Tag Archive for 'aclu'

The Beginning of PreCrime?

What is Predictive Policing?

Predictive policing is an attempt to make police more proactive. Often, police react to crime by responding to 911 calls or arresting people who they see break the law. However, new technology allows police to prevent crime before it starts. Large amounts of data about past crimes are fed into computer programs that determine where and when (and sometimes with whom) the risk of crime increases.

Since TIME magazine called predictive policing one of the “50 Best Inventions of 2011,” more towns and cities are embracing this new technology.

Geographical Predictions

Predictive policing based on mapping has been very successful in combatting crimes like auto theft that occur frequently (and so create a lot of data) and follow certain patterns. Officers generally receive a map each day with highlighted areas to patrol when they are not responding to calls. In some places, patrolling the high-risk mapped areas is not mandatory. However, it is encouraged by departments because it gives officers more information.  PreCrime

Many U.S. cities contract with PredPol, a private company that takes crime data and uses a patented process to make predictions. In Santa Cruz, California, the police use the tool to map potential gang violence, batteries, aggravated assaults, drug crimes, and bike thefts. In Los Angeles, the police chose specific areas to experiment with Pred Pol and waited for the results to come in. In the Foothill area, the experiment was successful and property crimes fell by 12%. Now, the LAPD has adopted it in 14 out of 21 of its divisions. It is estimated that the prevention provided by this technology could save citizens $9 million dollars a year.  One critique is that the system does not work as well with crimes that don’t “have enough data points” or that involve “crimes of passion.” For these reasons, homicides are more difficult to predict on a map.

Individualized Predictions

Recent advances in predictive policing mean that it is also being used to target violent crime. Since violent crime typically involves individuals instead of property, it is no surprise that police departments are now tracking specific people as part of their “prediction” strategy. These predictions are often based in theories about criminal psychology. For example, the Chicago Police have developed a list of 400 people most likely, at the given time, to commit a violent crime. To do so, they use social media data, crime information, suspicious person reports, and 911-calls. However, this so-called “heat list” has led to criticisms by civil liberties groups like the ACLU. The risk is that predictive policing increases police scrutiny on individuals regardless of whether or not they have committed a crime.

Other jurisdictions are also embracing a more individualized risk model. In Maryland, for example, social service workers are teaming up with statisticians to predict which families will be most likely to seriously harm their children. Meanwhile, in Kansas City, the authorities have identified almost 1,000 people belonging to criminal groups and are targeting them specifically with interventions intended to curb violent crime.

What are the Criticisms of Predictive Policing?

While map-based predictive policing is certainly effective at deterring some types of crime, civil liberties activists are concerned that it may target residents of certain neighborhoods unfairly. If utilized in the wrong way, this type of policing may create a vicious cycle.

For example, racial profiling or increased patrolling of certain neighborhoods may lead to black or Hispanic individuals’ arrest for drug crimes at a higher rate than their white counterparts (who commit a similar number of those crimes). Data from these arrests may create a false impression that there is more of a “drug problem” in predominantly black or Hispanic neighborhoods, leading to increased patrols, more scrutiny, and more arrests. A similar problem may involve patrolling in “rich” versus “poor” neighborhoods.

Targeting individuals may be even more problematic. It sets up a new and invasive type of surveillance, not over neighborhoods in general, but over people in particular. Now, license plates are scanned, devices can track mobile phone signals, and surveillance cameras and tablets with facial-recognition technology are now available to police. This makes a very detailed level of tracking attainable, and moves us closer to a “Minority Report” world.

What is the Future of Predictive Policing?

Predictive policing holds great promise as a deterrent to certain types of crime. However, the use of predictive policing must continue to be scrutinized carefully so that it does not interfere with important civil rights. Many cities are now experimenting with this technology, so society will eventually know its effects, good and bad.

Border Patrol Sued Over Traffic Stops

With arguments over Arizona’s controversial immigration law wrapping up in the Supreme Court last week, the debate over immigration (both legal and illegal) into the United States seems to get more heated every day, and more states considering immigration laws similar to Arizona’s, a recentlawsuit (also reported here) may have flown below your radar.

The ACLU is suing the U.S. border patrol agency Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) over traffic stops that they allege are racially biased and overly-aggressive.

