Category Archives: sex offenders

Sex offender social media ban unconstitutional

In yet another part of the country, an appellate court has ruled that a law banning sex offenders from accessing and using social networking sites violates the First Amendment’s free speech guarantees.

After rulings in NebraskaLouisiana, California and Indiana, the North Carolina Court of Appeals1 ruled yesterday [PDF] that that State’s ban on sex offenders accessing Facebook and the Google and My____2 is unconstitutional.

In 2008, before Facebook and Twitter were even a thing, NC passed a law which provided in relevant part that:

It is unlawful for a sex offender who is registered in accordance with Article 27A of Chapter 14 of the General Statutes to access a commercial social networking Web site where the sex offender knows that the site permits minor children to become members or to create or maintain personal Web pages on the commercial social networking Web site.

Narcotics field tests subject to Daubert and other tales of scientific evidence

In an opinion released two days ago in State v. Anthony Martinez [PDF], the CT Appellate Court held – in what was apparently an issue of first impression – that those narcotics field tests that officers do to determine whether the “powdery white substance” was indeed cocaine and not talcum powder are subject to the standards “enumerated” in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals. In CT, that standard was adopted in State v. Porter and challenges under Daubert are called “Porter challenges” or “Porter hearings”.

Prior to Daubert, the generally accepted standard was the “Frye” standard and it was that the examination or procedure had to be generally accepted in the scientific community. Daubert then altered that standard – and lowered it – to whether the scientific evidence would assist the trier of fact and whether it was scientifically “valid” as opposed to generally accepted by that scientific community.

The irony is that in CT, the defendant wanted the Court to adopt the lower Daubert standard in Porter so as to let in polygraph evidence. The defendant won on Daubert, but lost on polygraph, thus not completely fucking every criminal defendant over for eternity, but only slightly.

What the Supreme Court didn’t do in either Daubert or Porter is define just what the hell “scientific evidence” is, thus opening a gaping door for all sorts of pseudo-scientific testimony (more on that in a bit).

But clearly, dipping a stick into some chemical and then applying a drop of that chemical to a “powdery white substance” to determine if that substance changes color, thus revealing the presence of a narcotic, seems “scientific” enough.

But just because it’s scientific, doesn’t mean a court has to conduct a hearing to determine if it’s valid. Some scientific evidence is so scientifically accepted that it’s a foregone conclusion:

In one line of cases, ‘‘we have concluded that certain forms of scientific evidence have become so well established that a formal Porter inquiry is rendered unnecessary  . . . .’’ Id., 170; see State v. Porter, supra, 241 Conn. 85  n.30, citing State v. Cline, 275 Mont. 46, 55, 909 P.2d  1171 (1996) (ordinary fingerprint identification evidence); see also Hayes v. Decker, 263 Conn. 677,687–89,  822 A.2d 228 (2003) (effects of discontinuation of blood pressure medication); State v. Kirsch, 263 Conn. 390, 405, 820 A.2d 236 (2003) (reliability of alcohol blood testing done at hospital well established); State v. Legnani, supra, 109 Conn. App. 418–21 (matching of fired cartridges to magazines on basis of magazine marks).

This, the Appellate Court notes, is not one of them. While the argument the state makes, that these tests have been admitted into evidence in CT Courts for a very long time, is appealing as to their validity, that doesn’t close the inquiry, nor should it. Just because something has been admitted forever doesn’t make it scientifically valid. It just means we defense lawyers have been terrible about objecting to it.

In this case, there was no evidence presented – and indeed the trial court did not allow it – of the scientific method used in these field tests, nor their acceptance in the community or their validity. So the Appellate Court did hold that there was error in this case. But don’t be fooled. It wasn’t that bad. The guy was still guilty as sin, so we don’t care that there was a mistake in his trial. It was found to be harmless error.

