Deterrent? Not Actually

all your DNA are belong to us

The story of the role of DNA in the criminal justice system is quite interesting. Heralded as the ultimate in crime solving, DNA has slowly infiltrated the collective consciousness of the entire nation and infected our lawyers, judges and jurors. It’s a double-edged sword, to be sure: DNA can accurately (or maybe not) identify an individual who leaves behind some trace materials at or in a crime scene, thereby implicating or exculpating a suspect. Fueled by DNA based shows like CSI, jurors became more demanding and mistakenly over reliant on the science, producing the “CSI effect”, DNA, on the other hand, has drawbacks that defense lawyers try to highlight – which I’m not sure have sunk in yet – like the fact that you it can’t tell you when it was deposited. DNA is most famous for high-profile exonerations of people already convicted of crimes and serving lengthy prison sentences.

But DNA is much more than that. As the science grows, the uses and implications of the genetic markers grows by leaps and bounds (see here and for the future, see here).

Which is why DNA, and the collection of DNA, is so attractive to law enforcement agencies. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the evolution of science and technology and the desired application of these new uses conflicts to some degree with the core protections of the Constitution.

Just yesterday, a 3 judge panel of the 9th Circuit heard an appeal in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU challenging the legality of California’s DNA-collection-upon-arrest law. That’s essentially all there is to the law: collect the DNA of everyone ever arrested. (Connecticut tried to pass a similar bill two years ago and it was ultimately rejected.) Under some circumstances, the DNA may never be deleted from their database:

Indigent defense on trial

...and Gideon cry

The stereotype of the over-worked, under-paid public defender exists for a reason. Even though I’ve personally fought against the stereotype here on the blog and in real life, I must necessarily admit that in a lot of States, the caricature is not a caricature at all, but an accurate representation of the state of indigent defense. Often, the public defender is only as good as the resources and time available to her. The best lawyer may seem incompetent if overburdened and underfunded.

I noted a while ago that a battle was brewing on the state of indigent defense and two recent news items seem to validate that observation. First, via CrimProf, a troubling decision out of Florida, where the intermediate appellate court reversed a trial court’s ruling granting a public defender’s motion to withdraw from one particular case because he could not adequately represent the defendant due to his high caseload. Then, on July 7, the Third District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court, holding that the mere word of a public defender that he was unable to provide constitutionally adequate representation was not enough to establish that the defendant would suffer prejudice:

Our analysis of the record in this case, however, leads us to conclude that there was no evidence of actual or imminent prejudice to Bowens’ constitutional rights. If the trial court’s order stands, all that the PD11 must do to show prejudice is  swear that he or she has too many cases or that the workload is so excessive as to prevent him or her from working on the client’s case prior to the scheduled trial, and that he or she will be forced to file for continuance, thereby waiving the client’s speedy trial rights. This “prejudice” is not the type of prejudice that this Court referred to in State v. Public Defender. Prejudice means there must be a real potential for damage to a constitutional right, such as effective assistance of counsel or the right to call a witness, or that a witness might be lost if not immediately investigated. And this is the critical fact — the PD11 has not made any showing of individualized prejudice or conflict separate from that which arises out of an excessive caseload.

This conclusion is on the back of Florida statute that explicitly prohibits public defenders from withdrawing from cases because of excessive caseloads or inadequate funding:

(d)  In no case shall the court approve a withdrawal by the public defender or criminal conflict and civil regional counsel based solely upon inadequacy of funding or excess workload of the public defender or regional counsel.

Here’s a statute that so blatantly conflicts with the professional and ethical responsibility of a lawyer to withdraw from the representation of a client if he feels he is unable to provide adequate and competent representation. Court, making the determination of whether to permit counsel to withdraw, do so on a case-by-case basis, but to exclude a very real and prevalent reason for that inability to provide adequate representation seems to be problematic on many levels, not the least of which a violation of the separation of powers.

Sometimes a fool is just a fool

A client who represents himself has a fool for a lawyer. And fools are, by their very description, entitled to make foolish decisions. As those in the legal profession know well, just because a client makes a foolish decision, it doesn’t mean that he’s incompetent. Well, not always anyway.

So recognized the Ninth Circuit in a recent decision in United States v. Johnson. The defendants were tried on a bunch of boring fraud type stuff and they represented themselves, putting for a defense that was gibberish. No, that’s not my characterization, it’s the Ninth Circuit’s:

Defendants Kurt F. Johnson and Dale Scott Heineman were indicted for conspiracy and multiple counts of mail fraud related to their illegitimate  debt-elimination business. They were adamant in their desire to represent themselves and assert an absurd legal theory wrapped up in Uniform  Commercial Code gibberish.

It always tickles me to read words like “gibberish” in appellate opinions.

Innocence on a clock

When I first turned my eye toward law school and the criminal justice system, the echoing refrain was that we, in this country, were the best. The criminal justice system, the jury system, the resources, the level of intelligence on both sides of the aisle on the bench all combined to create the best that the world had to offer. Law school, immersing us in the vagaries and nuances of Constitutional and criminal law, making us read and learn awe-inspiring quotes from Justices past, only served to reinforce that notion.

We were fooled. Years later, with years of practice and actual experience under my belt, I’ve come to the conclusion that while the system may still be the “best” in the world, it is only so by comparison to the others that are currently in existence (and even that I doubt, but since I’m no comparative law scholar, what do I know?). That makes me sad, both for the systems of other countries and our own.

There are two indelible truths about the system here in the US: it is the criminal conviction system and finality is king (an idea that deserves a fuller post; upcoming).

And when you combine those two inescapable conclusions, you get Lee v. Lampert (pdf). Lee, you see, got stuck in that quagmire that is AEDPA. Lee, you may also see, has proven that he is actually innocent of the crimes of which he stands convicted. And yet, because he missed the statutory, non-jurisdictional, arbitrary deadline for filing a federal habeas corpus petition, he will get no justice.

Happy Independunce Day

From the “you have the right to be stupid” clause of the Constitution:

A Fairfield man was arrested Thursday morning after buying a high powered rifle to stop an alien invasion, police said.

Fairfield Police Sgt. James Perez said Dane Eisenman, 57, responded to a classified advertisement for a .30-06 rifle about a month ago. While filing out the paper for the rifle, police said, he mentioned to the seller what he would be using the weapon for.

“He said he was going to use the weapon to kill aliens,” Perez said.

Like the seller of the gun, I, too, was unsure upon reading the headline whether Eisenman was referring to little green men from Mars or real humans from another country, trying to illegally enter these United States. The answer is neither:

Sgt. Perez said Eisenman told the seller of the rifle every 36,000 years, aliens who live under the sun come to Earth to kill humans, and he needed to be prepared because “They’re going to be coming soon.”

Ah. The feared race of Suntarans.

What I want to know is, why did the seller sell this guy the gun and then call the cops?

All that’s left to do is mitigate

In its pure, unadulterated, un-judicially-activated form, the law – criminal and constitutional – is a beautiful thing. Reflecting on the context in which the Constitution was written, and the way in which its application was envisioned is a source of inspiration.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.


No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.


These are the rights of individuals – all individuals and checks against the power of the large governmental entities. The Constitution drew a line and on the site that was protected were placed the flesh and blood individuals, the citizenry and on the side that was being warned and whose authority was being severely limited was the abstract, nameless, faceless Government.

What a beautiful concept: we are individuals first and as individuals, we have rights that will not be subordinate to those of an ever-changing abstract concept.

The concept is dying a quick and painful death. It took only 200 odd years for the pendulum to have shifted completely in the opposite direction. By attrition, or force of sensationalism, or crowdsourced fear, the line drawn by the Constitution has turned around and is now facing those very individuals it sought to protect. The idea of individual liberties is so foreign to most, that comes as a surprise to many that the founders fought and fought hard for them.

These protections and rights exist merely as a thorn in the side of the righteous who seek to punish the evil. US vs. criminals. Speeding this disaster is the learned hand of those who are in charge of interpreting and enforcing the august protections enumerated and implied by the Great Document.

Jurisprudence, over the years, has taken an increasingly narrow approach to individuals’ rights, especially those charged and convicted of criminal offenses. The scope of acceptable intrusion by the Government has increased dramatically over the years and the zone of protection surrounding each individual and his possessions has correspondingly narrowed.

Cops want to use collective knowledge to deem that someone carrying two cell phones is a drug dealer and thus about to embark on a baby-killing spree? Allowed. Cops want to use lies and trickery to trap individuals into confessing to things they may or may not have done? Allowed. Prosecutors make impermissible remarks to juries and comment on a defendant’s exercise of his rights? Frowned upon, but the guy was guilty as sin anyway, so it doesn’t matter.

I fear that if one were to embark on the task of writing a book that enumerated the remaining fundamental protections, it may be just long enough to fill Twitter’s 140 character requirement. The Twitstitution.

Really, what 4th amendment rights does one have anymore? Police have to get a warrant? Well, not always. And even in cases where they really should have, it’s mostly okay. What if the prosecutor circumvents the probable cause requirement and adds charges later that aren’t supported by the evidence? Too bad, prove it at trial.

The role of the defense lawyer has gone from Constitutional law expert to mitigation specialist. Cases are won and lost on the facts, not the law. The law is dead to us. A lifeless corpse that taunts us and obstructs us in our efforts to keep the Govermental power in check. There is no longer any confidence backing up an assertion that an act by the police is “clearly illegal”. Frankly, there is no such thing anymore. Courts will find a way to condone whatever improper action we complain about.

“But he’s only 16, judge”, “he didn’t really threaten the use of a gun”, “he’s only doing this because he has a massive drug problem”.

Go to any court and sit in on any pre-trial negotiation and you’ll hear most, if not all defense lawyers use variations of the above. Mitigation specialists.

That’s the only thing left to us: harkening back to the very individuality that the Constitution sought to protect. Each person is an individual, but instead of talking in terms of protection, we now speak of punishment. Each individual is different and must be punished differently.

Guilt upon arrest is but a foregone conclusion. All that remains to be determined is the term. We don’t practice law anymore; there is nothing noble left. We mitigate.

The law is dead and slowly, it’s killing us all too.

Conviction: the movie

Someone turned me on to the trailer for this upcoming movie: Conviction. Based on the true life story of Betty Anne Waters‘ 17 year fight to exonerate her brother, the movie stars Hillary Swank as Waters and Minnie Driver as her best friend Abra Rice.

Abra, incidentally, is now a Connecticut public defender.