Category Archives: criminal law principles

AQA: A conversation about the Fourth Amendment

Dan Klau – lawyer, blogger and Connecticut resident – and I engaged in a lengthy back and forth conversation last week on the importance of the Fourth Amendment, searches and seizures, the recent CT Supreme Court opinion in State v. Kelly and the mess in Ferguson. This is, we hope, the first in a series of conversations about pressing legal issues.


DAN:  Gideon, on August 12, 2014, the Connecticut Supreme Court officially released its decision in State v. Kelly [PDF].  The defendant challenged his arrest and conviction (on a conditional plea of nolo contendere) for narcotics possession with the argument that his initial arrest violated the Fourth Amendment and its counterpart under the Connecticut Constitution (article first, §§ 7 and 9). A majority of the Court held that the police were entitled to conduct a limited “stop and frisk” of the defendant, also known as a Terry-stop after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1968 decision of the same name, even though the police did not have a reasonable, articulable suspicion that the defendant had done anything wrong. What they did have was a reasonable, articulable suspicion that another person who was walking down the street with the defendant when they detained him had committed a felony. That suspicion, the Court held, was reason enough to detain the defendant along with the actual suspect.

On twitter, on your blog, and in person, you have repeatedly complained to just about everyone you know about the lack of press coverage this decision has received.  Why do you think this particular case is so important?

GIDEON:  To understand why this case is so important we have to ask ourselves several questions: do I want to be stopped by the police when I’m out on the street, for absolutely no reason? Do I want to give the police that power over me; to seize and detain me, without any reason whatsoever to believe that I have done anything wrong? Is it fair that I should lose my individual right of freedom just because the police might mistakenly suspect my companion of committing a crime?

Frankly, there are also a lot of undertones of privilege. The common response is: “if I haven’t done anything wrong, I have nothing to hide”. So some might say: what’s a minimal incursion on my individual liberty if there’s something greater at stake: stopping crime. And that may be true for you. But it’s not true for thousands of others in our community. It’s not true, particularly, for the less privileged. For them, police intrusion is a repeating and wearying occurrence. For them, police intrusion is a way of subjugation. We have the luxury, from our suburbs or positions of privilege, to say that it isn’t a big deal. But just ask the people of Ferguson, or those stopped and frisked by the hundreds of thousands in NYC.

This case is important because there aren’t two sets of laws: one for the privileged suburban folk and one for the poor minorities. There is one law. This law applies to all of us. There is one Constitution. The right to not have our liberty confiscated without particularized suspicion applies to all of us. That’s why this case is critical.

DAN:  That’s quite a bit to chew on.  Let me try to break it down by asking you a quick follow-up question.  My impression from your twitter and blog comments is that you think the Kelly decision marks a significant change or departure from existing search and seizure precedent.  Is my impression correct? And, if so, in what way do you think Kelly changes the law?

GIDEON:  It is indeed a departure from existing law. The closest analogy is what everyone knows of as a “Terry” stop or a pat down – in other words, a stop and frisk. The law in that regard is that police need “reasonable and articulable suspicion” that a person has committed or is committing a crime in order to minimally detain them and conduct an investigation. Further, if they believe that the person is armed, then they can conduct a “limited” pat-down to search for weapons. So up to now, an individual’s liberty can only be seized if the police have some particular belief with regards to the subject of the seizure.

Kelly has created a whole new category whereby it is not necessary for police to have any belief that the person they want to detain has committed or is committing a crime or is armed. That, to me, is a significant departure.

DAN:  OK.  Let me challenge you on that point.  In my opinion, a critical aspect of the decision—and perhaps a reason why it has not received much press attention—is that the defendant asked the Court to decide whether the Connecticut Constitution afforded him greater protection under the circumstances of the case than the Fourth Amendment.  Why did the defendant ask the Court to consider the state constitution? Because it seemed fairly clear, at least to me, that he had no Fourth Amendment claim under existing precedent.

Here’s why:  As you know all too well, the protections of the Fourth Amendment, i.e., the need for a warrant based on probable cause and signed by a judge and the requirement that any search or seizure be “reasonable” even in the absence of a warrant (like in a Terry-stop case) only come into play if the conduct of the police rises to the level of a “search” or “seizure.”  The decision in Kelly cites U.S. Supreme Court case law for the proposition that when police tell a person to “stop” so that the officer can question him/or, that verbal command does not constitute a seizure for Fourth Amendment purposes unless the person actually submits to the officer’s request.

