Archive for the 'Real Estate' Category

Protest Peacefully and Lose Your House Under Arizona S.B. 1442

As one controversial law, executive order, or policy position after another comes out of Congress or the White House, it is little surprise that we’ve seen an incredible amount of protests in the last few weeks.  Protesting is a tradition as American as apple pie, from the Boston Tea Party from which the hard-right conservative party took their name to the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s, 60s, and 70s.  The tradition has been carried forward, with protests abounding on both side of issues ranging from abortion to taxation to federal use of land.

In recent months, however, protesting has become a bit of a target for criticism–especially where protests occasionally result in violence or property damage. Compounding these criticisms has been the widely cited, and essentially unsupported, accusation of “paid protesters” making a living off their involvement in demonstrations.

Protest

Conservative politicians in Arizona have begun moving forward on legislation based on these accusations, a bill known as S.B. 1442.  This is still a bill, not yet a law, so it isn’t taking effect just yet.  However, it has made it past the House in Arizona and is moving forward to a primarily conservative State Senate.  The bill is, frankly, incredibly questionable both in what it seeks to achieve and its constitutionality.  With that in mind, let’s take a look at what this law does, why it seeks to do it, whether it has the potential to pass constitutional muster if passed, and the results of litigation over similar laws in the past.

The Law, What it Does, and Why They Say They Want It

S.B. 1442, as written, expands racketeering laws and the definition of rioting.  While this sounds innocuous, the goal and effect of the law is to expand the power of police to arrest protesters and the ability to crack down on protests.  For example, it allows police to arrest peaceful protesters if they believe the protest may eventually turn violent.  It also provides the power to criminally prosecute, and seize the assets of, anybody who plans or is involved in a protest where property damage occurs–regardless of their immediate involvement in the actual damage.  It does this by expanding racketeering laws, the same ones initially instituted to help target organized crime such as the Mafia by allowing the police to more easily target an entire criminal enterprise, to include rioting.  It is worth noting that rioting itself is barely defined at all within the legislation, allowing an extremely broad approach to what exactly could constitute a riot.

Racketeering law, and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) Act specifically, are notable for being exceptions to a general rule that you are unlikely to be punished for the unpredictable criminal acts of a third party unless you have a fairly direct level of involvement in promoting the act itself.  This makes sense, if the guy in front of you in line at the bank robs the place, you wouldn’t expect the police to arrest the whole line.   However, S.B. 1442 takes these racketeering rules to a genuinely terrifying place.  They give the police the power to preemptively make arrests just because a planned protest might turn violent.  They can even arrest organizers who weren’t at the protest.  Planning a protest could lead to losing your property as the police could seize assets under the law.  The law would allow arrests where people not actually associated with a protest commit property damage in its vicinity.

While violence is not something we should necessarily congratulate, peaceful protest is one of the most poignant forms of political speech available to the public.  Publically questioning the political status quo quite rightly receives the protection of the First Amendment–both through freedom of speech and freedom of assembly–the constitutional right to come together and express your ideas as a group.  So one has to ask, what is the motivation behind such a sweeping law with such huge connotations when it comes to curtailing First Amendment rights of people on both sides of essentially any issue?

When asked, the politicians promoting the bill provided a couple of justifications for the law.  The primary one has been that the existing laws are not enough to discourage violent protest.  A particularly odd position given that all the elements of rioting–property damage, assault, etc–are already crimes allowing arrest and criminal punishment.  However, the politicians behind S.B. 1442 have said that this isn’t enough.  They say that it’s necessary to stop the potential for crime before it starts.   However, when you are essentially targeting people based on future speech a law becomes a lot more questionable.

A secondary justification for this bill has been the idea of paid protesters, or as one politician behind the law has called them “professional agent-provocateurs.”  To start with, as mentioned above, there is actually no evidence behind this oft repeated accusation.  It certainly is a common enough talking point, but one with no actual factual support.  There are certainly organizers behind many protests, as  has been the case with most protests for a long time, but that doesn’t make a protest paid and in fact makes it notably less likely to be violent in nature.  What’s more, the law itself is much more broad in scope then its creators perhaps intended.  It could be applied to any protest, regardless of affiliation, stance, or belief–allowing police to arrest those peaceful protesters.

Similar Situations Have Already Reached the Supreme Court

Given the shaky ground S.B. 1442 is already based on, you’d think it would either be the first situation of its kind or at least learned from the mistakes of its predecessors.  However, the Supreme has actually ruled on a case including similar attempts to broaden the application of racketeering laws in the case of Scheidler v. National Organization for Women.  The case did not go well for the expansion of racketeering law, to the tune of an 8-1 decision.

