Monthly Archives: August 2011

Legally carrying a weapon is a crime

wait, does that count as Arson?

Look, I dislike guns. I dislike them a lot. I don’t believe that people kill people, rather that guns – the objects from which projectiles are discharged at a high rate of velocity, thereby permitting them to enter the bodies of individuals, causing fatal damage to bodily organs – kill people. I’d rather there weren’t any, or at the very least, we had stringent gun control laws.

But do you know what I dislike more? Stupid laws and even stupider interpretation of laws that criminalize perfectly legal conduct. Somehow, despite my strict personal opposition to guns, it is still legal to carry a licensed firearm in Connecticut. In public. Openly.

Yet, for some reason, the state’s “top criminal justice official” – a made up title if I ever heard one – wouldn’t recommend it. Why, you might logically ask, is it not a good idea? For the same reason that photographers across the country are being arrested for videotaping police encounters with civilians: because no one knows the law (see also this post by Balko on an issue similar to the one in the instant post).

I’m not making this shit up.

Mike Lawlor, already featured in one post today for his sage legal prognostications, offers up another:

“In almost every situation you can imagine this happening in, it qualifies as breach of peace,” he said. “If you walk into a restaurant with a gun it’s almost by definition a breach of peace.”

That results in an arrest and sets in motion a chain of events that usually results in the revocation of an issued pistol permit, he said. And that’s the way it should be, Lawlor said. Anyone who walks into a McDonalds plainly carrying a firearm either intends to alarm people or is irresponsible, he said.

“Almost by definition”? Oh, really? Challenge Accepted! Here‘s the relevant Breach of Peace statute:


give me your tired, your poor - no wait, that's the other one

A sense of awe and a nobility of purpose is an often-found characteristic among those of us who choose to dedicate our lives to the criminal justice system. Though most may not choose to repeatedly quote Ammianus Marcellinus or repeatedly invoke the image of Sisyphus, we are all aware of our place in the continual progression of a free society and most importantly, the simple atoms from whence we evolved into the rich, complex system which governs our lives today.

Whatever the role of Roman Law may have been creating the broad outlines of the present system, the most significant impact was that of the British legal system from the 17th century onwards, most famously represented by the court at Old Bailey. (Astute readers will note that this painting of a scene at the Old Bailey – which seems to be a color reproduction of a Thomas Hosmer Shepherd watercolour and H. Melville engraving – used to lend an unwarranted gravitas to this blog.)

To those who know – and those who want to know – I recommend the website ‘Old Bailey Online‘, the subject of this new NYT piece on the vast amount of historical information about Old Bailey trials now available and searchable. The advances in computer technology have made it possible for researches to quickly and deeply analyze the vast volumes of information stored in ‘the Proceedings’, drawing some interesting conclusions. From the NYT piece:

Beginning in 1825 they noticed an unusual jump in the number of guilty pleas and the number of very short trials. Before then most of the accused proclaimed their innocence and received full trials. By 1850, however, one-third of all cases involved guilty pleas. Trials, with their uncertain outcomes, were gradually crowded out by a system in which defendants pleaded guilty outside of the courtroom, they said.

Conventional histories cite the mid-1700s as the turning point in the development of the modern adversarial system of justice in England and Colonial America, with defense lawyers and prosecutors facing off in court, Mr. Hitchcock and Mr. Turkel said. Their analysis tells a different story, however.

“Mapping all trials suggests that the real moment of evolution was in the first half of the 19th century,” with the advent of plea bargains that resulted in many more convictions, Mr. Hitchcock said. “The defendant’s experience of the criminal justice system changed radically. You were much more likely to be found guilty.” Last month the scholars submitted an article to the British journal Past and Present on their findings.

Profound shifts were behind the turn toward negotiated agreements. The class of professional lawyers, police officers and judges was growing quickly at the same time that prison began to be used as an alternative to exile or capital punishment, historians have noted. (The first modern prison in Britain can be dated to 1792.) As Mr. Hitchcock said, “It’s hard to have plea bargaining when all they are going to do is hang you.”

