Archive for May, 2009

Should We Stop Billing by the Hour?

Friday, May 29th, 2009

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An old Chinese story goes like this:

The emperor called on his advisors to summon the greatest doctor in China. His advisors all agreed that the most famous physician in the land was Dzang-gung. So Master Dzang came before the emperor, who asked him whether he was in fact the greatest doctor in China.

“No,” replied Master Dzang. “I am merely the most famous. I see people when they are about to die, when sickness has taken over their bodies. And sometimes I can heal them. So my fame is known throughout the world, and I have grown very wealthy.

“But my older brother is greater. He sees illness before it takes hold, and cures people before they are at death’s door. So although he saves many more lives than I do, his fame does not go beyond our village.

“Our father, however, is greater still. He sees illness before it happens. He prevents it from happening before people even become ill. He has saved thousands more than his sons, but his fame does not spread beyond our house.”

Or there’s this (embedded with permission):

Dilbert.com

We find ourselves in a similar dilemma to the old Chinese physician and the efficient lawyer in the funny pages. Our hourly rate is pretty darn high. But we tend to resolve things too fast for that hourly rate to add up to much.

So we’re considering a switch from the hourly rate to a flat fee, charging basically the value of the service to be performed. We know that lots of defense attorneys bill this way, but it would be a big shift for us.

In our practice, we’ve been selling our time and labor, no different from a plumber or an electrician. Someone has a problem to be fixed, and needs someone with specialized skills to take care of it. There’s no inventory to mark up for a profit, the only thing being traded is time and effort.

But that’s not really true, is it. There’s another thing being provided — the result.

Now lawyers used to charge flat fees for everything. You wanted a contract? Fifty bucks. You wanted a will? Twenty-five bucks. Whatever you wanted, there was a fixed price, and you paid it. You were buying the completed job. Fees were often fixed by bar associations, and lawyers could get in trouble for charging less. (Ah, the law has ever been a cartel. That ain’t changing any time soon.)

But back during the Eisenhower years, the billing standard did change. And it wasn’t lawyers who did it — it was the clients. Clients said “wait a second, how come you’re charging me two hundred bucks for a document you spend ten minutes on? You just used something you’ve already written before, and just changed the names. I’m not paying two hundred bucks for ten minutes of work.”

Lawyers tend not to be stupid. It was easy enough to switch to the billable hour, as demanded by their clients. And it was just as easy to use that billable hour to the fullest. The financial incentive switched from getting the client the result they wanted (which usually meant as soon as practicable), to providing an interminable series of sorta-kinda necessary services, all billed in 6-minute increments. By the 1970s, this was the norm.

The law stopped being a profession, to some extent, and became instead just another business. A “profession,” for those who misuse the phrase routinely, is not a job, but a calling — one in which the professional has a unique relationship with the buyer, a relationship of trust. The professional is trusted to act only in the client’s interest, never his own. The professional has an ethical duty to put that client’s interests ahead of his own. Traditionally, there have only ever been three professions: the law, medicine, and the clergy.

The professional’s job is not — absolutely, categorically, one hundred percent NOT — to maximize profits. It is to take care of the client, patient or parishioner. To see that their needs are met. Of course, one should be compensated for the service, but that’s not the point of doing it.

But that doesn’t mean billing by the hour is wrong. It isn’t. It gives the client some level of assurance that he’s paying for work, that something has been done in exchange for that dollar he just paid. And most attorneys bill honorably and honestly.

Still, it overcompensates the lawyer who enhances his bill with perhaps unnecessary tasks and expenses. And it woefully undercompensates the lawyer who gets the client a satisfactory result swiftly and efficiently.

So we are seriously considering switching to a flat fee for our services. It’s fairly common in the criminal defense bar, and at least one major law firm is famous for charging a single fee for its services. We’d be in good company.

There are of course issues to be hammered out, such as how much of a discount should be given if the representation ends before the case does — probably depending on what stage the case is at. Or how to best calculate the appropriate fee for a given case (thank goodness finance and economics are among our strong suits).

But those are minor details, which can easily be thought through. Overall, yes, the idea does sound more and more attractive. It reminds us of one last story:

There was an engineer who worked at the company for many years, earning an excellent reputation. He eventually retired. But several years later, the company had a problem with one of their super-expensive, super-complex machines. They had thrown all of their best engineers at the problem, to no avail. They had brought in consultants and specialists, but the problem could not be fixed.

In desperation, they called the engineer back out of retirement. He didn’t want to, but they begged and pleaded, and he eventually gave in.

The next day he showed up, and just stood there looking at the machine. Didn’t say anything, didn’t do anything. Just looked at it. A long time passed. Then he walked around the machine a couple times, took a piece of chalk out of his pocket, and marked a small “X” on one of the gizmos, a ten-cent piece of hardware. “There’s the problem,” he said, and went home.

The company replaced the ten-cent part, and suddenly the machine worked like a dream.

A week later, the company received a bill for $50,000 from the engineer. They were incensed! The engineer received an angry letter demanding that he present an itemized invoice, accounting for his time, labor, expenses and other charges justifying this outrageous bill.

The engineer replied with the following itemized bill:

One (1) chalk mark: $1

Knowing where to put it: $49,999

The company paid it in full.

Mandatory DNA Sampling Constitutional. Expect Ruling to be Upheld.

Friday, May 29th, 2009

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In a decision sure to be fought before the 9th Circuit, a federal judge in the Eastern District of California yesterday upheld mandatory DNA collection from people merely arrested for federal felonies, regardless of the nature of the crime charged.

Obviously, this raises eyebrows in certain circles. Taking DNA from people who haven’t even been convicted yet? Taking DNA from people who aren’t suspected of committing crimes where DNA would even be relevant? Doesn’t this violate basic principles of our jurisprudence?

Well… and this is a defense attorney talking here… no.

The case is U.S. v. Pool, decided by Judge Gregory G. Hollows. The defendant was charged with possession of child porn, and was released on bond. One of the conditions of release was that he provide a DNA sample.

This requirement was mandatory under two federal laws: the Bail Reform Act, 18 U.S.C. § 3142(b) and (c)(1)(A), which mandates it for pre-trial release; and the DNA Fingerprinting Act of 2005, 42 U.S.C. § 14135a, which mandates it for everyone arrested on a federal felony charge.