While the basis for many states passing their own immigration laws is the claim that the federal government is not doing enough to stem illegal immigration, the numbers show that during the Obama administration, deportations of illegal immigrants have reached an all-time high, and staffing of border patrol agencies has increased. Furthermore, immigration authorities have placed a heavy priority on deporting illegal immigrants who have committed violent crimes while in the U.S. Anyone who prefers a “get tough” strategy for dealing with illegal immigration should be thrilled at this information, but, for some reason, it largely goes unreported in the media.

While anti-immigrant forces may not have noticed that the Obama administration is being more aggressive against illegal immigration than any other president in decades, people who advocate for the rights of immigrants, particularly the basic civil liberties of undocumented immigrants, certainly have noticed this trend, and, as one might imagine, are not happy about it.

The issue in this lawsuit mostly has to do with racial profiling – the practice of law enforcement agencies targeting members of a particular racial or ethnic group based on the belief that they’re more likely to have committed a crime.

This practice is unlawful in almost any context. The lawsuit asks the court to issue an injunction against the border patrol barring them from engaging in any traffic stops until they have undergone special training on how to avoid racial profiling.

The law governing civil liberties and immigration is a little different from the privacy and civil rights laws that apply in almost any other context, and it can be confusing, both for ordinary individuals, and for the officers charged with enforcing it. When at or near a border crossing, border patrol agents have significant latitude in stopping and searching vehicles when they have any suspicion that violations of immigration laws are occurring.

However, when far away from the border, their power is more or less the same as any other police officer. If they want to stop a vehicle, they have to have a reasonable suspicion that unlawful activity is afoot.

This case was filed in Washington State, and it’s not clear from the articles I’ve found where the traffic stops took place. It’s possible that they occurred near the border with Canada, which is a major entry point for illegal immigrants, which receives much less attention than the U.S.-Mexico border.

In its lawsuit, the ACLU is alleging that such racially-motivated traffic stops are becoming increasingly common, as the U.S. tries to improve security along the northern border, which is much longer than the U.S./Mexico border, and, compared to that border, has been ignored by immigration authorities in the past.

While I am fine with enforcing our current immigration laws (including the deportation of illegal immigrants, with a particular focus on those who have committed crimes in the U.S.), I believe that the constitution, including the protections in the Bill of Rights, should apply to everybody who is in the United States, or otherwise under its jurisdiction.

And I think that basic notions of due process and equal protection should apply when enforcing immigration laws. Call me crazy, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable for the legal protections we would readily extend to a serial killer to also apply to a person who is physically present in this country without the correct paperwork, because they want to make a better life for themselves and their family. But I guess that’s a radical position in this day and age.

Reading the comments on some of the articles covering this story is kind of upsetting. There are a lot of people saying things to the effect of “hey, ACLU, just let the officers do their jobs!” or “who cares about the ‘rights’ of a bunch of illegals?” etc., etc.

Putting aside the fact that the people filing this lawsuit are American citizens, I think the best test of our commitment to the rule of law and the Bill of Rights is how consistently we apply it to everybody, especially the least popular and most vulnerable groups of people.

And action through the judicial branch of government (i.e., lawsuits) is often the only way to ensure that the other two branches of government live up to the promise of the constitution and Bill of Rights.

Prisoners in South Carolina Can Read Again

South Carolina is in the news right now because it’s presidential primary season – that magical period every four years during which America is reminded that Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina exist.

However, South Carolina is in the legal news for another reason: state prisoners in South Carolina are allowed to read again. Basically, jail officials in Berkeley County, South Carolina prohibited inmates from reading any materials bound with staples, or containing any level of nudity whatsoever. This effectively resulted in the banning of a wide range of reading materials, including newspapers that have lingerie advertisements, or almost anything having to do with fine art.

However, after a lawsuit was filed by the ACLU, jail officials reached a settlement with the plaintiffs, and are now allowing inmates access to most reading materials.

One particular point of contention was the fact that some of the reading materials to which prisoners were denied access were meant to provide legal information for prisoners who are not represented by attorneys. If you’re a fan of due process, and the right of criminal defendants to have competent legal representation, this is a major issue. If a prisoner is not represented by a lawyer, but wants to pursue his or her legal rights by proceeding pro se, access to legal information and advice is absolutely essential.

As you might have guessed, I’m pleased that jail officials reached this decision with the ACLU. I believe it’s the right decision, and rights a policy that never should have been implemented in the first place.

I’m aware that prisoners have fewer rights than the general public: when you commit a crime, you surrender certain rights that the rest of us take for granted. You have virtually no reasonable expectation of privacy, your freedom of movement is restricted, and your right to free expression is somewhat limited. However, prisoners do not surrender their right to due process of law, the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, or the right to competent legal representation (even if they’re representing themselves). Depriving prisoners of virtually all reading material could arguably amount to a violation of all of those rights, and maybe more.