In the second line of cases ‘‘we have concluded that  certain types of evidence, although ostensibly rooted in scientific principles and presented by expert witnesses with scientific training, are not ‘scientific’ for the purposes of our admissibility standard for scientific evidence, either before or after Porter.’’ Maher v. Quest  Diagnostics, Inc., supra, 170 n.22; see State v. Reid, 254 Conn. 540, 549, 757 A.2d 482 (2000) (testimony of criminologist regarding visible characteristics of and  similarities between strands of hair not ‘‘scientific evidence’’ for Porter purposes); State v. Hasan, supra, 205  Conn. 490 (testimony of podiatrist as to likelihood that certain pair of sneakers would fit on defendant’s feet was not ‘‘scientific’’ evidence under Frye).

When evidence is “not scientific” it doesn’t mean that an expert is not permitted to testify about their “expert conclusions”; but just the opposite: that the expert opinion is not subject to a gatekeeping function by the court to determine if that “expert” is an expert or an “expert”.

The big unmentioned area where the State has driven a truck through this hole is the testimony of “child sexual abuse experts” whose job it is to take the facts of a case and opine, based on their training and experience that such behavior is consistent with being sexually abused.

If a complainant does poorly in school, that’s consistent. If a complainant does well in school, that’s consistent. If a complainant discloses abuse immediately after it happens, that’s consistent. If a complainant discloses 5 years later, that’s consistent. If a complainant is left-handed, that’s consistent. If a complainant is right-handed, that’s consistent. You get the picture. And this is permitted, routinely, without limit or caution, because it’s not “scientific” evidence:

We first consider whether the trial court abused its discretion in declining to subject Lanning’s testimony to a Porter hearing. On appeal, the defendant concedes that Lanning’s testimony was not “scientific” but argues that the testimony nevertheless required the trial court to conduct a Porter hearing because it was “other specialized knowledge” within the meaning of § 7-2 of the Connecticut Code of Evidence. The state argues that no Porter hearing was required because Lanning’s testimony was not based on any scientific theory but, rather, on his training and experience in the field of child victimization. We agree with the state that, because Lanning’s testimony was not based on scientific knowledge, the trial court properly determined that a threshold admissibility hearing under Porter was not necessary.

State v. Sorabella. So these “experts” show up in court, talk about the 2000 children they’ve interviewed and in their (anecdotal) experience, what the characteristics are of those that have been abused, which incidentally happen to be every single child they’ve ever examined.

So, clearly, it’s not scientific. More like junk, but whatever.

But that’s not the end of the road. There’s this decision called Kumho Tire Ltd. v. Carmichael, which essentially applies Daubert to “non-scientific” evidence.

In Kumho Tire Co., Ltd., the United States Supreme Court held that a trial court’s gatekeeping function under Daubert applies not only to expert scientific testimony but also to expert testimony based on technical or other specialized knowledge. Id., at 149, 119 S.Ct. 1167. We decline to consider the defendant’s claim, however, because the defendant failed to raise it in the trial court.

That’s from Sorabella again, a shining example of what the CT Supreme Court does best. Surprisingly, in the 7 years since Sorabella has been decided, not one single appeal has challenged the admissibility of this type of “expert” testimony under Kumho Tire.

That should be next.

 

 

Maryland court rules sex offender registration cannot be retroactive

Bucking the national trend, Maryland’s Court of Appeals ruled earlier this week [PDF] that requiring an individual to register as a sex offender for a crime committed 12 years before the registry came into existence violates the Maryland Bill of Rights and the ex-post facto clause of the Federal Constitution.

The prohibition against ex post facto laws is rooted in a basic sense of fairness, namely that a person should have “fair warning” of the consequences of his or her actions and that a person should be protected against unjust, oppressive, arbitrary, or vindictive  legislation. See Demby, 390 Md. at 608-09, 890 A.2d at 327 (citations and quotations  omitted) (noting that there are “[t]wo paramount protections” provided by prohibitions  against ex post facto laws; “the assurance that legislative Acts give fair warning of their  effect and permit individuals to rely on their meaning until explicitly changed,” and a  restriction on “governmental power by restraining arbitrary and potentially vindictive  legislation”);

Based on principles of fundamental fairness and the right to fair warning within the  meaning of Article 17, retrospective application of the sex offender registration statute to  Petitioner is unconstitutional.