DNA is usually collected by dabbing a cotton swab in the person’s mouth or something similar. Rarely, it is collected by a blood test. The DNA is to be used solely by law enforcement for identification purposes.

Pool argued that this warrantless DNA sampling violates the Fourth Amendment. It’s a search, there’s no warrant, and there’s no special need for the testing for nonviolent arrestees.

Judge Hollows rejected that argument, stating that every Circuit to consider the issue has held there to be no Fourth Amendment violation here, and that the criterion is not “special need” but rather the “totality of the circumstances.” The reasonableness “is determined by assessing, on the one hand, the degree to which it intrudes upon an individual’s privacy, and on the other, the degree to which it is needed for the promotion of legitimate governmental interests.”

Pool argued that pre-conviction sampling is improper, based on the Supreme Court cases Ferguson v. City of Charleston, 532 U.S. 67 (2001)(unconstitutional search for law enforcement to use hospital’s diagnostic test of pregnant patient to obtain evidence of drug use), and City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32 (2000)(vehicle checkpoint unconstitutional when primary purpose was to detect evidence of drug trafficking). Those cases relied on the “special need” analysis he suggested.

Judge Hollows rejected that as well, as those searches involved police fishing for evidence, before anyone was formally charged with a crime. The statutes at issue here subject people to DNA testing after a finding of probable cause by a judge or grand jury. After someone’s been indicted, courts can impose all kinds of restrictions on liberty. The situation is much more like that of people who have been convicted, than of people who have not yet been charged with anything, and so the “totality of the circumstances” test is more appropriate.

For more than 45 years, it’s been well-settled that someone who’s been arrested has a diminished expectation of privacy in his own identity. He can be compelled to give fingerprints, have his mug shot taken, and give ID information. DNA is no different than fingerprints — a unique identifier that helps law enforcement find the right suspect, and eliminate the wrong suspect. In fact, DNA is more precise than photos or fingerprints, so the government interest in obtaining it is even stronger.

Meanwhile, the invasiveness is minimal. Even blood tests are considered “commonplace, safe, and do not constitute an unduly extensive imposition on an individual’s privacy and bodily integrity.” Oral swabs are considered no more physically invasive than taking fingerprints.

The judge also rejected arguments that DNA evidence, once taken, might possibly be stolen and put to an impermissible use. That risk applies to everything, and there are criminal penalties to deter it. Just because someone might break the law doesn’t mean the setup is improper.

Judge Hollows pointed out that all the same concerns being raised about DNA were raised in the early part of the 20th Century with respect to fingerprints. And since at least 1932 it’s been understood that the public interest far outweighs the minimal burden to the individual being fingerprinted. The same reasons that justify post-arrest fingerprinting without a warrant justify post-arrest DNA sampling without a warrant.

Pool also argued that this violates Fifth Amendment procedural due process, because it’s mandatory, and thus precludes an opportunity to be heard. But that only applies if the defendant’s privacy rights outweigh the government interest, and it’s the other way around here. Pool argued that there is a risk of erroneous deprivation of his privacy interest, for arrestees who are not ultimately convicted. But the system is set up to expunge DNA records if the person is exonerated or the charges are dismissed. So the risks are minimal, and the government interests are compelling, and that means there is no procedural due process problem.

Pool also argued that this violates the Eighth Amendment protection against excessive bail. Bail conditions have to be proportionate to the perceived government need requiring the condition. But the Supreme Court case that set this rule, U.S. v. Salerno, 481 U.S. 739 (1987), specifically rejected any idea that this “categorically prohibits the government from pursuing other admittedly compelling interests through regulation of pretrial release.” This being nothing more than a booking procedure, and not comparable to conditions of release that actually have to do with the concerns arising from letting someone out on bail, there’s no reason to consider it excessive.

Pool also argued that the statutes violate the Separation of Powers, as Congress has intruded on judicial decision-making in the setting of bail conditions. But here, Congress didn’t direct any judicial findings. It merely directs what the judge needs to do after a certain finding has been made. That’s what Congress is supposed to do. There’s no problem there.

Poole finally argued that this is an unconstitutional extension of power, because the Commerce Clause doesn’t authorize DNA sampling. But the Commerce Clause lets the government make conduct a federal crime. The resulting government powers, such as incarceration and terms of release, have nothing to do with it, and don’t need to be independently authorized under the Commerce Clause.

* * * * *

What to make of this?

Pool’s arguments stem from a presumption that a person out on bail is more like a pre-arrest suspect. Judge Hollows’ decision stems from the opposite conclusion, that a person out on bail is more like a person on post-conviction supervised release. Any arguments before the 9th Circuit will have to focus on which it is, and we are inclined to believe that the Circuit will side with Judge Hollows here.

Central to the distinction is the fact that there has already been a judicial determination here, separating the defendant from the class of unarrested individuals. Either a judge or a jury has found that it is more likely than not that a federal felony was committed, and that this person did it. Once that has happened, a person’s rights are substantially changed. Society has an interest in ensuring that they come back to court to be judged. Society has an interest in ensuring that they don’t cause more harm in the meantime. These interests outweigh a defendant’s interests in liberty and property, to varying degree depending on the individual. That’s why we have bail and bail conditions.

What is odd, however, is that Congress made DNA sampling a mandatory bail condition, when it has nothing to do with pre-trial release.

Judge Hollows correctly points out that, conceptually, DNA sampling is no more invasive than fingerprinting, and is used for the same purposes. It’s a booking procedure, not a release consideration. Congress could just as easily have made DNA sampling a mandatory part of post-arrest processing, along with the mug shot and fingerprints. It would have been just as constitutionally sound.

By calling it something that it’s not, Congress subjected DNA sampling to this exact challenge.

Now, the ACLU differs with us, and calls the ruling “an incredible threat to civil liberties.”

“We think this ruling is incorrect,” ACLU attorney Michael Risher told reporters. “It ignores the presumption of innocence and it does not pay enough attention to the protections of the Fourth Amendment.” He also opined that police now have an incentive to make pretext arrests, just to get people’s DNA to help them solve crimes. How this changes things from the already-existing incentive to make pretext arrests to get fingerprints is unclear to this defense attorney. And anyway, police don’t need to arrest someone to get DNA or fingerprints — they can be collected by pretext in any number of ways, without a warrant, and often are.