Why is that important in this case?  Because when the police told the defendant and his companion to “stop,” they did not submit to the request.  Thus, there was no seizure of either the defendant or his companion at that point under the Fourth Amendment.   The defendant and his companion then both ran away from the police officer.  While running, the defendant dropped a bag of cocaine. That gave the police officer a constitutionally justifiable basis to detain him.

In short, at least as far as Fourth Amendment jurisprudence is concerned, the decision does not seem like a departure from existing law.  I’m not saying I like the current state of Fourth Amendment law.  For the reasons you mention, I think it affords the police far too much discretion to stop people without a truly legitimate justification.  I’m just not sure the decision represents a significant change in federal law.

GIDEON:  Well, the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides the bare-minimum of rights that are given to citizens. States are free to provide greater protections – and in Connecticut we have. In our state, our freedom is “seized” under the state constitution when a reasonable person would not feel free to leave.

The argument in this claim of a constitutional violation is based on a violation of the Connecticut Constitution, which provides greater protections to our residents than does the federal constitution. So talking about the federal constitution is irrelevant in this circumstance.   All the parties – the prosecution, the trial judge, the defense attorney, the Appellate Court and the Supreme Court – agree on two things: 1) that Kelly was seized under the state constitution when he was first told to stop and, 2) more importantly, that the police had absolutely no reasonable or articulable suspicion to seize him when they did.

In other words, they had absolutely no basis to stop him and yet they did. And the Supreme Court justified that by saying that people who, as far as the police know, are completely innocent and have not given any indicia of criminal activity can still have their freedom curtailed because of officer safety.  I’m not the only one who thinks this is wrong and quite problematic: two justices wrote a blistering dissent from the Court’s opinion.

DAN:  So now we are getting to the nub of the case.  I agree with everything you just said. I just think it is important for readers of the decision to understand that the Fourth Amendment was irrelevant in this case because, under federal law, the police did not “seize” the defendant when they told him and his companion to “stop.” That command, however, was a seizure under the state constitution.

So now let me ask you this hypothetical, which I admit right up front is different from the facts of the Kelly case: Suppose the police have a reasonable, articulable suspicion that person A has committed a violent felony and they locate that person walking down the street with a companion, person B.  The police ask person A to stop.  He does, as does person B.  The police want to conduct a stop and frisk of A.  What should they do about B, who is hanging around?  They could tell him to move along.  What if he doesn’t?

GIDEON: Yes, it’s critical to remember that our state constitution in this case provides more protection than the federal government and that’s a good thing.

In your scenario, I think the police should do nothing. B is legally on the street; he isn’t harassing them and they don’t suspect him of committing a crime. He has every right to be there and should be allowed to. If, of course, he starts interfering with them then they can determine if he needs to be detained.

But your question raises a very important point: imagine if B is a reporter, or just a citizen photographer. Shouldn’t he be allowed to be on the street to observe their stop-and-frisk of A? Don’t we want citizens to have the ability to observe and record our constabulary? If we start saying that hey, if B doesn’t scoot, the police should have the ability to arrest him, we open ourselves up to all sorts of abuses: why wouldn’t they just simply banish all press and photographers from scenes of arrest so there’ll be no record of their violence?

DAN:  I think you’ve touched on a key point about the opinion, and one that has bothered me since I first read it.  As you state, the Connecticut Supreme Court has interpreted the Connecticut Constitution as providing more protection against searches and seizures than does the Fourth Amendment.

One of the ways in which our state constitution provides greater protection is by “triggering” the constitutional protections against searches and seizures (i.e., warrants, probable cause, reasonableness, etc.) at an earlier point in the police/suspect interaction. To briefly reiterate, whereas a seizure does not occur under the Fourth Amendment when the police demand that a person “stop” until and unless the person actually submits to the stop, under the state constitution the seizure occurs when the police officer makes the demand to stop, period.  Since the demand to stop itself is the seizure, it must be supported by at least a reasonable, articulable suspicion to pass state constitutional muster.

