out, the delay is actually caused by the state appellate system.

Inmates spend years waiting for a court-appointed attorney to be assigned to their case, they spend years waiting for the California Supreme Court to set a date for their hearing, and they spend years waiting for the court to issue a decision. This backlog is caused by a lack of funding. Budget cuts have forced the State Public Defender’s Office to reduce its staff, while private attorneys are discouraged from taking penalty appeals due to the low pay offered by the State.

At the Federal level, additional delay is caused by exhaustion rules that often send inmates back to the backlogged state court system to present newly discovered claims and evidence. Further delay is caused by state courts’ failure to publish their decisions or hold evidentiary hearings, requiring federal courts to conduct their own investigations to understand the state court decisions.

While the average death row inmate spends about 17 years moving through the state appellate system and another 10 years on federal appeals; the majority of this time is actually spent, not fighting convictions or appealing sentences, but waiting for a dysfunctional bureaucracy to make the next move.

Further complicating things, since the 2006 case Morales v. Tilton, executions have been halted in California due to risk of extreme pain from the state’s lethal injection protocol. Amending the protocol has taken years and still has not been accomplished.

Legal Support for Judge Carney’s Decision: The Furman Case

In holding that the current death penalty system violates the Eighth Amendment, Judge Carney relied heavily on the 1972 United States Supreme Court case Furman v. Georgia. This well-known case famously invalidated the death penalty as it was then being imposed across the United States.

In 1972, judges and juries had unchecked discretion over when to impose the death penalty, making a convict’s chances of being sentenced to death completely random. The Supreme Court, in Furman, held that courts have an obligation under the Eighth Amendment to ensure that punishment is not arbitrary and will further societal interests.

Judge Carney’s Ruling: California’s Death Penalty System is Arbitrary and Violates the Eighth Amendment

The Furman Court found that the way the death penalty was being imposed at the time was arbitrary because there was no meaningful basis for distinguishing cases that warranted a death sentence from those that did not. Judge Carney believes that even though the Furman Court was talking about arbitrariness in handing out death sentences, the current state of affairs in California creates the same type of arbitrariness.

What makes California’s death penalty system arbitrary is that whether an inmate will be executed is based on random factors related to how quickly the inmate moves through the appellate system – when they are assigned counsel, when their hearing is scheduled, when a final decision is issued – and not anything to do with the severity of the inmate’s crime or even something neutral like when the inmate was sentenced to death. Most death row inmates will never realistically face execution and the few that do will basically be selected at random.

The Furman Court held that when the death penalty is imposed in only a trivial number of the cases where it is legally available, sentencing is reduced to “little more than a lottery system” and is being inflicted arbitrarily. With only 13 executions out of 900 inmates that have been on death row, the Furman Court could just as easily be describing the current death penalty system in California.

Understanding Judge Carney’s Ruling

One thing that should be noted is that this is not an “anti-death penalty” ruling in the traditional sense. Judge Carney did not hold that the death penalty itself is unconstitutional. What Judge Carney takes issue with is the fact that California’s death penalty system is so slow and unpredictable that it is practically meaningless.

This is not only unfair to the inmates on death row who wait decades to find out their fates. It is unfair to affected families and communities that deserve closure. It is unfair to juries whose careful deliberations over whether to impose a capital sentence are actually inconsequential. Not to mention, it is a huge waste of California taxpayers’ money.

Judge Carney takes care to point out the degree to which judicial backlog is being caused by the State. He references some of the reforms that have been recommended to the legislature –increasing funding for court-appointed attorneys, limiting the number of crimes that carry a death sentence, and even abolishing the death penalty altogether. He points out that even the most conservative reforms are estimated to reduce the appeals process down to 11-14 years, bringing California in line with the national average.

Whether you think Judge Carney’s holding is “judicial activism” or firmly based in constitutional law, the opinion definitely reads like a criticism of the State. What remains to be seen is whether the State will funnel resources into appealing a decision that, given the 2006 moratorium on executions, has few practical implications currently. Analysts are already predicting that the case will be appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Perhaps it would be a better use of the State’s time and resources to actually begin to address some of Judge Carney’s concerns.

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