With respect to the Fourth Amendment, what is clear here is that this is not a search for evidence. The crime has already been charged. It’s very clearly an administrative tool for establishing the identity of the defendant. Evidentiary consequences are merely hypothetical, if the person should somehow commit a violent crime in the future and leave behind DNA that gets compared to the database. That’s no different from mug shots, and unlike mug shots (where the chances of a false positive are unreasonably and embarrassingly high, given their variety and the innate unreliability of eyewitness recognition) DNA has an insignificant risk of identifying the wrong person. Mug shots aren’t a Fourth Amendment issue, neither are fingerprints, and neither is DNA, really.

* * * * *

One issue, however, is when the DNA is being taken for the purpose of gathering evidence, in the investigation of a crime.

That’s not the case here, and it’s sort of off point, but should a warrant even be involved then?

Well, isn’t it a Fifth Amendment violation then? You’re making someone incriminate himself against his will, right?

Wrong. Self-incrimination doesn’t enter into it, because what’s important there, the underlying policy of the right, is that we don’t want the government overriding people’s free will, and making them convict themselves out of their own mouths. We don’t want another Star Chamber. We don’t want the government using its overwhelming power to extort unwilling confessions, whether by thumbscrews, lead pipes, or simple custodial interrogation.

But taking blood samples has been held not to involve the right against compelled self-incrimination. Nobody’s being forced to say “I did it.” All they are being forced to do is provide physical evidence. There is no free will involved in the creation of that physical evidence — it exists whether the person wants to hand it over or not — but there is free will involved in the creation of confessions and incriminating statements.

But that brings us back to the Fourth Amendment. If someone is being compelled to give a swab or blood sample, then the government is seizing pre-existing evidence just as if they were seizing drugs from someone’s home. So shouldn’t a warrant be required after all?

Yes it should. But that’s only when the evidence is being sought as evidence. Constitutional rights really do depend on what’s going on. An administrative requirement is not the same thing as a criminal investigation. A DNA sample for administrative ID purposes is not the same thing as one taken to identify a potential suspect.

That’s the big difference here. And even given the 9th Circuit’s pro-defendant tendencies from time to time, we have a hard time predicting anything but an affirmation of Judge Hollows’ decision when this comes up on appeal.

WTF Feds? Buying Drugs ≠ Facilitating Their Sale

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

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Not again. It looks like yet another instance of federal prosecutors exercising terrible judgment.

Writing for a unanimous Supreme Court this morning, soon-to-retire Justice Souter clarified what “facilitation” means in criminal law. A buyer calling up a drug dealer to arrange the purchase of some drugs does not count. Apparently, the feds didn’t get the memo.

In this case, Abuelhawa v. U.S., Mohammed Said was a suspected drug dealer whose phone was wiretapped. The wire intercepted six calls from a buyer, Salman Abuelhawa, in which Mr. Abuelhawa arranged two small purchases of cocaine.

The amounts Mr. Abuelhawa bought were strictly misdemeanor level — just one gram each time. But in a bizarre move, the feds charged him with six felony counts of “causing or facilitating” the sales during those intercepted phone calls.

After recovering from the “you’ve gotta be kidding me” stage, Abuelhawa moved to dismiss those charges. But no, the District Court (the Eastern District of Virginia, in Alexandria) said it was perfectly proper to charge a buyer with facilitation of the sale. He was convicted, and appealed to the Fourth Circuit.

The Fourth Circuit also ruled that it’s fine to charge a buyer with facilitation, saying that the word “facilitate” should be given its common meaning, “to make easier or less difficult, or to assist or aid.” Abuelhawa’s request to buy “made the sale possible,” and therefore counted as facilitation.

Ably represented by Joseph McEvoy, of the excellent Virginia law firm of Odin, Feldman & Pittleman, the defendant took it to the Supreme Court.

Writing for the majority, Justice Souter essentially opined “you’ve gotta be kidding me” — only in more genteel language. The government’s overly literal use of “facilitate” he described as sitting “uncomfortably with common usage.”

Where a transaction like a sale necessarily presupposes two parties with specific roles, it would be odd to speak of one party as facilitating the conduct of the other. A buyer does not just make a sale easier; he makes the sale possible. No buyer, no sale; the buyer’s part is already implied by the term “sale,” and the word “facilitate” adds nothing. We would not say that the borrower facilitates the bank loan.

The feds argued that the facilitation wasn’t the request to buy, but rather the use of a cell phone to do so. A sale can happen without using a cell phone. Using a cell phone makes it easier to sell drugs. So therefore “Congress probably meant to ratchet up the culpability of the buyer who calls ahead.”

Souter respectfully pointed out that this argument was stupid. Congress made it a misdemeanor to buy the drugs. It meant for Abuelhawa to be charged with a misdemeanor. It did not mean him to be charged with facilitating the dealer’s felony.

* * * * *

We prosecuted drug dealers for years here in Manhattan, and we have to wonder what these Virginia feds were smoking. No prosecutor in their right mind would seriously consider charging a buyer with facilitation. A lookout is a facilitator. A steerer who directs buyers to a particular dealer is a facilitator. A “stash man” or a “money man” who holds stuff for the seller is a facilitator. The buyer is never a facilitator.

When, as here, a hyper-technical reading of the statute might conceivably result in a charge that nobody intended, a good prosecutor simply smiles wryly at the inept wording of statutes in general. But to actually file such charges would require a shocking lack of judgment.

Judgment. It’s something we require of our prosecutors. They have people’s lives, liberty and reputations at stake. They have victims who need justice. They work within a system that relies on them to do the right thing. So it is imperative that they have the uncommon sense to do, not what is technically allowable, but what is actually appropriate.

Not every prosecutor lives up to the challenge, of course. But lately the feds have been showing a remarkable lack of judgment. This case is just one of many in recent years where federal prosecutors have committed forehead-smacking acts of WTF.

So we have to ask… WTF? Seriously. Federal prosecutors have a well-deserved reputation for being bright, dedicated, hard-working and sensible. But in case after case lately, federal prosecutors have made colossal boners of bad judgment. What’s going on? Did we change how we hire people? Did the pool of applicants change? Did the internal culture change? We’d like to know.

Send us your thoughts, and we’ll see about devoting a column to the more thoughtful responses.

Defense Wins by Losing: Supreme Court Overrules Michigan v. Jackson

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

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In a perhaps not-all-that-important decision this morning, the Supreme Court overruled a landmark case involving the Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Although it seems like a big deal, today’s decision doesn’t really seem to change anything. Criminal procedure is not likely to change. The upshot is that the police still can’t initiate questioning after you’ve asserted your right to counsel.