The whole opinion is quite the read and a great lesson for those interested in how the U.S. Supreme Court has watered down and narrowed the Federal protection against ex-post facto laws, starting with Youngblood and including Smith v. Doe and CT v. Doe.

Connecticut, in turn, through legislation and jurisprudence has taken the opposite view: that sex offender registration is not a punishment and thus cannot violate the ex-post facto clause. State v. Alex Kelly:

The defendant also contends that the trial court further violated the ex post facto clause by imposing a sentence that required him to register as a sex offender in accordance with §§ 54-102r and 54-102s. Those sections, commonly referred to as Megan’s Law, were enacted in 1994 and 1995, respectively, and § 54-102r was amended in 1997. Megan’s Law requires that a sexual offender register with the local chief of police or resident state trooper after establishing residency in the state and notify his or her parole or probation officer whenever he or she changes residence address. In turn, the parole or probation officer is required to notify law enforcement authorities of the change. See General Statutes (Rev. to 1997) § 54-102r (c), as amended by No. 97-183, § 1, of the 1997 Public Acts, and General Statutes (Rev. to 1997) § 54-102s (b). The defendant argues that these provisions are punitive and, therefore, 91*91 the requirement that he register under the statutes violates his constitutional right to be free from the application of ex post facto laws because, at the time he committed the offense, Connecticut did not mandate registration of sex offenders with community law enforcement. We disagree.

Although this court never has specifically addressed the issue, most other state and federal courts have held that registration statutes, similar to our § 54-102r, requiring convicted sex offenders to register with local authorities in the communities in which they reside, are regulatory and not punitive in nature.[35] Those courts have concluded that such regulatory measures do not constitute punishment as proscribed by the ex post facto clause.

There was talk for a long time of sensible sex offender registration reforms in Connecticut, but nothing has happened yet. Maybe it will; maybe it won’t. But I believe it’s time for our courts to revisit this issue.

Juris ‘not a medical’ Doctor

Hello, Sweetie.

I’ve long joked that my favorite pickup line is “I’m a lawyer, but you can call me Doctor” and I’ve semi-seriously tried to get people to call me Dr. Trumpet for years now. My graduate degree, after all, is the Juris Doctor1. While I may play one on Friday nights, I’d sooner seek the services of one than play a doctor in court, during a trial.

Criminal cases surprisingly involve a variety of medical issues: from gunshot wounds to broken noses to neuroscience to sexually transmitted diseases. While it helps to have a more than basic understanding of how many liters of blood the are in the human body or what posterior and anterior lateral thingy muscle mean, no criminal defense lawyer should purport to try a case with material medical evidence without consulting someone who has actual training in the medicinal arts.

Take trichomonas, for example. How many here know what that is? And if you’re told that the complainant in a sex assault case contracted trichomonas, allegedly from your client, wouldn’t it behoove you contact a medical profession to ask just how likely that is?

Special sex offender syllogism

In the criminal law, there are experts and then there are experts. While you will find no shortage of people willing to line up and testify for a hefty fee that things are just as you wish them to be, some have more credibility than others. Falling in the former camp are those who deal with scientific evidence, like DNA or ballistics (and even then…). Squarely in the latter camp are those who are nothing more than anecdotal data compilers who then come to conclusions about that data through biased lenses: the so-called “forensic child abuse experts”. Really, they’re no more than lay witnesses who state their observations in their particular “practice”. Most don’t conduct research of their own, or write peer reviewed scientific papers or have more than the most basic medical training, if that.

And yet they’re allowed to testify with impunity about their so called “expertise”, which surprisingly happens to exactly coincide with whatever behavior the complaining witness exhibits. Courts have bent over backwards to permit this “expert” testimony, going so far as to classify it as non-scientific, thus placing it squarely outside the realm of Daubert scrutiny. [In CT, see State v. Sorabella, which doesn't answer the question of whether Daubert scrutiny is still required for this anecdotal expert testimony pursuant to Kumho Tire.]