The problem I have with the Kelly opinion is that what the Court giveth with one hand it taketh away with the other.  Having provided state constitutional protection at the “demand to stop” stage, the Court then says that it is ok to stop a person as to whom the police have no reasonable suspicion whatsoever, simply because he happens to be in the company of someone who they do have justification to temporarily detain.

To me, the decision is inconsistent with the notion that the state constitution provides greater protection than the Fourth Amendment.  Which is why, I suspect, Justices Eveleigh and McDonald dissented.

GIDEON:  I think you’ve hit it spot on, Dan. And in order to demonstrate the ills of permitting police such unchecked power, we need look no further than the events of the last week. Ferguson is showing us exactly why we need greater protections for individuals and less power in the hands of law enforcement. The reports coming out of Ferguson of “walking protests only” and the arrests of journalists represent a worst-case scenario for the abuse of the ‘detention of companions’ policy endorsed in Kelly.

Imagine a scene where an officer is arresting a person for whom he has suspicion. His companion starts recording the encounter. The officer, applying Kelly, detains the companion for officer safety and thus: 1) shuts down the recording, or 2) arrests the companion for interfering with an officer if he keeps recording.  Is this what we want?

And of course, we still haven’t touched on the fact that the court failed to define just what a companion is.

DAN:  I don’t want that!  I’ll let you have the last word this time.  I look forward to our next conversation!

Ferguson: the no-Constitution zone

[The following is my latest column for the CT Law Tribune, to be published this week.]

To give the police greater power than a magistrate is to take a long step down the totalitarian path. Perhaps such a step is desirable to cope with modern forms of lawlessness. But if it is taken, it should be the deliberate choice of the people through a constitutional amendment.

Until the Fourth Amendment, which is closely allied with the Fifth, is rewritten, the person and the effects of the individual are beyond the reach of all government agencies until there are reasonable grounds to believe (probable cause) that a criminal venture has been launched or is about to be launched.

Yet if the individual is no longer to be sovereign, if the police can pick him up whenever they do not like the cut of his jib, if they can “seize” and “search” him in their discretion, we enter a new regime.

So concluded Mr. Justice Douglas in his dissent – the lone dissent – to Terry v. Ohio, perhaps with greater prescience than even he would have envisioned. Today, some 46 years later, the fruits of that unwise policy have ripened and come to bear in America, presenting us with a country that seems unrecognizable.

Impossibility is not a defense

The law, you will have guessed by now, is not concerned much with the English language and its precise definitions. A fall-back answer that’s almost always right, when it comes to the law, is that everything “depends”.

Even something as simple as ‘impossibility’. When you, laypersons, think about the word “impossible”, you usually think of something that’s not possible. But the law isn’t that easy.

There are different categories of impossibility, each with its own definition and applicability: mistake of law, mistake of fact, legal impossibility and factual impossibility. Legal impossibility is where, no matter how evil your intentions are, your acts do not constitute a crime. Factual impossibility is where it is impossible for you to have committed a crime because you misunderstood the facts. A classic example used in law school hypotheticals is that of Sydney Barringer, the guy who died in a most tragic fashion.

But none of this takes into account the law’s stubborn desire to extract a conviction from just about anyone who wanders into its field of vision, despite the apparent physical impossibility of that person to have committed the crime.

This is how we come to meet Tyree Threatt, 21 years old, facing charges of mugging a woman on June 27. They didn’t arrest him that day, of course, but she gave a description of the mugger. A few weeks later, officers saw Threatt and determined he matched the description. Then they put his photo in a lineup and she picked him out.

These are not qualifications to be a public defender

Which is the odd man out?

burk-flyerNow, who won the election for Public Defender in the 25th Judicial District?

Yep, it’s pro-death penalty, 7-year prosecutor Bo Burk, who, if you zoom in on the image, touts his membership in the NRA as a plus to be the champion of individual rights for the poor and disenfranchised.

But as if that wasn’t enough, he is also a fiscal conservative who will use all resources available to save taxpayer dollars.

Perhaps since he’s never represented a criminal defendant in his life, he might be confused as to where the government largesse in the criminal justice system comes from: it is from over-criminalization and vindictive prosecutions, excessive prison sentences and lengthy terms of probation.