The case, decided in 2002 in the end to a 17-year old case, the National Organization for Women against anti-abortion activists.  The case sought to extend the provisions of the RICO Act to these anti-abortion protestors.  They argued that such activity could be considered extortion and properly fell under racketeering law–a sort of nationwide conspiracy to shut down abortion clinics.

The Supreme Court did not agree.  They said that these protesting activities did not fall within the realm of federal racketeering law as written.  What’s more, Justice Ginsberg’s concurring opinion noted that the court was “rightfully reluctant” to expand the scope of racketeering law to include political protesting.  She specifically noted that such a change had the danger of treating the sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement as criminal.

Is S.B. 1442 Constitutional?

No, almost certainly not.  I’m not going to beat around the bush here, the proposed rules actually fly in the face of the values of the Constitution.  Where a law curtails the First Amendment rights of the public, as S.B. 1442 clearly does, it is held to the highest levels of scrutiny before it can be considered constitutional.  Such a law must apply the minimum possible level of restriction to Constitutional rights in support of an absolutely crucial government interest.  What’s more, courts are particularly suspicious on prior restraints on speech–attempts by the government to chill or prohibit speech before it occurs.

The content of the bill is of the sort most disfavored by courts determining if a law is constitutional.  Instituting the threat of arrest for a peaceful protest prior to the protest even happening, allowing the police to seize your property based on this arrest–that is the definition of a government action chilling speech before it happens.

While preventing crime and protecting the public can be a crucial government interest, to call S.B. 1442 the least restrictive means to that end is outright laughable.  There are already laws making all the elements of rioting a crime, those limit the value of this would be law and already act as deterrents to such behavior.

If S.B 1442 becomes law, something that is looking fairly likely given the composition of the Arizona State Senate, it will almost certainly not remain so for long.  It is not only nearly certainly unconstitutional, it is even contrary to the previous stance of the Supreme Court of the United States.  The idea of a law like this is outright un-American, the fact that it was introduced frankly disappoints me personally.  If it is indeed passed, expect lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the law–along with a likely injunction halting the effect of the law–to quickly follow.

So How About that Wall?

President-elect Donald Trump made building a wall on the US-Mexico border a pillar of his campaign. Post-election interviews reveal he intends to keep and act upon this campaign promise. No matter one’s opinion on whether building such a wall is right course of action, there are many practical concerns to be addressed.

How Big and How Expensive will it be?

The US-Mexico border is 1,989 miles long and the President-elect has proposed 35-foot-tall walls. As far as cost, some good estimates can be made as US Customs and Border Protection already began building some fences in 2007 and the Government Accountability Office released a report on the costs and issues faced. The GAO reported that the amount of fence constructed already has cost up to $5 million per mile. Basic math then tells us that this could cost $10 billion just for a fence along the entirety of the border. However, the President-elect has promised a “wall”, this may prove to be even more expensive. Furthermore, the current work was done to tackle areas of public land first to avoid dealing with private land owners. Eventually, the government must either get permission to build across private land or take the land through a process called eminent domain.

How will the Government Get the Land?

Trump and the WallCan the government really take land from private land owners? Yes, it can, both state governments and the federal government may do so. The Constitution specifically allows the government to do so as long as they pay fair market value for the land. That is, if the government wishes to seize the land and the owner refuses to sell it willingly the government may seize it against the owner’s wishes as long as the government pays fair market value.

Another requirement is the seized land must be used for some public purpose. This mean that eminent domain cannot be used to seize land for purely private purposes. For example, a state governor could not use eminent domain to seize land for their friend to build a private home on the land. On the other side, clearly public uses are easily approved, such as seizing land for public utility purposes like electricity poles and telephone cables. Many projects fall in the middle of this spectrum so the legitimacy of eminent domain is questionable in these areas. However, Supreme Court cases on this issue though have found this to be almost a non-issue. In particular, the Supreme Court case of Kelo v. City of New London rendered this issue almost unimportant. In Kelo, the city of New London, Connecticut wished to seize Ms. Susette Kelo’s home so that the headquarters of a private company could be built on the land. While Ms. Kelo asserted that this was a private use, the Supreme Court disagreed. The ruling in Kelo has set precedent that questionable eminent domain takings will usually be upheld by US courts.