This online repository is a delightful source of endless hours of entertainment. For example, see this account of the poor fellow who received a “fentence of Death” for stealing a Mare and a “Guelding”, or this unfortunate soul who was “Drawn, Hang’d and Quartered” for, well, you have to read it yourself:

State forensic lab loses accreditation

Following up on the troubles of the State Forensic Science Lab, the Courant is now reporting that the lab has (temporarily) lots its accreditation. More troubling is the fact that the agency that accredits these outfits had threatened to pull that accreditation 6 months ago, but acquiesced to a temporary extension of that accreditation. That time has now run out, but there is another inspection scheduled for September 12:

Michael P. Lawlor, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning, said the lab will be reinspected — the date is tentatively set for Sept. 12 — and he was confident that improvements would result in the lab’s reaccreditation. Lawlor said that the accreditation is voluntary, and that “there is no indication that this will affect pending cases between now and Sept. 12.”

He also goes on to opine (seems to be his favorite hobby these days, see this subsequent post) that the loss of accreditation and the problems at the lab don’t affect criminal cases. I respectfully beg to differ. When some of the problems with the lab involve validation techniques (among many, many other things), I’m pretty certain that there will be some impact on criminal prosecutions, at least in the short-term, bringing the validity of the results reported by the lab into question:

Auditors cited weaknesses in supervision, reporting of case results, evidence control, data security, quality assurance, adherence to standard operating procedures for DNA analyses, and validation techniques for DNA test results, among other issues.

What about that statement gives you confidence that there is nothing wrong with the results reported over the past two years?

If nothing else, this revelation that the accreditation was extended by 6 months will – and should – bring additional scrutiny on criminal cases that were resolved in that period. If such a problem was brewing at the lab, why weren’t the courts and defense counsel alerted to them? Why were convictions allowed to be entered based on DNA evidence that was subject to potential errors?

These are questions that will need to be asked – and answered – long after September 12.




making impropriety cool since 1974

It’s prosecutorial misconduct week here at “a public defender” and I’ve finally come across a decision that invokes no other reaction than the aforementioned Fonzie “ayyy!”. In fact, it’s how I imagine the three judges who signed on to the opinion reacting when faced with all the instances of egregious misconduct and yet rendering a decision that – yet again – condoned and sanctioned the behavior.

This time, in State v. Albino, the Appellate Court cannot but agree that the numerous instances of unacceptable behavior, that they gingerly call “improper”, crossed the bounds of acceptable lawyering, yet somehow they find a way to affirm, because the defendant was convicted of murder, after all and he was really, really guilty.

Here’s but a sampling of the key misconduct. From referring to the decedent as a victim and the crime as murder:

The defendant first contends that the prosecutor acted improperly when he ‘‘repeatedly commented on the guilt of [the] defendant and attempted to influence the jury by his persistent use of the terms ‘victim,’ ‘murder,’ and ‘murder weapon’ throughout the trial …’’ The defendant contends that the prosecutor referred to Rivera as the ‘‘victim’’ thirty-one times, referred to his death as ‘‘murder’’ five times, and referred to the firearm as the ‘‘murder weapon’’ eight times during closing argument. He directs us to similar occurrences during the prosecutor’s questioning of trial witnesses where he alleges that the prosecutor referred to Rivera as the ‘‘victim’’ twenty-seven times, referred to his death as ‘‘murder’’ twelve times, and referred to the firearm as the ‘‘murder weapon’’ six times. We agree that in a case such as this, where the defendant has asserted a self-defense claim, it is improper for the prosecutor repeatedly to use the words victim, murder and murder weapon throughout the trial.

To arguing that in order to believe the defendant, the jury would have to find all the witnesses were lying:

Keep Every American’s Digital Data for Submission to the Federal Government Without a Warrant Act of 2011.

I’m only just getting to this, but it seems that the Federal Government (or at least some wingnut faction of it) is seeking to pass this atrocious bill forcing all ISPs (that’s internet companies like Comcast, Time Warner, AOL haha good one and whatever the hell it is you guys have everywhere but the Northeast) to keep records of all your internet activity for a period of 12 months.

For what? Child porn. To prosecute, not to view, you goddamn pervert.

Here‘s an EFF primer on the bill and a statement on the bill making it out of committee. The title of this post comes via Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), which I learned of in this post.