Interestingly, both sides probably saw it as a loss. The government clearly lost, no question about that. Technically, the defendant won, as he got the government’s win reversed and remanded. But the defendant lost in his bid to get the Supreme Court to announce a new rule imposing an indelible right to counsel that attaches automatically at arraignment.

* * * * *

In Michigan v. Jackson, 475 U.S. 625 (1986), the Burger Court ruled that police cannot start questioning a defendant after that defendant has appeared in court and requested a lawyer. “If police initiate interrogation after a defendant’s assertion, at an arraignment or similar proceeding, of his right to counsel, any waiver of the defendant’s right to counsel for that police-initiated interrogation is invalid.”

This morning, a 5-4 Supreme Court overruled Jackson.

Writing for the majority, Justice Scalia found that the Jackson rule is simply unworkable. And anyway, the existing rule of Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981) already provides the necessary protections, so the Jackson rule is unnecessary in the first place. Scalia summed it up this way:

This case is an exemplar of Justice Jackson’s oft quoted warning that this Court is “forever adding new storeys to the temples of constitutional law, and the temples have a way of collapsing when one storey too many is added.” Douglas v. City of Jeannette, 319 U.S. 157, 181 (1943)(opinion concurring in result). We today remove Michigan v. Jackson‘s fourth storey of prophylaxis.

The defense got the reversal it wanted, but not the rule it sought. The defense didn’t want Jackson overruled — it wanted the case to be interpreted as meaning the police can never seek to interrogate a defendant once counsel is assigned, whether the defendant asked for it or not.

Instead, the Court said we already have “three layers of prophylaxis” that protect defendants here, and we don’t need another one. Under the rules of Miranda, Edwards and Minnick, a defendant can tell the police he doesn’t want to speak to them without a lawyer present, and that shuts down any questioning. And the police cannot re-start it later by trying to Mirandize him again in the hopes that this time he waives the right to counsel. These protections already exist without Jackson, so the overruled case “is simply superfluous.”

The overruling wasn’t really a surprise. Sure, the briefs didn’t really talk about it, but it was strongly hinted at during oral argument back in January. More on that in a minute.

The state of Louisiana clearly lost, and its high court got reversed. But the defense didn’t get the outcome it wanted, and the Court isn’t about to make that rule any time soon, now. The defendant does get a second bite at the apple, however — the defense relied understandably on Jackson and not Edwards in its appeal below, so the Court felt it was best to remand and give the defense the chance to argue based on the Edwards rule.

* * * * *

In today’s case, Montejo v. Louisiana, Jesse Montejo was suspected of the robbery and murder of his former boss. Montejo waived his Miranda rights, and admitted killing the victim during a botched burglary. He indicated that he’d thrown the murder weapon into a lake.

This happened in Louisiana, which requires a preliminary hearing called a “72-hour hearing,” the purpose of which is the appointment of counsel. At that hearing, Montejo was charged with the murder, and the court ordered the appointment of a lawyer. Shortly after the hearing, but before the Indigent Defender was assigned, the police Mirandized Montejo again, and took him out to help them find the murder weapon. During the trip, Montejo wrote a letter of apology to the victim’s widow.

At trial, the letter of apology was admitted into evidence over the defense’s objection. Montejo was convicted and sentenced to death.

Montejo appealed, arguing that Jackson required that the letter be suppressed. The Louisiana Supreme Court said no, the Jackson rule only protects defendants who actually requested a lawyer at the hearing — it doesn’t shield defendants from questioning if, like Montejo, they just stand mute and the court orders the appointment of counsel sua sponte. The court felt that the real issue was whether he’d waived his right to have counsel present during the excursion, and Montejo had done so when he was Mirandized that second time.

Montejo filed for cert, arguing that the right to counsel, guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, goes into effect upon the appointment of counsel, whether the defendant affirmatively asked for it or not. The other four states which had considered this, as well as the 11th Circuit, had ruled his way. And it made more sense to have a bright-line rule like this than to have a case-by-case analysis to determine whether a defendant said the magic words at arraignment which would grant him the right to counsel. A rule requiring defendants to affirmatively accept the appointment of counsel would simply not be administrable, he argued. One thing the briefs did not request was that Jackson be overruled.

During oral arguments, however, Scalia, Roberts and Alito asked whether the Jackson rule ought to be overruled. They suggested that the rule was overbroad, in that it would not allow defendants to voluntarily waive their Sixth Amendment right to counsel after getting a lawyer.

The state, which had submitted very thin briefs relying largely on dicta, didn’t do well at oral argument. Scalia and Kennedy quickly pointed out the absurdity of requiring “a formality on top of a formality” here, and the state only compounded the absurdity by seeming to suggest that defendants would have to keep requesting counsel every time the police sought to question them after arraignment.

The state also made the classic blunder of arguing with a Justice who had lobbed a softball question, in the attempt to help out the lawyer. Alito and Roberts both offered softballs to get the state to point out that Jackson prevents the police from initiating contact without the presence of counsel, but allows the defendant to initiate discussions. Instead, the state’s lawyer fought them, insisting that Jackson is only supposed to make sure the police don’t “badger” defendants who have a lawyer. The state then made the absurd argument that the Sixth Amendment protections ought to vary from state to state — states that make defendants ask for counsel would have Sixth Amendment protections, but states that appoint counsel whether a defendant asked for it or not would not have Sixth Amendment protections.

* * * * *

Given what happened at oral argument, today’s decision is hardly suprising. Writing for the majority, Scalia said “we agree that the approach taken [by the Louisiana Supreme Court] would lead either to an unworkable standard, or to arbitrary and anomalous distinctions between defendants in different States. Neither would be acceptable.”

Louisiana’s distinction between defendants who assert their right to counsel and those who do not “is extremely hazy when applied to States that appoint counsel absent request from the defendant. . . . How does one affirmatively accept counsel appointed by court order?”

Requiring some sort of questioning at every preliminary hearing would be impractical. Those hearings are typically rushed, aren’t even transcribed in many states, and it would be unworkable to try to monitor each defendant’s reaction to the appointment of counsel, if the defendant is even present (which isn’t always the case). Furthermore, how would the police be expected to know what the defendant’s reaction had been, as they can’t be expected to attend these proceedings. Courts would then have to adjudicate whether the police ought to have been able to approach a defendant, which simply adds to the impossibility. So this solution just could not work.