Overall, a border wall would likely not encounter any issues with eminent domain. It’s clearly for a public purpose, national security and immigration. With this hurdle passed, the only issue would be fair market value for the land. US Customs and Border Protection has already estimated this cost to be about $800,000 per mile.

Is This Already Happening?

Yes, it is already happening. When US Customs and Border Protection began building these border fences in 2007 they needed some private land that is on the US-Mexico border. Many land owners willingly sold their land, while others chose to fight the taking in court. Unfortunately for the land owners, courts consistently ruled for the federal government. This very thing happened when US Customs and Border Protection needed Dr. Eloisa G. Tamez’s ancestral land to build a border fence. Dr. Tamez took the federal government to court. In 2013 a US court ruled that US Customs and Border Protection could take Dr. Tamez’s land that had been inhabited by her family since 1767. Dr, Tamez’s case is not unusual and similar incidents are very likely to occur if the President-elect carries out his campaign promise.

Is This Really Going to Happen?

It looks like the President-elect’s plan is entirely possible and plausible. The federal government would likely be able to acquire any border land it needs for the wall through eminent domain. The only hurdle would be the cost, which would have to be set aside by Congress. However, this likely will not be an issue either as Congress has consistently approved funding for border fencing and border patrols. Overall, if the President-elect decides the act upon this campaign promise there will be very little to stop him.

Take Trump Tower

With President-Elect Trump using Trump Tower as his base of operations for his transition team, 5th Avenue in Manhattan is swamped by police, secret service, and security guards. If the rumors that Trump plans to spend weekends at Trump Tower are true, than New Yorkers could face diverted traffic, rerouted subways, and a no-fly zone over the city for the next four years. Security concerns are also abound, as having the President live in a skyscraper in the city will be a magnet for terrorists and madmen alike.

So far, New Yorkers have had to contend themselves with protests and taking the Trump name off some buildings. However, there may be a legal option that New York could pursue that would save them from this nightmare: Take Trump Tower.

Eminent Domain

Eminent Domain should be a familiar term to the President-Elect. Mr. Trump has spent years abusing eminent domain, a process whereby government can seize private property for public use if the property owner is given just compensation. New York may have the opportunity to turn the tides on the alleged billionaire. 

Eminent domain requires that the government seize property for public use, such as a highway. New York requires a determination that a property is necessary for construction of a public improvement. Although the state could come up with a feasible “public improvement,”  like a public park or charity, here the mere act of taking the tower could also be considered a public use. Trump’s mere presence is congesting traffic and disrupting the local economy. Having Trump in New York on a regular schedule for the next four years would destroy any public use around Trump tower and potentially endanger the lives of many Americans.

Trump’s lawyers would likely argue that Trump is putting his tower to public use, as he is the President-Elect and running the nation. However, America already has a location for that kind of use: the White House. It would be a huge waste of money to maintain both the White House and Trump Tower as headquarters for the nation’s Executive branch.

Civil Asset Forfeiture

Civil Asset Forfeiture allows the government to take property from alleged criminals. In order for the government to seize property under civil asset forfeiture, the property has to be associated with the crime. This definition allows the government to bypass traditional criminal due process – the defendant need not be found guilty for the government to seize the property. States have often abused civil asset forfeiture to seize all kinds of property, including cash, cars, and even real estate.

New York is probing the Trump Foundation for fraud. If New York were to bring criminal charges against Mr. Trump, they could assert civil forfeiture over Trump Tower if the state could show that Trump ran his foundation from his tower.

Conflicts of Interest

If New York were to seriously threaten Trump Tower, the President-Elect would almost certainly take to Twitter to insult everyone involved. Republicans would no doubt accuse New York of harassing the President-Elect through shady legal avenues.

Trump and his supporters should ask themselves though, how is it that Trump is the first President who could have his property taken from him ? Although Trump’s property is more prominent than most – Trump loves to put his name on buildings in big gold letters – there is another reason. Unlike prior Presidents, the President-Elect has neglected to place his businesses into a blind trust. Instead, he’s letting his kids run his businesses.

This presents serious conflicts of interest. If Trump had to choose between defending America and defending his property, which would Trump choose? Trump properties are in many locations around the country, including California and New York. It would not be difficult for the states most opposed to Donald Trump to threaten to seize his properties if Trump tries to push policies that those states do not want.

If blue states in America can threaten Trump’s properties, what about Trump’s real estate abroad? If Trump’s property in Scotland or Dubai were threatened, would Trump threaten military action to save his businesses, even if his businesses have nothing to do with America’s interests?

Racially-Themed Dorms Fair for All?