Here’s a Reason post on the subject, here’s one from Cato which gives us the alternate title “You Are All Criminals Act”. From another Cato piece:

It’s got everything: porn, children, the Internet. And it’s got everything: financial services providers dragooned into law enforcement, dataretention requirements heaped on Internet service providers, expanded “administrative subpoena” authority. (Administrative subpoenas are an improvisation to accommodate the massive power of the bureaucracy, and they’ve become another end-run around the Fourth Amendment. If it’s “administrative” it must be reasonable, goes the non-thinking…)

This isn’t a bill about child predation. It’s a bald-faced attack on privacy and limited government.

What with all the BART nonsense this past week (but see and but but see) and the news that the NYPD will now be using Twitter and Facebook to monitor crime (giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “the NYPD is now following you”), one begins to wonder how far, not if, we’ve slipped down the rabbit hole.

The Barney Fife exception: all in good faith

The Constitution requires that criminal defendants be provided with a fair trial, not merely a “good faith” try at a fair trial. Respondent here, by what may have been nothing more than police ineptitude, was denied the opportunity to present a full defense. That ineptitude, however, deprived respondent of his guaranteed right to due process of law.

Those, of course, are the (somewhat) famous opening lines to Justice Blackmun‘s dissent in Arizona v. Youngblood, which held that in order to affect due process of law, law enforcement’s actions in destroying potentially exculpatory evidence must be caused by some “bad faith”. The Court, of course, never explains “bad faith”, which results in a race to the bottom to designate all police misconduct as “incompetence” and “inadvertence”, thereby circumventing the Fourteenth Amendment.

Consider, for your entertainment, the very recent case of Martin v. The State of (Where Else?) Texas. In Martin, the defendant was pulled over by Deputy Fife Jennings for failing to signal a left turn. Upon approaching the vehicle, the Deputy smelled “marihuana” and then observed a furtive gesture which led to a patdown, which led to the Deputy feel something like a razor blade (wait for it) which led to the discovery of marihuana methamphetamine (don’t even ask). Martin, within two weeks of his arrest, sent a subpoena to the police department, asking them preserve the video of the dashboard camera. A year later, at the suppression hearing, there obviously was no video, or I wouldn’t be writing this post. Here’s a summary of the police procedure and operation of the dashcam:

The dashcam is automatically activated when an officer turns on his emergency lights. Department policy states that all video must automatically be saved for thirty days. Jennings could not say whether his machine was operating that night, but he would have noted either at the beginning or end of the shift if the device had not been functional. Jennings stated that the only way to know for sure if the video had been taken would have been if he had preserved the video.

And why did no one know if there was video and why did Jennings not preserve it to find out if the incident had been videotaped? I’ll let him tell you:

Sanctioning misconduct

In a system that is built on accountability, the punishment for violations of accepted standards is notoriously one-sided. Defendants, almost exclusively, are the ones penalized for failing to conform their behavior to the standardized and socially accepted norms. With good reason, obviously. But the criminal justice system isn’t a one-team sport: there are also judges and prosecutors. And all participants in this game are guilty of misconduct, albeit less frequently. Yet the ratio of transgressions to punishment is inexplicably lopsided when it comes to rule-breaking by officialdom. Courts that find “prosecutorial misconduct impropriety” rarely, if ever, impose punishment.

I wrote almost a month ago about the CT Supreme Court’s extraordinary decision in State v. Patrick Lenarz, in whose case the prosecutor received, read and utilized at trial confidential documents from the defendant to his attorney. The Lenarz case is remarkable not only for the strong language in the decision, but the fact that the Court was so troubled by the actions of the prosecutor that it ordered Lenarz released back in November, after oral argument. In fact, the Court found that the violation by the prosecutor was so egregious that it ordered that the prosecution be dismissed.

But still, this is a prosecutor we’re talking about. The Court doesn’t bother to name the offending prosecutor in its decision, but if you know how to read CT appellate opinions, you know that the last prosecutor listed in the “credits” is usually the prosecutor who handled the matter at the trial court. It is a rather tiresome feature of our appellate courts that they will not hesitate to name defense counsel when evaluating claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, but when it comes to conduct by a prosecutor that is “extremely troubling”, they still cannot bring themselves to put the name down in print, even though the significance of the prosecuting arm of the state using illegal and unethical measures to secure convictions against the citizenry is something far more egregious and dangerous.

But I digress.