However, even though the Louisiana Supreme Court’s application of Jackson “is unsound as a practical matter,” Scalia couldn’t go along with Montejo’s proposed rule that, once a defendant is represented by counsel, police would not be allowed to initiate any further interrogation. “Such a rule would be entirely untethered from the original rationale of Jackson.”

What Jackson did was to apply the rule of Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981) to the Sixth Amendment. (Edwards involved a defendant who asked for a lawyer when he was Mirandized, so the police stopped questioning, but then the police tried to Mirandize him again, and this time the defendant confessed. The Edwards rule says the police can’t badger the defendant into waiving his rights after he’s asserted them.) All together, the cases mean that if a defendant asserts his right to counsel, and he later waives that right in a subsequent interaction with the police, then that waiver is presumed to be involuntary.

In a situation like Montejo’s, where the defendant was appointed counsel without ever asking for it, this rule simply doesn’t apply. There was no initial assertion of the right to counsel, so there can be no presumption that a subsequent waiver is involuntary. There is no initial decision that is being changed. There is no indication that the police are overriding the defendant’s free will.

So Montejo’s proposed rule just doesn’t fit with the purpose of the existing law. Instead, it “would prevent police-initiated interrogation entirely once the Sixth Amendment right attaches, at least in those States that appoint counsel promptly without request from the Defendant.”

Instead, wrote Scalia, the existing law we already have under Miranda, Edwards and Minnick is sufficient:

These three layers of prophylaxis are sufficient. Under the Miranda-Edwards-Minnick line of cases (which is not in doubt), a defendant who does not want to speak to the police without counsel present need only say as much when he is first approached and given the Miranda warnings. At that point, not only must the immediate contact end, but “badgering” by later requests is prohibited. If that regime suffices to protect the integrity of “a suspect’s voluntary choice not to speak outside his lawyer’s presence” before his arraignment, Cobb, 532 U. S., at 175 (KENNEDY, J., concurring), it is hard to see why it would not also suffice to protect that same choice after arraignment, when Sixth Amendment rights have attached. And if so, then Jackson is simply superfluous.

* * * * *

SO WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

Here’s a comparison of how the law looked yesterday, and how it looks today:

The right to counsel is triggered…

Yesterday — when you’ve been formally charged, are being interrogated, and now invoke your right to counsel.
Today — when you’ve been formally charged, are being interrogated, and now invoke your right to counsel.

If you invoke your right to counsel…

Yesterday — further discussions are per se excluded, unless you initiate the new contact (Jackson).
Today — further discussions are per se excluded, unless you initiate the new contact (Miranda-Edwards-Minnick).

NY High Court Requires Warrant for GPS Tracking, But Offers No Guidance for Future Technologies

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

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In a lengthy decision today New York’s highest court ruled that police must get a warrant before they can put a GPS tracking device in a suspect’s car. In its ruling today, in the case of People v. Weaver, the New York Court of Appeals went out of its way to distinguish the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in U.S. v. Knotts, 460 U.S. 276 (1983).

In Knotts, the Supreme Court had said it was fine for law enforcement to put a rudimentary “beeper” tracking device inside a container of chloroform so that they could track its movements. Of course, technology has progressed since then. In today’s case, state police had slapped a GPS device known as a Q-Ball on Scott Weaver’s car, and left it there for 65 days. The device recorded in exact detail where the car went throughout that time, how fast it was going, essentially performing an uninterrupted physical surveillance.

The New York court said that, although the old technology was just an enhancement of ordinary surveillance, the new technology is just too invasive, and therefore requires a warrant before law enforcement can use it.

In getting there, the court spent a pleasant few pages outlining the evolution of Fourth Amendment law, reminding us that until at least 1928 it only protected searches of material property, and so intangible searches such as wiretaps required no warrant. Brandeis, however, wrote a dissent to that 1928 case that struck a chord, and soon American law had come to agree with him that:

The protection guaranteed by the [4th and 5th] Amendments is much broader in scope [than the protection of property]. The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. They recognized the significance of man’s spiritual nature, of his feelings and of his intellect. They knew that only a part of the pain, pleasure and satisfactions of life are to be found in material things. They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred, as against the Government, the right to be let alone — the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men. To protect that right, every unjustifiable intrusion by the Government upon the privacy of the individual, whatever the means employed, must be deemed a violation of the Fourth Amendment. And the use, as evidence in a criminal proceeding, of facts ascertained by such intrusion must be deemed a violation of the Fifth.

Olmstead v. U.S., 277 U.S. 438, 478-479 (1928)(Brandeis, J., dissent). Still, the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t really get around to adopting this view until Katz v. U.S., 389 U.S. 347 (1967):

the underpinnings of Olmstead and Goldman have been so eroded by our subsequent decisions that the ‘trespass’ doctrine there enunciated can no longer be regarded as controlling. The Government’s activities in electronically listening to and recording the petitioner’s words violated the privacy upon which he justifiably relied while using the telephone booth and thus constituted a ‘search and seizure’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. The fact that the electronic device employed to achieve that end did not happen to penetrate the wall of the booth can have no constitutional significance.

It looks as if the Court of Appeals wanted to continue the evolution of Fourth Amendment law, at least in New York state cases. The Knotts case had analogized the beeper tracker to a powerful set of binoculars that merely assisted cops see something they were already looking at. But a modern GPS is far more than that. “GPS is a vastly different and exponentially more sophisticated and powerful technology that is easily and cheaply deployed and has virtually unlimited and remarkably precise tracking capability.”

From planting a single device, the court said, the police may now “learn, practically effortlessly… the whole of a person’s progress through the world, into both public and private spatial spheres… over lengthy periods possibly limited only by the need to change the transmitting unit’s batteries.” [That's true. Indeed, when we used to run investigations involving GPS transmitters and eavesdropping bugs placed inside cars, they’d be set up to run off the cars’ batteries, giving them unlimited staying power.] Police can get instantaneous disclosure of indisputably private trips. Knowing where someone went tells you much more: their political affiliation, their religious community, their lovers, their associations, their activities, what they do and who they do them with.

That doesn’t mean the police shouldn’t be allowed to use this tool, but only that the potential invasion of privacy is now so great that it requires court approval before it can happen. And there will of course be exceptions to the warrant requirement, as in a kidnapping or other exigent circumstance.