Note that I’m not saying prisoners are entitled as a matter of right to unrestricted access to all reading materials ever, or that jail authorities don’t have to balance the safety of jail staff and other prisoners against the individual rights of each prisoner. However, it’s pretty obvious that they went overboard with these restrictions.

For example, barring prisoners from access to materials containing any form of nudity whatsoever could prevent them from taking correspondence courses in art, or elementary life sciences (perhaps in preparing to get a G.E.D.). And it’s been well-established for years that giving prisoners the opportunity to pursue education while they’re incarcerated better prepares them to re-enter society when they’re released, thereby reducing the rate at which they re-offend. Obviously, turning criminals into productive members of society (when possible, which isn’t always the case, of course) seems like a far more productive use of prison resources than keeping criminals who could be rehabilitated locked away forever, at taxpayer expense, only to have them re-offend when and if they’re released.

None of this is to suggest that there are not legitimate security concerns that need to be taken into account. If reading material is being mailed to prisoners, guards should be able to inspect it to ensure that it’s not being used to smuggle in contraband like weapons or drugs. And if they’re really concerned that books or magazines bound with staples are a safety issue, why don’t they just remove the staples before giving them to the prisoners?

The fact that this dispute even happened demonstrates that many of our institutions are seriously lacking in common sense. Whether it’s a “zero-tolerance” policy at a school that gets a student expelled for bringing a squirt gun, or, in this case, a blanket policy against certain materials that ends up denying prisoners certain literature to which they’re arguably constitutionally entitled, public institutions need to be flexible and pragmatic.

While it may satisfy some base emotional drive for revenge to lock prisoners up in tiny, dark rooms and throw away the key, the whole reason we’ve formed society and governments is so we can collectively rise above our baser instincts. That’s why we afford criminal defendants and prisoners basic human rights.

Accordingly, we need to think very carefully before instituting “zero-tolerance” policies, like the one at this jail. I’m glad they had the sense to change their policy, but it probably should not have been implemented in the first place.

Proposition 8: Will of the People?

In California, some consider the fight to legalize same-sex marriage as an effort by a small minority to circumvent the will of the majority. Supporters of recently enacted Proposition 8-a constitutional amendment eliminating same-sex marriage in California-hailed the initiative as immune from challenge. The amendment was designed to be invincible from attack by the courts, which have overturned previous voter initiatives banning same-sex marriages in California and Connecticut. Opponents attacked these rulings as going behind the people’s back and forcing a small minority’s agenda on society. Now, they insist, the people’s will has finally triumphed.

Not so fast. A case filed by the ACLU in the California Supreme Court on November 5th, 2008 charges that the Proposition itself is an unconstitutional attempt by the voters of California to revise the constitution, not amend it.

According to Article 18 of the California Constitution, amendments to the Constitution can be made by popular vote. Revisions, however, require legislative action. A revision, according to the California Supreme Court, is a change to the fundamental underlying principles of the Constitution itself. An amendment is merely an addition or change within the lines of the original instrument, or any change designed to better carry out the fundamental principles of the Constitution.

The California Supreme Court has frequently stated that equal protection is a fundamental principle of the California Constitution. Court documents filed for the petitioners argue that because Prop 8 eliminates the right of same-sex couples to marry, Proposition 8 is revising the Constitution by mandating government discrimination of a suspect class, contrary to the Constitution’s underlying principles of equal protection. (Same-sex couples were designated a suspect class with the fundamental right to marry in the In re Marriage cases of early 2008.) The Proposition also fundamentally alters the role of the courts by stripping them of their ability to protect the fundamental rights of a minority against the tyranny of the majority, a basic principle of our Republic’s system of checks and balances.

It makes sense initially to balk at the Supreme Court stepping in and twice overturning laws enacted by the people in democratic elections. However, what is being lost in articles and commentaries on this important case is a discussion of the true nature of government, and the definition of “will of the people.”

The government cannot enforce the will of the majority when it lacks the authority to do so. To accomplish the extraordinary feat of enforcing government discrimination and circumventing the underlying principles of our Constitution, a simple majority vote cannot suffice. The will of the people was permanently embodied in the California Constitution when it was ratified. Their will was ensuring equality for all and the protection of human dignity and liberty, and this voice should always speak louder than a simple majority vote. Hopefully that will was not changed by Proposition 8.