It isn’t the job of a public defender to worry about how much money is being spent on defense. In fact, if anything, the reality is that indigent defense organizations are criminally underfunded and could use significantly greater numbers of lawyers and investigators to provide constitutionally adequate defenses.

Of course, none of this mentions the greater philosophical problem: the stewardship of individual rights and defenses of poor people left to a man who, just yesterday, was trying to put those very people in jail.

How exactly will that prosecutorial mindset so quickly convert to one of defending rights at all costs? How will he suddenly bring himself to the attitude required of criminal defense attorneys: that whether the client actually committed a crime is often irrelevant; what matters is whether the prosecution can prove it?

It would also seem that in a jurisdiction like his, there may be a significant number of people dealing with mental health and drug addiction issues – topics that prosecutors are usually skeptical of. Can he immediately shed that skepticism and see these defendants for what they are – people who are in trouble and need help?

Logic dictates that the defendants of the 25th Judicial District in Tennessee are in for some worse times. Reality dictates that Bo Burk will continue to get elected, despite his complete lack of qualifications for the job.

 

The consequences of guilt by association: racial profiling and preventing videotaping

[This is my latest column for the CT Law Tribune, republished here because they're stuck behind a paywall.]

In 1979, the United States Supreme Court in Ybarra v. Illinois held that “a person’s mere propinquity to others independently suspected of criminal activity does not, without more, give rise to probable cause to search that person”.

Indeed, it is one of the core requirements of the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures and also the right to expectation of privacy, that officers of the government need independent, particularized suspicion and cause as to the person they seek to search or detain.

In other words, if police want to stop you, they have to have some reasonable suspicion that you committed a crime or are in possession of a weapon. Even the watered-down “stop-and-frisk” standard of Terry v. Ohio required this ‘particularized’ suspicion:

The “narrow scope” of the Terry exception does not permit a frisk for weapons on less than reasonable belief or suspicion directed at the person to be frisked.

There are several important reasons for this, stemming from the Founding Fathers’ strong dislike for a practice of the British crown at the time called ‘General Warrants’ or ‘Writs of Assistance’. As I’ve written here before,

these writs of assistance were permanent search warrants which decreed that any place could be searched at any time at the whim of the holder. The colonists’ hatred for these general writs gave birth to the Fourth Amendment and its mandate of specific, particularized warrants and its protection of papers and effects from search without probable cause.

Despite these specific, unambiguous protections afforded all citizens of the United States – and by extension the State of Connecticut – our state supreme court last week somehow managed to ensure that the conviction of one Jeremy Kelly remained intact.

Guilt by association and retconning reality

[This is going to be a lengthy post, so bear with me, but you must read it in its entirety. This has tremendous implications for those who are concerned about the imbalance of power in our society, especially when it comes to the ever-increasing encroachment of the government into our civil liberties and the already alarming abuse of power against minorities.]

I’m going to posit two scenarios. First, imagine you are walking down a public street with your friend. You’re both on your way to the local grocery store to buy some hummus. The police pull up, take a look at you friend and mistakenly believe that he’s a notorious wanted criminal. They order him to stop. You, not wanting to be caught up in this police business, keep walking, but they order you to stop, even though they don’t know you, don’t suspect you and you haven’t done anything wrong. You have rights, dammit and you know the Fourth Amendment. Can they stop you and force you to give up your freedom?

The second is this: what I’ve just described above is a version of the events that transpired. They’re “facts” in a sense that they’re your recitation of the events. But that’s obviously not good enough, right? There is another version – that of the police officers. So who gets to decide which is the “truth”? Which is believable and accurate and should be relied upon? Because – and this is critical – the law is entirely fact-dependent. How the law applies depends on the nuances of the factual scenarios. And that is left entirely up to the trial judge: the judge that hears the evidence from you and the police officers and then decides what “actually” happened. That’s called fact-finding and will only be overturned if “clearly erroneous”. Meaning almost never. There is a deified deference paid to the trial court’s “findings of fact”.

This is all important, as you will see in a second, because the Connecticut Supreme Court yesterday [PDF] in State v. Jeremy Kelly, in its ever expanding love-affair with convictions and a not-so-shocking-anymore disregard for Constitutional protections, engaged in some blatant retconning of “factual findings” with the help of the trial judge to ensure that the “facts” supported their interpretation which supported a conviction.