There was nothing in the record indicating why the police in this case used a GPS, so there was no evidence of an exigent circumstance. It seemed to be little more than “a hunch or curiosity” that caused them to do it.

The court was careful to state that this only applies to New York state law. The U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t ruled on this yet, and neither have most of the Circuits. But the states are free to provide greater individual protections than those established by federal law, which is only a bare minimum rather than an exemplar.

New York isn’t the first to issue a ruling like this. Washington did it in 2003, as did Oregon in 1988. But that’s only two states out of fifty, and their jurisprudence is not quite representative of the rest of the country. Just last Thursday, for example, Wisconsin’s court ruled the opposite way. And the federal Circuit courts that have decided this issue have permitted GPS to be used without a warrant. And this case isn’t going to the Supreme Court, because it’s a state decision under the state constitution. So we wouldn’t go looking for this to become the law of the land any time soon.

This was a far from unanimous decision, as well. Judge Smith wrote for himself and two others that the court drew an artificial and unworkable line between the kinds of technology that are okay to use without a warrant, and the kinds that require a warrant. “The attempt to find in the Constitution a line between ordinary, acceptable means of observation and more efficient, high-tech ones that cannot be used without a warrant seems to me illogical, and doomed to fail.” This appears to ignore the U.S. Supreme Court’s warrant requirement for heat-sensing cameras that reveal marijuana-growing lamps which the police wouldn’t have seen with the naked eye.

But we do get Smith’s point, and it’s a valid one. The majority failed to set forth an actual underlying principle here for where to draw the line. Clearly, high-powered binoculars don’t require a warrant. Surveillance cameras on street corners don’t need a warrant. Unsophisticated “beeper” trackers don’t need a warrant. GPS trackers do need a warrant.

What if the police actually had a surveillance camera on every street corner, and used current software that enabled them to track not only vehicles but faces — would they still need a warrant to use GPS when they’d get the same information without a warrant by using the cameras? If so, why? If not, why not? The court has given no direction here to future technological advances. All it has done is say this particular technology needs a warrant at this particular point in time. That’s not a useful decision.

In a separate dissent, Judge Read argued that the ruling here imposes an unnecessary burden on police, and at the same time “handcuff[s] the Legislature by improperly constitutionalizing a subject more effectively dealt with legislatively than judicially.” Judge Graffeo joined both dissents.

We have to disagree with Read here. Interpreting the Fourth Amendment is so obviously more appropriate to the courts than to the legislature that we have to wonder why she went to the trouble of claiming otherwise.

She’s also wrong in that the ruling really doesn’t handcuff the police — not in real life. Again thinking back (only a couple of years) to when we were doing these kinds of investigations ourselves, we routinely got a warrant for GPS transmitters. It was not exactly a burden. It still isn’t a burden. And if there’s a real emergency, the cops wouldn’t have to get a warrant anyway. They’d just have to be able to articulate it later, which should be easy if there really was an exigent circumstance.

The only burden this ruling puts on cops is to stop them from slapping a GPS on someone just because they feel like it. If they’ve got a good reason to do it, no judge will say they can’t, and they’ll easily get a warrant.

Nat Hentoff Wrong on Rights? Say It Ain’t So!

Monday, May 11th, 2009

The clip above is from a speech Nat Hentoff gave a little while ago, summarizing some of the problems he has with hate crime legislation in general, and with the bill currently being rammed through Congress. The day after he gave that speech, we wrote in more detail about our own concerns with the law.

Although we do not like hate crimes any more than Mr. Hentoff does, we differ with him in that we don’t think they’re per se unconstitutional or inconsistent with American jurisprudence.

Hate crime laws stink because they fail to distinguish between criminal conduct and that which is merely nasty. They take something offensive, and call it an offense. That’s not what criminal law is for. The purpose of criminal law is to identify those acts that are not merely unpleasant, but which are so dangerous to society that they call out for the State to impose its might on the individual and punish him by taking away his life, liberty or property.

Now, there is a PC echo chamber that has a disproportionate voice in today’s government, and in that chamber “hate” really is seen as something requiring extra punishment. Commiting a crime with hate required more punishment than if you committed the same crime for some other reason. But outside of that echo chamber, the mainstream culture just doesn’t see a distasteful motive as a justification for extra punishment.

Hate crime laws also stink because they are inherently un-American. They’re something you’d more expect to see in continental Europe, where state dominion over the individual has been the norm since time out of mind, and there are fewer protections for offensive thoughts. Hate crimes are the stuff of the horror show that England has lately become, as London’s Mayor Boris Johnson writes today, complaining of an England with “its addiction to political correctness — where people are increasingly confused and panic-stricken about what they can say and what is forbidden, a culture where a police officer can seriously think he is right to arrest a protester for calling a police horse ‘gay.’ [England's] courts and tribunals are clogged with people claiming to have suffered insults of one kind or another, and a country once famous for free speech is now hysterically and expensively sensitive to anything that could be taken as a slight.” That is not the direction in which Americans tend to see themselves heading. Off campus, America simply is not a place where the ASBO could exist. And so it is not a place where hate crimes ought to exist.

That doesn’t mean such laws are necessarily inconsistent with the underlying principles of how we make criminal laws in general. They may not fit with American sensibilities, but they don’t violate our jurisprudence. As we wrote last time, the general idea of hate crimes is simply to add a new level of mens rea. It’s not only doable, it’s something that we’ve done before.

Today, Mr. Hentoff published another piece on the upcoming hate-crimes law, spelling out why he thinks it is unconstitutional and not merely a bad idea. It “violates all these constitutional provisions,” he says: the First Amendment, equal protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment, and the double jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment.

We do think the bill, as written, is so vague that is must be voided by the Rule of Lenity. And we do think that, as written, it could well have unintended consequences, and create far more injustice than it’s supposed to prevent.

But unconstitutional? We hate to say this, but we think Mr. Hentoff… we think he… (we can’t believe we’re saying this about one of our intellectual idols)… we think Mr. Hentoff has mischaracterized the rights and protections of the Constitution.

How does it violate the First Amendment? Hentoff acknowledges that the bill explicitly says that it isn’t to be read so as to “prohibit any expressive conduct protected from legal prohibition” or speech “protected by the free speech or free exercise clauses in the First Amendment.” But he alludes to 18 U.S.C. § 2(a), which makes you punishable as a principal if you merely “abet, counsel, command or induce” a crime. Speech that induces a hate crime would make you guilty of the hate crime, and so free-speech protections would be violated.

This point was raised in 2007, the last time this bill was considered, when Democratic Rep. Artur Davis said that the law could conceivably be used to prosecute a pastor who had preached that homosexuality is a sin, if it induced someone else to commit violence against a gay person.

There are two big problems here. First of all, the First Amendment protection of free speech is not absolute, and Hentoff of all people should know this. There is always a balancing of the right to free expression against the harm to society that such expression may cause. You don’t have a free-speech right to shout that you have a bomb while standing in line at an airport. You don’t have a free-speech right to offer to sell crack to an undercover. When speech makes out an otherwise criminal act, you’re going to face jail for having said those words. And the First Amendment won’t protect you.

The other problem is that 18 U.S.C. § 2 does not impose criminal liability for unexpected consequences. A pastor who speaks about the Bible to his congregation isn’t going to be liable for subsequent acts of a deviant member of his flock. That’s not the same as a similar authority figure instructing an unstable young man that God wants him to kill gay people. There’s an element of willfulness or recklessness that’s required. And if you willfully said something to induce an act of violence, then it is not speech that the First Amendment protects.

How does this hate crimes bill violate the Fourteenth Amendment? Hentoff says it violates equal protection, not in the way it’s written, but in the way it will be enforced. A white person targeting black people will be punished for the hate crime, but a black person targeting whites won’t be.

That may make intuitive sense, as the law was originally conceived to battle discrimination against minorities. And prosecutors may choose not to apply it if the victim is a white male. That has happened before, as Hentoff points out. A gang in Colorado had an initiation ritual of raping a white woman, and the prosecutor in Boulder opted not to charge a hate crime there.

Nevertheless, the law itself, as written, does not violate equal protection. Yes, prosecutors will (and must) always have the discretion to choose whether to bring a charge or not in a given case. And it is entirely likely that a black guy who punches someone in the nose just because they’re white may not be charged with a hate crime, even though it clearly fits the bill, because of other factors going through the prosecutor’s head — it might not be politically savvy to further penalize someone who (to the paternalistic PC) already had to suffer the discrimination and indignity that made him act out like this. Or it just might not feel right.

But then again, this bill, as amended, is now written very broadly. It casts a much wider net than mere black vs. white. In addition to race, it considers violence committed because of national origin, religion, sex, sexual preference and disability. Everyone is a potential victim of a hate crime now. There are going to be plenty of opportunities to charge members of “victim classes” for hate crimes when they attack members of other victim classes. A disparate effect has yet to occur, and there’s good reason to believe that it never will.

And how does the bill violate double jeopardy? Hentoff is concerned that someone could be charged with an assault in state court, and be found not guilty, only to find himself haled into federal court to face a new prosecution for the same act under the federal hate crime law.

Unfortunately, this is not a double jeopardy problem. It is not unconstitutional for the feds to prosecute someone for a federal crime after he’s already gone through a prosecution for the same act in state court. Double jeopardy does not apply to prosecutions brought by different sovereigns. Each state is a separate sovereign, in addition to the federal government. If you stand in Manhattan and shoot someone on the other side of the Hudson in New Jersey, both states are allowed to prosecute you for it. Some states have extra protections for the individual here — New York won’t prosecute someone after the feds did — but the feds are not so constrained.

And the feds already do this kind of thing routinely with gun laws. If you committed certain crimes with a gun, you can be prosecuted in state court for the crime, and then afterwards get prosecuted in federal court for possessing the gun at the time. These cases are extremely straightforward — either you possessed the gun or you didn’t — and they often go to trial, because of mandatory sentencing, so young federal prosecutors tend to cut their teeth on this stuff. It’s routine, and it does not at all violate double jeopardy.

* * * * *

Hentoff ends his piece today by urging President Obama, before signing the bill into law, to refresh his understanding of the Constitution. He suggests that, as the “former senior lecturer in that document at the University of Chicago, [Obama] should at least take it with him on Air Force One, where there are fewer necessary distractions, and familiarize himself with what the Constitution actually says.”

We love Nat Hentoff. We idolize the man. We agree that hate crime laws have no place in this country. But we think he ought to take his own advice and re-familiarize himself with what the Constitution does and does not protect.

Memo to Child Porn Defendants: The “It Was Only Research” Defense NEVER WORKS.

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

GEN. MELCHETT: Field Marshall Haig has formulated a brilliant new tactical plan to ensure final victory in the field.

CPT. BLACKADDER: Ah… Would this “brilliant plan” involve us climbing out of our trenches, and walking very slowly towards the enemy?

CPT. DARLING: How could you possibly know that, Blackadder? It’s classified information!

CPT. BLACKADDER: It’s the same plan that we used last time. And the seventeen times before that.

GEN. MELCHETT: Ex-ex-ex exactly! And that is what is so brilliant about it! It will catch the watchful hun totally off guard. Doing precisely what we’ve done eighteen times before is exactly the last thing they’ll expect us to do this time! There is, however, one small problem.

CPT. BLACKADDER: That everyone always gets slaughtered in the first ten seconds.

GEN. MELCHETT: That’s right.

From “Blackadder Goes Forth” Plan A: Captain Cook


(Quoted scene begins around 8:30)

Because of the frankly horrible topic of this post, we thought we’d dilute it a bit with a bit of Atkinson, Fry and Laurie. But it’s on point. As this clip illustrates, it simply defies common sense to try the same thing repeatedly and expect a different outcome.

But in child porn cases, defendants and their attorneys keep trying the same thing over and over, and all that happens is they go to jail.

We’re talking about the “I was only doing it for research” defense. Pete Townshend of The Who tried it, to no avail (although possession charges were dropped six years ago today, when no porn was found to be in his possession, he was still put on the sex offenders registry for paying to visit a child porn site). Any number of less-well-known defendants have also tried it and failed. Washington Post reporter Lawrence Charles Matthews tried it, and he actually had done a radio series on the subject, and he still got time (and his case, U.S. v. Matthews, 200 F.3d 338 (4th Cir. 2000) specifically held that there is no exception for journalistic or other allegedly-legitimate uses of child porn). A law enforcement officer, Michael McGowan, claimed to have been doing his own investigation on his own time, and wound up getting 20 years. Talk show host Bernie Ward claimed he was doing research for a book, and got 87 months last year.