It’s time for real reform

Years ago, when two men broke into a house overnight in the suburban town of Cheshire, CT and in the most gruesome manner imaginable killed three women, leaving one survivor, the calls for an overhaul of our criminal justice system were swift and unrelenting (I could have linked every word in that overwrought sentence to a separate post, but I’ll spare you and leave you with just this link instead). Some proposals – three strikes laws, for instance – were thankfully dispatched as ineffective and onerous, while others increasing penalties and creating new laws where old ones already existed were passed and continue to terrorize our criminal courts to this day.

But there was an event and swift, decisive reaction. There was outrage and fist-thumping and a general cacophony best described as madness.

Now, some 5 years later, there are equally troubling events bubbling to the surface in this land of steady habits. These events demand a similarly swift and decisive response from those that purport to speak on our behalf. The difference, however, is that this response needn’t be born of passion, but rather of compassion and logic.

First – and forgive me for being so late to this game – the wound that has opened and refused to scab and heal: racial profiling. Starting with the indictment of 4 East Haven police officers, the mayor’s boneheaded remarks, the long-overdue resignation of the police chief all the way up to the Hartford Courant’s analysis of over 10,000 traffic incident reports, it should be clear to everyone, not just those who are nestled inside the system, that there is an undeniable bias against minorities:

[Just the other day, I was viewing this slideshow of photographs taken by a reporter in 1983, documenting the protests against the KKK right here in CT and for a brief moment, deluded myself into thinking that racism and racial stereotyping were thankfully a thing of the past. Don't make the mistake I did. It's still there. You just can't see it.]

The disparity was most striking among Hispanic motorists, who were more likely than both whites and blacks to be ticketed in each of 13 categories of violations — such as speeding, cellphone violations, running stop signs and improper license-plate display — for which there were at least 1,000 stops. Black drivers fared worse than whites in 10 of the 13 categories.

For violations of state laws on tinted windows, white motorists were ticketed 12 percent of the time. For blacks and Hispanics, the figure was 17 percent and 24 percent, respectively.

Among drivers stopped for an improper turn or stop, blacks were nearly 50 percent more likely to be ticketed than whites. Hispanics were twice as likely.

That this is something that should be prohibited occurred to the wise men of the Senate as far back as 1999, when they passed a state law outlawing profiling and requiring each department to submit racial data for analysis. But like a bandaid on a gaping head wound, it was never more than lip service. The reason for that, of course, is that this problem is systemic. It’s also a problem without a solution, at least as currently imagined. So let’s assume someone gets pulled over because of racial profiling and gets a ticket. So what? What can anyone do about it? What’s the remedy? Short of a vindictive prosecution type of argument, how is someone even going to prove it? And what’s the legal basis for a judge or prosecutor to take that into account if we ever get over the hurdle of making them believe that that’s the cause of the stop?

The change has to come from the system, not imposed on it. Those in power – judges and prosecutors – have to first admit that this problem exists and then view stops with skepticism and suspicion and not take the word of police officers as gospel.

A few years ago I worked with a clerk who was a young Hispanic male. In the three years we worked together, he got 7 tickets, all from the same police department in the town where our office was. We all knew he got pulled over because he was Hispanic. Fat load of good it did him. He still had to pay 7 tickets.

The only other solution, of course, is the wholesale federal indictment and prosecution of errant officers. This, obviously, is not tenable. But there have to be repercussions; a system purporting to provide justice cannot turn a blind eye to the injustices that populate its halls on a daily basis.

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Let’s play a little game. I’ll posit some well known facts and then I’ll tell you whether they’re true or not.

Q: Is it true that all sex offenders kill their victims?

A: No.

Q: Is it true that all sex offenders are possessed by the devil and can’t even be killed by the Colt?

A: No.

Q: Is it true that the minute you let a sex offender out of jail, he goes and eats another baby?

A: No.

Q: Is it true that sex offenders have the highest (or even high) rate of recidivism?

A: No.