But first:

You can now be legally detained/seized/stopped on a street by police even if they have absolutely no reason to stop you.

As I wrote in my preview post and then the argument recap post, the police and the prosecution in the State of Connecticut were seeking extraordinary authority to detain/seize anyone lawfully walking down the street in a public place in Connecticut, if they believed that people in the vicinity may have committed a crime. One of the bulwarks of the Fourth Amendment protection is that the police need something called particularized suspicion, meaning that they need to have some evidence to believe that you have committed a crime in order to stop you.

This opinion does away with that. In fact, the police don’t even have to be correct about the person in your vicinity they are seeking to stop. In Kelly, the opinion at issue, they had the wrong guy they wanted to stop. In other words, they completely botched their job and as a result, we’ve all lost our ability to freely walk down the street without being forced to submit to police authority for no reason at all.

In some other countries, we call that martial law. In America, we call that officer safety.

I would encourage you to read the masterful dissent [PDF] that lays waste to all the majority’s purported “reasoning”. Here’s a sample:

I agree with the majority that the police have a legitimate interest in protecting themselves. There must be, however, some restrictions placed on the intent. In my view, there are several potential unconscionable ramifications to the majority opinion. For instance, if a suspect with an outstanding warrant is talking to his neighbor’s family near the property line, can the police now detain the entire family as part of the encounter with the suspect? If the suspect is waiting at a bus stop with six other strangers, can they all be detained? If the same suspect is observed leaving a house and stopped in the front yard, can the police now seize everyone in the house to ensure that no one will shoot them while they question the suspect? What if the suspect is detained in a neighborhood known to have a high incident of crime, can the police now seize everyone in the entire neighborhood to ensure their safety while they detain the suspect? There simply is no definition of who is a ‘‘companion’’ in the majority opinion. I would  require more than mere ‘‘guilt by association.’’ Ever mindful of Franklin’s admonition, we cannot use the omnipresent specter of safety as a guise to authorize government intrusion. Therefore, I respectfully dissent.

Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia

What problem is?

What problem is?

As mentioned above, one of the chief conceits in the legal system is that facts exist not as they are, but as a judge or jury finds them to be. This has great value in the way our system operates because it defines a universe according to rules of evidence and the primary goal is to ensure reliability.

In recent months, the Connecticut Supreme Court has shown a greater willingness, on appeal, to consider legal arguments that were not raised before. While this has raised some hackles, I generally view it as a good move.

Never before, in my opinion, however, has the Court engaged in retroactive fact-finding. So here’s the setup from the majority opinion:

The defendant next claims that the Appellate Court incorrectly concluded that the trial court properly had found that Detective Rivera and Lieutenant Angeles were justified in detaining the defendant because they had a reasonable concern for their safety. In support of this claim, the defendant asserts that the trial court’s conclusion was based on clearly erroneous factual findings and, further, that the Appellate Court ignored those erroneous findings and improperly upheld the trial court’s ruling on the basis of facts that the trial court never found.

In other words, the trial court, in finding the need for officer safety, relied on clearly erroneous fact A and then, the Appellate Court ignored the trial court’s error as to fact A and instead said that the trial court was correct because of fact B. The trial court had never explicitly considered fact B.

You will have guessed by now that both fact A and fact B support a conviction.

In support of the finding of officer safety, the trial judge found that the guy the police were looking for (who, of course, was neither of the guys stopped) had a felony warrant for possession of a firearm, and that’s it.

The Appellate Court found that the stop was justified because of the felony warrant for a firearm and credible evidence that the guy they were looking for was armed and dangerous, a fact omitted by the trial court.

The Supreme Court had to agree that the “felony possession of a firearm” factual finding was clearly erroneous because no witness testified as to those words. It was, in fact, a warrant for a violation of probation.

But here’s where it gets weird. After the case was argued in the Supreme Court, they send a letter to the trial judge and asked:

  1. Did you mean felony warrant for violation of probation?

  2. Did you consider the evidence that they received a tip that the guy was armed and dangerous?

The answers, of course, to both were yes, despite there being absolutely no evidence of that in the trial court’s ruling.