California State University of LA (CSULA), UC Davis, UC Berkeley, and University of Connecticut (UCONN) have all recently come under scrutiny due to their racially themed dorms.  The concern is that the themed living arrangements—targeted as they are at persons of color—represent a revived attempt at racial segregation. These colleges are far from alone in offering such housing. There are quite a few campuses that offer similar housing arrangements.

The many housing arrangements vary from sections of a dormitory hall reserved exclusively for African-American men (UCONN), to sections of a dormitory hall designed to be focused on respect for the cultures of persons of color (CSULA and UC Davis), to entire houses dedicated to respecting the culture of persons of color (UC Berkely).

Joining these housing arrangements is 100% voluntary. With the exception of the UCONN hall section, all of these housing arrangements are open to any who apply.  The hall sections are all within a fully integrated dorm.  Generally, they are all created with the goal of creating a more comfortable space for persons of color—free from micro-aggressions and bullying.  The exception to this is, again, UCONN’s attempt at themed housing, which has a stated goal of promoting higher retention and graduation rates among African-American men.

My colleague has recently written a truly excellent article, addressing whether or not these themed housing arrangements are, in fact, veiled racial segregation. It notes that racial discrimination is still an everyday experience for persons of color—providing a safe space from hate crimes and bullying is something to be lauded. It also determines, probably correctly, that these themed dorms are not unconstitutional segregation. Dorm 2

However, the possibility of segregation is an extremely dangerous one. UCONN’s African-American male exclusive dorm hall has already drawn complaints from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights as beneficent racism.  Their complaints cite the words of Dr. Kenneth B. Clark, the psychiatrist whose testimony contributed to the U.S. Supreme Court striking down segregation in schools once and for all—the greatest triumph of white racism would be “to persuade its black victims that segregation was not only acceptable but desirable in itself, and that the justification for this separatism was color alone.”

What are the potential dangers to minority students? What legal liability could the colleges implementing them may open themselves up to?

Segregation and Fair Housing Rules

Suffice it to say Supreme Court decisions and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 work together to make government and private acts of segregation illegal and unconstitutional today. However, despite being made unconstitutional over a half a century ago; segregation is still not exclusively a thing of the past.  With this in mind, the Fair Housing Act exists to prevent discrimination in housing—including in college dorms.

The Fair Housing Act prohibits, among other protected classes, race-based discrimination in housing by public or private actors. The Act protects against many types of discrimination, first and foremost refusal to rent or sell (or make available for rent or sale) a property to somebody based on a protected characteristic such as race. It also bars discriminating in terms of conditions rental or sale, misrepresenting availability of housing, or advertising for housing.  Fair housing claims also frequently arise out of discriminatory application processes.  The act also bars “steering,” or directing somebody to look in a specific place for housing based on a protected characteristic.

Even beyond all these protections provided by the Fair Housing Act, organizations which take grants from the federal government—such as every single university which has introduced racially-themed housing listed above—are held to an even higher standard by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Just last year HUD published a ruled placing an obligation on those who take advantage of certain grants to affirmative further fair housing by taking “steps proactively to overcome historic patterns of segregation, promote fair housing choice, and foster inclusive communities for all.”

What Does This Mean for Themed Dorms and the Universities that Offer Them?

As my colleague determined, these themed dorms are very unlikely to be actual segregation based on the facts in front of us. Just considering that they are open to all who apply by itself points heavily in this direction.  The only program that is actually exclusionary in any sense is the UCONN program that has come under fire—only serving men who identify as black.  Even then, the fact that participation is totally voluntary would undercut most arguments of segregation.  HUD standards explicitly state that the Fair Housing Act does not prevent people from living where they choose—it only prohibits “policies and actions by covered entities and individuals that deny choice or access to housing or opportunity through the segregation of persons protected by the Fair Housing Act.”

The most common complaint now is “reverse racism.” To be blunt, these housing arrangements do not represent discrimination against white people.  While race-based discrimination under the Fair Housing Act does indeed include discrimination against Caucasians, such claims are generally held to a higher evidentiary standard because, not surprisingly, discrimination against majority groups is much more uncommon.

These housing programs are usually open to all who apply and represent a very small percentage of the comparable housing readily available, often within the same dormitory hall. We know nothing of the application and acceptance process.  Even were potentially discriminatory practices to come to light, it seems unlikely that this housing would pose a constitutional issue.

