Category Archives: criminal law principles

One last gasp: Eric Garner and the failure of racial justice

garner-last-words

The last words of Eric Garner, and perhaps the last gasp of the veil of ignorance that shrouds law-abiding suburban folk from the reality of the racial injustice that permeates and destroys every other part of America.

This is an incredibly complex issue – well, it is an incredibly simple issue to frame, but exceedingly complex to unpack, understand and solve.

Eric Garner was killed, that much is sure. That no one is to blame – legally – for that death is a mild surprise. That a prosecutor shirked his responsibility to do justice yet again is nothing but business as usual.

There is a racial divide in America. That much is certain. But how is it divided? Along what lines or groups or frames of reference? That’s the complex question.

In a must-read article at Salon, Rutgers professor Brittney Cooper explores and explains this:

There is a real disconnect between what white people know and what black people know in this country. Philosophers and political theorists understand these as questions of “epistemology,” wherein they consider how social conditions shape our particular standpoint, and ability to apprehend the things that are supposed to be apparent to us. “How do we know what we know?” is one way we might ask the question.

In other words, it’s a frame of reference problem – it’s a privilege problem – it’s a luxury of the oppressors problem.

The invisibility of black rage, black pain and black humanity are all elements of the same problem. That problem is a framework problem. Because Darren Wilson did not use any racial slur to refer to Michael Brown, our current racial frameworks are inadequate for helping your average all-American white people think through the contours of this encounter. That problem has plagued us since the beginning of this case; it dogged us throughout the Zimmerman trial; and it is helped along by the deep emotional dishonesty that characterizes race relations in the country.

Do you cross the street when you see a black person walking toward you at night? Do you think about the people who do cross the street? Do you think about how many people cross the street and how it impacts our government’s policies and laws? Do you think about how you’ve benefitted from those laws and policies?

 

There has been tremendous support for racial justice in the last few weeks, starting with Michael Brown and now with Garner. Protests, “die-ins”, boycotts and the like. But how does one explain to these well-meaning folks that the fight doesn’t end with the indictment of one officer or two? How does one explain that the racial oppression and injustice in America is omnipresent and attacks from all sides?

And no one denies that high-crime neighborhoods disproportionately overlap with minority neighborhoods. But the intersections don’t stop there. Concentrated poverty plays a consequential role. So does the school-to-prison pipeline. So do the scars of historical oppression. In fact, these and other factors intersect to such a degree that trying to separate any one — most often, the racial one — from the rest is bound to render a flimsy argument based on the fallacy of discrete factors.

Yet people continue to make such arguments, which can usually be distilled to some variation of this: Black dysfunction is mostly or even solely the result of black pathology. This argument is racist at its core because it rests too heavily on choice and too lightly on context. If you scratch it, what oozes out reeks of race-informed cultural decay or even genetic deficiency and predisposition, as if America is not the progenitor — the great-grandmother — of African-American violence.

Cops shoot minorities dead on the streets, but our courts also take away their lives. In the justice system, criminal in code for minority.

It seems, however, that people – usually white, middle-class, affluent – believe that there are two sets of laws and rights: one for criminals (minorities) and one for the “regular” folks. Professor Cooper again:

Too many white people lie comfortably in bed each night with the illusion that justice was served, that the system worked, that the evidence vindicated the view that they need to believe – that white men do not deliberately murder black boys for sport in this day and time and get away with it. Most well-meaning white people need to believe this. For me as both teacher of different kinds of epistemology and as a black person, I do not have the luxury of believing this. I do not have the luxury of stepping over the bodies of Eric Garner, John Crawford and Tamir Rice, leaving my unasked questions strewn alongside their lifeless bodies.

It is easy to believe this. It is psychologically very easy to take the high road; to hold oneself up high above others. It is easy to distinguish oneself from “criminals” or “minorities” who get caught up in the justice system and call them “bad” or “evil” or bemoan their inability to rectify their lives and live the straight and narrow. It’s easy to judge their failure and chalk it up to a “lifestyle”. It’s easy to want to be law and order and support harsh and strict policies for punishment. It’s easy to point out statistics that purport to show that a majority of crimes are committed by minorities and thus, minorities are more prone to committing crimes.

Moral superiority is, after all, a sin. But most of us fail at recognizing our own sins. Most of us fail to see the causes for the differences between us and them. Most of us are oblivious to the opportunities that are present for us, but not for others.

Racial injustice needs to be viewed in the whole: from educational policies to municipal funding to tough on crime to housing to lack of re-entry to the long-lasting impact of felony convictions to the lack of alternatives and rehabilitation to the hidden prejudices that we keep re-affirming every time we watch Nancy Grace or CSI or Law and Order.

So protest all you want today, but realize that you haven’t done your part to change injustice yet. Not even close. You’ve barely opened your eyes as Eric Garner closed his.

Death by any means

It’s bad enough that the duty of prosecutors to disclose and give to the accused any exculpatory and impeachment evidence is entirely self-regulated. It’s quite another when prosecutors flout that requirement to obtain convictions while hiding behind the quickly falling veil of justice. It’s worse yet when they intentionally hide evidence in a case in which they are seeking to murder the accused.

This may sound familiar to you and that’s because I wrote back in February about Virginia prosecutors and their quest to kill Justin Wolfe. If only this were a follow-up to that post. It is not. This is yet another instance of prosecutorial hide-the-ball in a death penalty case, this time from Colorado in the case of Sir Mario Owens1.

Determined to demonstrate just how far he believed Arapahoe County prosecutors had strayed over the line in the effort to obtain the death penalty against his client, defense attorney Jim Castle resorted to a visual aid. During a hearing late Friday, he presented District Judge Gerald Rafferty with a wheeled cart piled with documents that he said prosecutors were obligated to turn over to the defense before trial but failed to do so — a transgression of due-process rights known as a Brady violation.