It is certainly very curious that the Supreme Court would take the extraordinary step of clarifying “factual findings” by the trial court in an effort to support the conviction, when the clear record below – the words said by the judge in open court – would support a reversal.

This is highly unusual and should trouble everyone. I’m not assuming that there was anything malicious about it – that would be ridiculous – but even with a benign intent to “get to the truth” or whatever you want to call it, giving a trial judge an opportunity to change his responses in order to conform them to what the Supreme Court is clearly looking for really undermines faith in the process and the system.

Where does it stop? Are facts only facts as long as they’re convenient? Are rights only rights as long as they don’t get in the way of governmental authority?

Oh, right.

Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.

Waiver by budget cut

You’ve just been arrested by the Federal Government and you’re shuttled off to a prison in a remote location, hours away from your home and your state. You are adamant that you’re innocent and you have lots and lots of thoughts about how the Government is persecuting you. You sit down to write these thoughts with pen and paper, but then the counselor who supervises you tells you that you can access email!

Email! The modern pen and paper; the standard mode of written communication in this day and age. You are delighted because your penmanship is atrocious and because it would take you hours to write all your thoughts and weeks to get your thoughts to your lawyers and weeks further still for them to write letters back. But email is instantaneous. So you fire up the email system and click accept and begin banging away at the keyboards.

You send these confidential thoughts about the defense of your case to your lawyer and, apparently, the prosecutors.

Yes. Federal prosecutors have readily admitted in several cases that they are monitoring suspects emails to their lawyers, reading them and then using that information to strengthen their case against those suspects.

Talk about system stacked against you: you’re charged with a crime by the Government. You have your liberty taken away by the Government. You have excessive bails set by the Government so you can’t leave. You are given limited and controlled access to your lawyers by the Government. And then, they monitor everything you say and then use that against you. How can they do this?

Defense lawyers say the government is overstepping its authority and taking away a necessary tool for an adequate defense. Some of them have refused to admit even the existence of sensitive emails — which, they say, perhaps predictably, are privileged.

All defendants using the federal prison email system, Trulincs, have to read and accept a notice that communications are monitored, prosecutors in Brooklyn pointed out. Prosecutors once had a “filter team” to set aside defendants’ emails to and from lawyers, but budget cuts no longer allow for that, they said.

Budget cuts. That bureaucratic, administrative go-to. The liberty that this nation pretends to hold so dear won’t be lost by war, or a bloody coup, but rather in slow, incremental steps by bureaucracy.

It is “too expensive” to set up a filter in the email system to enable a bypass of emails sent to specific email addresses, something that can be done for free in as clunky an email system as Outlook.

Some judges, however, are supporting this practice because they claim that defendants sign waivers when they use the system:

But a judge, Charles A. Pannell Jr. of the United States District Court in Atlanta, ruled in 2012 that by using Trulincs, Mr. Wheat “consented to the monitoring and thus had no reasonable expectation of privacy.”

This is consent of the same nature as you consenting to Facebook using your photographs or God knows what else we’ve all agreed to when we’ve hurriedly hit the “accept” button on terms of use on over a hundred thousand websites that we regularly frequent.

It’s coercive and, given the state of society today, we don’t really have a choice. Now imagine that coercive situation, but you’re in jail.

Comparing it to old-fashioned communication, however, shows how consent is a red herring. Letters written to lawyers are marked privileged and are not read. They can be, however. There’s nothing stopping correctional officers from opening those letters. They choose not to, because of a department wide policy and the general sense that doing so would violate confidentiality.

So either there’s a legal principle that bars them reading letters and that same legal principle should bar them from reading emails, or there’s a policy that prevents them from reading letters and they haven’t extended that policy to emails, but which shows that there’s no functional difference between the two modes and it’s merely a matter of convenience.

This is one of those things that, if pushed to a head, would necessarily spell trouble for the prosecution. We’ve had just that happen here in CT, where prosecutors read confidential word documents about the defense of the charges. A day after argument before the Supreme Court, he was ordered immediately released.

Sure, it’s good advice to never discuss confidential matters via modes of communication that have the potential to be monitored, but that applies to everything, including in person visits. But just because the Government can invade your confidentiality, doesn’t mean that they have the right to do so.