As has been seen with affirmative action in the past—including in the realm of housing—providing opportunities based on race can be acceptable where the purpose behind the policy is to offset previous and ongoing racial discrimination—something that undeniably exists for minorities in the realm of housing.  In fact, under HUD guidelines one could even argue that universities are required to make such safe-space housing available.

When it comes to fair housing generally, the issue essentially comes down to the terms, cost, and quality of the housing they provide. While most of the housing is open to all, housing such as UCONN’s is especially vulnerable to suit if the housing provided is not of comparable quality with other dorm halls.  What’s more, universities will need to be careful about steering.  Even well intentioned prodding towards racially-themed housing may well leave them vulnerable to a lawsuit.

It is important to be wary of any housing program which limits its services to such a narrow group of minorities. While creating safe spaces is indeed to be congratulated, it is crucial to keep an eye on the quality of the services and housing these programs offer.  It is a small step for such a program to move from safe spaces to segregation.

Black Priority Housing: Safe Haven or Return to Separate but Equal?

With most Universities back in session, many college students are settling into their housing, but the months leading up to school may have been riddled with anxiety about student housing.

On-campus housing is offered at most four-year universities. Campus housing is student housing that is owned and controlled by the college campus. It offers several benefits, including an environment where students can meet and befriend one another, on-campus housing (often within walking distance to classes), and may be cheaper than living off-campus.

California State University, Los Angeles (“CSULA”) is the most recent university to offer priority on-campus housing to their African American students. The housing is in response to demands from the campus’ black students who say they experienced insensitive remarks and “macroaggressions” (daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities such as racial slights or insults) from white classmates. University of Connecticut, UC Davis and UC Berkeley already offer similar housing to their black students. Dorm

Proponents of the housing believe students can draw on their common experiences to support one another in black housing. Non-black students are not barred from applying for the housing.

While it is certainly admirable to enact housing regulations in an attempt to make black students feel comfortable on their own campus, the housing can be said to segregate black students. Are CSULA’s good intentions unintentionally contributing to the underlying problem of racism?

History of Segregation

Without going into the details of the horrific way our country treated blacks historically, African Americans have experienced extreme mistreatment, oppression, and inequality based entirely on their race.

In 1896, the pivotal constitutional law case of Plessy v. Ferguson upheld a legal doctrine that would be known as “separate but equal.” Under this doctrine, accommodations for blacks and whites could be separate but were for all intents and purposes supposed to be “equal.” They were not. Blacks had inferior everything – bathrooms, water fountains, schooling, modes of transportation, etc. Things were labeled “blacks” versus “whites” to designate who could use what. It was not a proud time in our history.

It wasn’t until 1954 that the “separate but equal” doctrine was overturned by the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education. The Court concluded that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students was unconstitutional, thereby overturning Plessy v. Ferguson. The case was one of the first acts of the Civil Rights Movement.

We have made great strides since the days of “separate but equal,” going so far as to elect our first African American president in 2008, but we still have a ways to go. Nothing exemplifies the disparity in treatment more than the recent “Black Lives Matter” movement. The movement was created in 2012 in response to Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, being acquitted for his crime. Since then, numerous African Americans have been killed at the hands of citizen and police who have not been held accountable for their actions.

Will the Housing Stay?

Given the historical context and how many years it took to achieve desegregation, does the CSULA housing revert back to the days of segregation?

Probably not. Themed housing or student communities focusing on cultural identity is not new to college campuses. On-campus housing is offered to students based on their gender. Further, some colleges have “Common Interest Communities,” which provide students the opportunity to live in a space around a common interest, such as a social group, specific major or charity. None of these on-campus housing initiatives have been deemed inappropriate or criticized as a way to foster a culture of segregation within the school.

It is also important to note that CSULA is not the first campus to create black housing for its black students. The housing does not discriminate against peers who are not black, but wish to live in the designated housing. Finally, the housing was a direct result of requests from CSULA’s black students, who felt that some of their white counterparts were acting aggressively toward them.

And we mustn’t forget the case of the freshman African American student, Donald Williams Jr., who was assigned a dormitory suite with seven other suitemates at San Jose State in California. Williams was targeted in a number of hijinks as the only black student in the suite, including his roommates sneaking up behind him to place a U-shaped bike lock around his neck, hanging a Confederate flag in the common room, writing racial slurs on the dry-erase board in the common room, and calling him names such as “three-fifths” and “fraction.” Three of the white roommates were found guilty of a misdemeanor against Williams for bullying, but not for a hate crime.

If CSULA’s housing can prevent bullying or the commission of a hate crime, then they should be welcome at all college campuses.