“There are so many violations in this case, I can’t cover them all,” Castle said. “How did this happen? This shouldn’t happen. If it’s allowed, we will accept a new low for justice in Colorado.”

I’m not going to go into a long-winded rant about the injustice of this. I’ll just let you see how outrageous it is.

  • [Co-defendant] Robert Ray’s wife, LaToya Sailor, testified that she wasn’t willing to come forward about what she knew until after Owens was arrested because she feared Owens would harm her son. Despite the fact that police documents indicate Sailor was already cooperating with authorities prior to Owens’ arrest, prosecutors made her supposed need to be protected from Owens “an issue in the case” and hammered away at it to the jury.
  • Another document withheld from the defense indicated Sailor, the beneficiary of a car from then-District Attorney Carol Chambers, had initially offered to assist in an accessory case against Ray but didn’t want to tie him directly to the Marshall-Fields shooting. (Ray was sentenced to death for Marshall-Fields’s murder and received a life sentence for Wolfe’s death.)
  • Witness Jamar Johnson was facing two counts of conspiracy to commit murder if he failed to cooperate in the Ray-Owens prosecution, but defense attorneys weren’t made aware of that possible motivation or how it might have shaped his testimony.
  • Greg Strickland, the only witness to identify Owens as the shooter of Marshall-Fields and Wolfe, testified that he’d received no assistance in any of his own cases in return for his testimony. But records indicate he received a plea deal in Adams County in exchange for his cooperation.

Some prosecutors take the position that if they don’t ask or know about information that would tend to prove the accused’s innocence, then they don’t have to abide by the Constitution. DA Carol Chambers apparently subscribed to that school of thought, because this isn’t the first case in which her ethics were called into question.

It is precisely this blood-lust that leads to a convict-at-all-costs attitude. And when the priority is a conviction, it is justice that dies.


Some lawyers in CT are also mandated reporters

That's your constitution in the middle, getting fucked over.

That’s your constitution in the middle, getting screwed over.

I wrote yesterday about the CT legislature failing to enact an exemption to the mandatory reporting statute for social workers employed by defense attorneys and the problems attendant to that.

In that post, I glibly noted that the legislature hasn’t yet made lawyers mandated reporters – and I was wrong.

In the public act that was just enacted, PA 14-186, the definitions of mandated reporters were “clarified” and some others were added to the list. This, surprisingly, now includes the following:

(14) any paid administrator, faculty, staff, athletic director, athletic coach or athletic trainer employed by a public or private institution of higher education who is eighteen years of age or older, excluding student employees.

The bold portion is the relevant portion. This would, generally speaking, include every professor or adjunct professor at a college, university or graduate school.

What is a graduate school? A law school. So faculty at a law school – also called law professors – are thereby included on this list. But that doesn’t seem to be the end of it. Any paid faculty encompasses the myriad adjunct professors who are full-time lawyers, but also dabble in teaching students on the side.

What makes it worse is that every law school in Connecticut has several clinical programs that deal exclusively with the representation of poor and disenfranchised people: the criminal trial clinic at UCONN, the appellate clinics at UCONN and Quinnipiac, the immigration and prisoner rights clinic at Yale, among many others1.

All of these clinics employ lawyers as professors who are responsible for representing these clients in real, actual courts and they supervise students for whom they are also responsible. They also employ full-time public defenders as adjunct faculty. Some also employ judges.

Law school clinics are a great teaching environment for lawyers of tomorrow, but they are also a tremendous cost-effective way to provide much needed legal services to poor citizens of this state and refugees from other countries.

But now, these law professors – the faculty members and the part-time paid adjunct faculty of these clinical programs who are most frequently public defenders – are also mandated reporters.

Worse, it doesn’t matter if the information they gleaned was during the course of their full-time employment as a public defender. By virtue of their being adjunct faculty members, they have to report their own clients, thus vitiating any attorney-client confidentiality and utterly destroying the Sixth Amendment guarantee of conflict-free representation.

This is utterly ridiculous. While there are many ethical opinions out there that state [PDF] conclusively that attorney-client privilege trumps [PDF] any mandatory reporting statute, the reality is that the legislatures are making failure to report suspected child abuse a very serious crime with incarceration as the penalty.

Of course, one might assume that the same protections apply to social workers or mitigation specialists who are part of the defense team – and there is some appellate authority to support that – but we aren’t going to know either for sure until a lawyer or social worker fails to report and gets arrested. While there are some who will put their liberty on the line and challenge the statute as being unconstitutional, that cannot be asked of anyone – no one should have to be the guinea pig.

Whether knowingly or otherwise, this legislature has taken steps to completely shred the 6th Amendment in Connecticut. This must be rectified immediately.


Facts are what judges say they are

A fact, in the real world, is defined as: something that truly exists or happens : something that has actual existence. In the legal world, a “fact” is defined as: something that the jury could “reasonably” have found. But even that’s not certain. Because judges also “find” facts, based on the evidence that they hear.

But, you say, that seems incredibly subjective. And subjective it is. Because what the judges hear and how they interpret what they hear is also colored by their own opinions of important things like credibility – who to believe and how much to believe. It’s also informed by their personal opinions, experience and beliefs about the world.

I wrote most recently about the importance of making sure that “facts” on the record are as clear and as indisputable as they can be and I’ve written in the past about the fallacy of calling legal facts facts and so it comes as no surprise that this paper, written by a former police officer turned law professor, makes the claim that Supreme Court decisions involving police and police concerns are based on unsupported “facts”.

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.