A study [PDF] by the state Office of Policy and Management has finally vindicated what I (and others) have been saying for a long time now: sex offenders don’t reoffend at the same rates as other felons and the common perception of their rates of recidivism is incorrect. From the study:

The study tracked 14,398 men for a five-year period following their release or discharge from a Connecticut prison in 2005. In that cohort, 1,395 men had a previous arrest for a sex offense, 846 had a conviction and 746 served a prison sentence, either the one ending in 2005 or an earlier one, for a sex offense.

Looking at the 746 men who had served time for a sex crime, 27, or 3.6 percent, were arrested and charged with a new sex crime; 20, or 2.7 percent, were convicted of a new sex offense; and 13, or 1.7 percent, were returned to prison for a new sex crime. Many among the 746 committed other crimes — many for parole violations or violating the conditions of the sex offender registry — but not sex crimes.

Those are spectacularly low rates (yes, yes, I know, one child is one child too many) that don’t justify the resources and the energy put into incarcerating these offenders and nor do they justify the onerous sentences handed out to all and sundry.

Obviously there are those who have committed grievous offenses and must be punished accordingly, but that’s exactly my point: that, contrary to popular belief, sex offenders aren’t one-size fits all and we must treat them as such. There are those who are low risk, those who are medium risk and those who are high risk. There are those who are misguided teens with angry parents and those who are truly predatory. Our system paints them all with the same scarlet letter and such a homogenous view does nothing to keep us safe or to put our resources where they are most needed.

The Court article linked to above calls for the creation of a tiered registration system. There already exists a Risk Assessment Board. Fund it. I have additional suggestions: pass legislation that makes it clear that an offender does not have to admit to committing the crime during treatment, that they don’t have to confess to other crimes. People are routinely violated (yes, I know, it’s an awful word) for failing to “admit” their crime during treatment even if they steadfastly maintained their innocence throughout the proceedings. Hey, here’s a news flash: innocent people go to jail all the time.

Let’s focus our resources on determining who out of those truly pose a danger and who can be rehabilitated. The less people we ostracize, the safer we are.

And so as this short legislative session continues, the question comes into focus: will our legislature be strong enough to eschew the faulty “tough on crime” for the more appropriate “smart on crime”? Will these events – the racial profiling and the studies – be enough to jar them out of their steady habits and, for once, enact some meaningful reforms?

 

 

 

I know it when I see it

obscene

Finally, my favorite subject: pornography. Everyone has to have heard of Justice Potter Stewart’s words which form the title of this post, written in a concurrence in Jacobellis v. Ohio, on the issue of “obscene” videos. And almost no one knows what it means. After a flurry of decisions in the 1960s and 70s (Stanley v. GA, Smith v. CA, Miller v. CA, Jenkins v. GA) attempting to define exactly what is obscene and what is protected and just who can be prosecuted with and ending up with a mess of a Constitutional doctrine, the Supreme Court – and the general American public – seem to have given up on pornography altogether. No one really cares anymore and there’s hardly ever a prosecution for the production, sale and possession of adult pornography.

Unless you’re a sex offender on probation, of course. Enter Robert Stephens. Stephens was convicted of possession of child pornography and as part of his sentence, was placed on probation. Some of his conditions were as follows:

One of the seven special conditions was that the defendant’s access to any computer must be approved by the office of adult probation. Among the special  sex offender conditions were that the defendant (1) not possess, or subscribe to, any sexually stimulating material deemed inappropriate by a probation  officer, (2) not possess a camera, DVD player, camcorder, videocassette recorder or other similar equipment without the approval of a probation officer, and  (3) submit to an examination and search of his computer or other similar equipment to verify that it was not being utilized in violation of his probation or  treatment.

Note that the condition isn’t “obscene” material, but rather “sexually stimulating material deemed inappropriate by a probation officer”. More on that later.

As is the natural course of events for sex offenders, he was found in violation of his probation for having a few nude photographs of his ex girlfriend and duly sentenced to 42 months in prison. He appealed, claiming that the condition: