Don’t let fear-mongering about bail reform make things worse!

February 2, 2020

People are being scared about the new bail reform statute. What they are not being told is that the new statute doesn’t leave the public less safe and isn’t responsible for much of the crime it’s getting blamed for.

Bail means that people can get out of jail so long as they can buy a bond. All bail statutes involve some risk of what defendants may do while out on bail. The worst criminals, the ones who have garnered the most ill-gotten gains, have the least problem getting out. But the public is not being told when the defendant would have been out anyway.

Under previous statutes, judges imposed bail based on the likelihood that defendants would run away. But the bail reform statute defines situations where there is reason for concern about public safety and provides for electronic monitoring and other restrictions in those instances, restrictions that keep people from causing trouble.

So the new statute is not likely to let people loose who would have been confined under the old statute and who shouldn’t have been under the new one.

What the old statute did was to make it impossible for poorer people to hire an attorney – in jail they couldn’t earn anything to pay for lawyers, or feed their families.

DA’s liked the old statute – they could force people to plead guilty just so they could get out and try to earn a living. That’s been a scandal well known among lawyers.

And as for discovery, most lawyers in cases in all other fields have to tell the other side what they’ve got in the way of evidence. And if there’s any reason for a defendant to be scared, there are ways judges can deal with it.

Don’t be scared by misinformation.

And don’t forget the benefits. Actually we are safer when we don’t unnecessarily destroy lives, make people less able to support themselves and their families – that drives people to desperation, and it leaves their kids feeling hopeless which drives lots of counter-productive behavior. Hopelessness causes kids to drop out of school or go on drugs or both, with horrific consequences for all of us. Don’t let fear-mongering make things worse when we are on the verge on ending the scourge of mass incarceration and all the costs and damage that has been causing.

For more information, a couple of excellent articles are by Emily Bazelon and Insha Rahman, There’s a Strong Case for Sticking With Bail Reform; and by the author, John Grisham, Bail laws a lesson in New York’s strong leadership. The statute is lengthy and the currently available version includes many provisions in unrelated areas of law; it begins at page 109.

 

 


Another Black man shot in the back by police

January 15, 2019

Albany’s DA recently decided against prosecuting anyone in connection with police shooting of a Black man and paralyzing him. He may have had a hunting knife. But police first charged that he was  charging them. So the apparent justification was that the police were scared. Then reports of a video showed that he was running away and was shot in the back.

I have no inside knowledge of this case but, unfortunately, it’s part of a pattern. Police claim that a Black man was charging them when a video shows that the guy was running away with his back turned. Or the police acknowledge that he was running away but claim to be scared because he was carrying something, maybe a knife or the keys to his apartment. One Black man after another has been shot in the back by police who claim to be scared that he would turn around, too scared of Black men to hold their fire when they have no reasonable fear of his behavior.

Actually it’s systematic partly because police are trained that they have no time. So they shoot first and ask questions later. Shooting is a first, not a last, resort. As a result of that training, even some Black officers have bought into it.

Think about it. If you were charged with shooting a man in the back and you told a jury that you were scared because the man was carrying something, you’d be convicted of manslaughter at the least. You and I have no right to shoot on the basis of speculation of what could be. You can’t mow people down because one of them might turn around revealing an unseen weapon, perhaps a gun in his briefcase. That’s not reasonable behavior; it’s not a rule we can live with. A rule of fear would put us all under ground. The law properly requires more before you can kill. But put on a badge and strap on a holster and suddenly there are no rules.

If this were the Philippines or Indonesia we’d call it “impunity.” When big shots over there act with impunity it means they are not accountable for their behavior. It’s here too when police treat Black men as if their lives do not matter.

The public seems to think that brave people must be honest and decent. But what do you do with the bravery of athletes who abuse women? I don’t know the percentages, but what do you do with the regular revelations of police who commit crimes, frame people for crimes they didn’t commit, and abuse women and Blacks? In addition to repeated revelation of Black men shot in the back by police, we’ve had revelations in New York about police ordering women to strip on the highway and revelations about frame-ups on the southern tier. We know that prejudice compounds the message of training that drives police to shoot African-Americans in the back. Should we assume that badges and guns will produce honorable behavior, make police feel empowered to take advantage of others, or both?

I would make it illegal to shoot anyone in the back unless they are in fact armed and dangerous. Or I’d require a warrant before police get to strap on weapons. A free country cannot have armed men acting with impunity, with or without badges. It is totally unacceptable. You can’t correct death.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 15, 2019.


Impunity of the men on top?

July 12, 2018

The news has just announced that Alain Kaloyeros has been convicted on all counts. What he was convicted of doing was steering contracts to friends/supporters of Andrew Cuomo. That’s infuriating. Did Cuomo favor projects that went to his friends? That would have put everyone in a position where they had to break the law to be treated decently by the governor. And of course someone else gets the rap. I’m disgusted.

By the way, did the same thing happen when Trump removed Preet Bharara as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York? Since shortly after he was dismissed, we have heard nothing more about Bharara’s investigation of Fox. Coincidence? A subsequent US Attorney understanding who butters his bread? Or was he appointed because he and Trump had an understanding?


The Nunes Memo and Trump’s Disloyalty

February 6, 2018

I prepared something else to talk about today but find myself furious about the misuse of the Constitution to prevent getting at the truth. Trump, and his supporters, are attacking the Mueller investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. The Nunes memo, written by congressional Republicans, is part of that attack. It says that, though well after the investigation began, a former member of British intelligence who had ties to the Clinton campaign, transmitted information which was included in a request for a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, the FISA court. Based on the Nunes memo, Trump and his supporters claim that the investigation is tainted.[i]

Members of the FISA court are all appointed by the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Since 2005, that’s been Chief Justice John Roberts, a Republican, Bush appointee. The Court found the papers sufficient and renewed the warrants.

But the Nunes memo and use of a source sympathetic to Clinton, are being used as part of a campaign to thwart the investigation and dump those who run it. No Democratic hands allowed. Most Republican commentary about the memo claim it proves that the FBI, and the Russia investigations conducted by the special counsel, are tainted by bias against Trump.

First, it is unacceptable for Trump or his supporters to insist that the FBI must decide whether to investigate based on whether the informants are Republicans or Democrats, supporters or critics of Mr. Trump, and forego finding out whether the information is or can be corroborated. Playing politics with policing that way violates the Constitution.

That’s the way police function in dictatorships. Are you for me or against me? If you’re against me, your knowledge and opinions don’t count and can’t be trusted. We alone count and we’re pure. The very idea of a loyal opposition is crucial to the survival of democracy. But it’s anathema to Trump Republicans.

So Trump’s release and use of Nunes’ memo is the best and most important reason to consider impeaching him. He lacks loyalty to democracy; instead, his power trumps all else. This man is the greatest danger to the values on which our country was founded. The fact that he was apparently born in the U.S., as he claims, only makes his disloyalty worse.

Second, a large part of the information gathered by any police organization comes from people who are in some way connected or involved. To exclude information by such informants would cripple policing. To rely only on information from one side of a dispute or the other threatens justice, as does refusing to investigate. Motives deserve consideration and were disclosed to the FISA Court, but the ultimate question is whether the information can be corroborated and is correct. To follow the Nunes approach would undermine the ability of American police to enforce the law, impartially, so that no one is above the law.

The FBI historically was a conservative organization. A succession of presidents insisted that it rise above politics and investigate crimes without regard to politics. Trump is the first president to insist that the FBI should begin with a political test – a political test for employees and a political test for informants. This president has no respect for constitutional norms. These too are grounds which deserve to be considered for impeachment.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Feb. 6, 2018.

[i] The Democratic response has not been released by the House Intelligence Committee but a Democratic statement of objections can be found here.


The Innocence Project

December 26, 2017

I want to talk about people we are less used to talking about around Christmas.

Several times a year I am guaranteed to have a good cry – whenever I get the latest bulletin from the Innocence Project. Without fail they describe at length someone who spent decades in prison, sometimes on death row, for crimes they did not commit. As a human being I am always heartbroken. As an American who believes that we all have a right to liberty, I am both sick and outraged.

And once freed, what education, training or experience do they have? Did they have a chance to start a family and are any left to warm their hearts? The dislocation of freedom is immense. I’ve met men in prison afraid to come out. Those lost decades freeze the soul as they scar past, present and future. Freedom is precious. It also unravels.

I am outraged because there are too many in this country, too many with the power, to keep people in prison, even execute them, even after it has become clear that they were innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. Justice O’Connor, bless her heart, saw that as unacceptable, although we didn’t always agree on the facts. But the Supreme Court has not yet found the character or the will to conclude that it is unconstitutional to hold an innocent person once that becomes clear, or to sit tight and deny a hearing once evidence has been found that makes it improbable that the prisoner was guilty. The Court has refused to find a right to DNA evidence when that could prove innocence. And prosecutors repeatedly do everything they can to withhold evidence that could result in justice instead of in conviction. The Supreme Court has even said that there are no penalties for withholding evidence even when it is in clear violation of constitutional obligations.

As an American, it is an understatement to say that is no source of pride. As an attorney and a human being, it is a source of disgust – and fear. A legal process that ignores justice is a threat to us all. The purpose of the Bill of Rights and of the Fourteenth Amendment is to protect us all from the abuse of law to polish the prosecutor’s reputation or prejudices instead of serving the cause of justice. Unfortunately attorneys know that the criminal process is more like a canning factory than an effort to separate the innocent from the guilty, truth from lies, and fairness from abuse.

The ACLU and the CATO Institute, otherwise often on opposite sides, come together in support of truth and accurate decision-making. But when the issue is the rights of people accused of crime or the rights of people who have been imprisoned, too many eyes glaze over, not from tears but indifference. Yet those rights, if and when they are honored, are what differentiate us from a police state where people can be imprisoned because of their politics, their parentage or their refusal to kowtow to the unreasonable demands of authorities. These are part of the central meaning of being an American.

The people whose title is Justice of the United States Supreme Court who vote most consistently to protect the right to life of fetuses are the least likely to protect life in any other context. That is hypocrisy under black robes. The behavior of callous prosecutors and unqualified Supreme Court justices is an American disgrace.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 26, 2017.


Shots Fired – The Tragedy of Police Shootings

August 15, 2017

Last night I heard an episode of Radio Lab, which they call “Shots Fired,” that is far and away the best presentation I have heard about the persistent tragedy of police shootings.

They were very blunt about the part that racial prejudice plays in leading cops to make all the wrong assumptions with tragic results, as well as the disasters brought about by those cops who use positions in the police force to act out their aggressions, who are, in a word, bullies. It was also realistic in analyzing steps that a few departments have taken to break or attenuate the chains of events that lead to tragedy.

I’ve known, written and spoken about police shootings for decades and am well acquainted with the outlines of what has been going on. This program was a very well-rounded, well-done piece. It had me in tears for a full hour, but it was by no means all “touchy-feelie;” the program explored stories, facts, statistics, a support group, conversation with police administrators and some real understanding and sleuthing by some very dedicated, thorough and persistent reporters.

This is a podcast everyone should see and hear, including the police – the reporting is done in a way which can even reach police administrators who are looking for why these events happen and how they can deal with it.

Radiolab did us a service; now we need to get the story out.

For the podcast, click here.

You will see mention of a very different follow up which was not aired and is for podcast only. It examines the miscommunications which led to the killing of a white woman. The point they try to make in this second podcast is that there are multiple opportunities for miscommunications which can and did have tragic results. In this case the woman, thinking the police were intruders, came out holding a shotgun, the last trigger to the barrage of shots which killed her.

 

 


The Courts Stand Up for Impunity

June 27, 2017

In one of the last cases to be decided this term of Court, the Supreme Court described the death of Sergio Hernandez as “a tragic cross-border incident.”[1] Indeed. I want to make clear that I care deeply about this case. Several friends and I helped write an amicus brief to the Court about it.[2]

Sergio Hernandez was 15 years old. The Court continued, “According to the complaint,” which the Court must accept as true at this early stage of the proceedings, “Hernandez and his friends were playing a game in which they ran up the embankment on the United States side [of the Mexican border], touched the fence, and then ran back down.” Border Patrol Agent Mesa caught and detained one of Hernandez’ friends but “Hernandez ran across the international boundary into Mexican territory and stood by a pillar that supports a railroad bridge spanning the culvert” between the c ountries. At a distance – the Court wasn’t precise but the culvert was up to 270 feet wide – Agent Mesa shot and killed Sergio Hernandez though the Agent was in no danger.

Notice the issues that the District, Appellate and Supreme Courts have been “struggling” with.

First, the Court had to deal with whether the Constitution itself authorizes a remedy when Congress has not provided one for the violation of constitutional rights. In other words, do our rights exist at the pleasure of Congress? That’s known technically as the Bivens question.

Second, do foreigners have any constitutional rights or may American officials kill them at pleasure? The Court of Appeals had decided that Sergio had no rights under our Constitution.

Third, even if Sergio’s rights were violated, did the Agent have “immunity … from civil liability.” They would have immunity if “their conduct ‘does not violate clearly established … constitutional rights.” So the fourth question is whether killing foreigners across the border violates any clearly established rights?

Along the way the Court commented that some of the issues in the case  are “sensitive and may have consequences that are far reaching.” Sounds like the Court was thinking about foreign relations. The Bible just says “justice, justice shalt thou pursue.”[3]

The Court finished by noting that the case “result[ed] in a heartbreaking loss of life” but thought the Court of Appeals should think about those issues before the Supreme Court reached any final resolution about the issues in the case:

  • whether foreigners have any rights that American officials are bound to respect;
  • whether there is any remedy for murder;
  • whether murder by a government official is a clear violation of a constitutional right?

Abroad, and we use the same term when describing behavior in other countries, people who are protected from any responsibility for the harm they do are described as having impunity. It does not describe freedom. It describes lawlessness, in countries run for crime bosses and rapacious masters.

Think now about shootings of Americans in America by police officers, shootings of Americans with their backs turned, with their hands up, with their house keys in their hands. Are we now a nation with impunity? Does freedom still live here or are too many people here forced to bow, scrape and beg those with the power to kill. If there are people who, in the language of Dred Scott, have “no rights which … [American officials are] bound to respect,”[4] does that mean that they and we are treated like the slave in Dred Scott?

[1] Hernandez v. Mesa, U.S. Sup. Ct. No 15-118, decided June 26, 2017.

[2] Brief for Amici Curiae Legal Historians in Support of Petitioners in Hernandez v. Mesa, U.S. Sup. Ct. No 15-118.

[3] Deut. 16:20.

[4] Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393, 407 ((1856).


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