Even though the defense never works, people keep trying it. And so we come to erstwhile war hero Wade Sanders, the former assistant deputy Secretary of the Navy who came to national prominence when he vouched for former presidential candidate John Kerry, who just got sentenced to federal prison.

First, some background. CAUTION: EXTREMELY DISTURBING CONTENT FOLLOWS.

During an apparently typical investigation, an undercover FBI agent logged onto a peer-to-peer file sharing service (where members can copy files from each other’s computers), and searched for computers containing files with the term “pthc,” which is shorthand for “preteen hardcore.” The agent found several child porn files on Sanders’ computer, including a photo of a preteen naked girl lying on her back with ejaculate on her stomach, a 10 minute video of adult males inserting their penises into the mouths of prepubescent naked girls with one scene of ejaculation, and a photo of two naked prepubescent boys engaged in anal intercourse. It was easy to identify the location of the computer where the files were located, and a search warrant was obtained. On executing the search warrant, three computers and an external hard drive were seized, all of which contained many more equally disturbing photos and videos. (This is common. Most offenders who possess child porn possess a large quantity of it.)

During the search, Sanders spoke with the agents. When asked if any child porn would be found, he only said that he sometimes encountered it while downloading adult porn, and always deleted it. At no time did he suggest that he was conducting research that might explain any child porn they might find. And he wasn’t found to actually have any research notes or materials.

The evidence appeared strong enough that he decided to plea to the charge, under 18 U.S.C. § 2252(a)(4)(B). Under the Guidelines, his offense level was adjusted upwards for having materials involving under-12 kids, using computers, distributing materials, and possessing over 600 images, to level 29. He got the standard 3E1.1 three-level reduction for accepting responsibility, getting him to level 26, with a sentencing range of 63 to 78 months.

At sentencing, the prosecution asked for the low end of 63 months. Sanders sought probation.

In his own defense, Sanders claimed that he was researching child porn, but with a twist. He started by saying he’d gone through hell in Vietnam combat. Then, in 2004, he started supporting John Kerry for president, and was criticized by other veterans. This criticism made him feel betrayed, and sparked an onset of post-traumatic stress disorder. This PTSD manifested itself with obsessive-compulsive behavior. He then stumbled on an image of child porn, was horrified by it, and became overly protective of the little kids. So he obsessively began trying to find out where the kids came from and the conditions they lived in.

The judge, Thomas Whelan, flatly stated that he didn’t buy it. He found no evidence that Sanders was telling the truth about being involved in any research. Sanders never mentioned this during the search, either. And his own story didn’t explain the stuff he’d downloaded before 2004. Judge Whelan also pointed out that the “I was only doing research” claim, even if true, is still not a valid defense under the law.

So, although the judge did come down off the Guidelines sentence, Sanders still received 37 months in prison — at the end of which he will be 105 years old. In all likelihood, this is a life sentence for the man.

* * * * *

What puzzles us is why people keep trying this defense, when the law doesn’t recognize it and it never ever works?

If we might be a little shameless here, we’d recommend that people try our piece titled “Understanding the Investigative Process to Better Defend Your Client,” in Inside the Minds: Strategies for Defending Internet Pornography Charges (2008). Or they might take our online CLE on defending internet porn cases, (the first in our “Hope for Hopeless Cases” series with West LegalEdcenter, which also includes that chapter in the course materials.

These cases rarely go to trial. Like Sanders, defendants usually plead out because the evidence appears overwhelming. Still, appearances can be deceiving, and there are often ways to attack the evidence itself. Maybe not enough to justify taking the case to a jury, but perhaps enough to negotiate a better deal. (Not implying that was the case with Sanders, nor impugning his attorney in any way, of course.)

What is most likely to work, however, is not trying to explain it away. Rationalizing the evidence is only going to hurt your credibility, as it did to Sanders.

Instead, what is most likely going to work is to attack the evidence itself. This is time-consuming and expensive, and isn’t guaranteed to work. After all, investigators have the luxury of building their own cases, and cherry-picking the strongest cases from the enormous number of possibles they could charge. Ideally, you want to be able to give the prosecution a new way of looking at the evidence, so that they realize it’s not necessarily as strong as they originally thought. It takes deep understanding and analysis by experts, as well as compelling advocacy. But even in a less-than-ideal situation, the more you can put the prosecution on the spot to defend its evidence — that the photos are real, that they depict real people, that the kids really are minors, etc. — or the more you can raise doubt about how incriminating it is, the better your chances of a decent plea offer.

Prosecutors rarely change their assessment of what a case is worth based on excuses and rationalizations. They made up their mind based on the evidence they have. A good defense is going to give them a new way of looking at that evidence, to get them to re-assess the defendant’s culpability, their chances of success, or (yes) the amount of work they’re going to have to do if this goes to trial.

And FOR THE LAST TIME, PEOPLE, “I was only doing research” is NOT going to do the trick.

Grammar Schooled: Over-Zealous Feds Get an “F” in Adverbs

Monday, May 4th, 2009

social-security-card.png

In a sort-of unanimous opinion today, the Supreme Court reversed the conviction of a Mexican who’d tried to get a job by using counterfeit Social Security and Alien Registration cards along with a fake name and date of birth. He’d been convicted of aggravated identity theft, 18 U. S. C. §1028A(a)(1) — a federal crime for “knowingly” using “a means of identification of another person.”

There was no evidence that this guy, named Flores, knew that the Social Security cards (plural) or Alien Registration cards (yes, plural) he’d tried to use had actually belonged to anyone else. And in fact, they didn’t, as they were made-up counterfeits. The feds said it wasn’t necessary to prove that Flores knew it was someone else’s ID. All they needed to prove, they said, was that Flores knew that… well… that he was using a means of identification.

The trial court, for some reason, bought that argument. Flores then decided to forego a jury and let the judge decide the case. The judge found him guilty of aggravated identity theft. On appeal, the Eighth Circuit agreed with the trial judge’s ruling.

Writing for the Court today in Flores-Figueroa v. U.S., Justice Breyer gave the feds (and the trial judge, and the Circuit) an “F” in basic English grammar. The phrase “knowingly using someone else’s ID” has a simple plain meaning, which is that you knew it was someone else’s ID. Nobody in their right mind would expect the word “knowing” to only modify the verb “using.” Nobody with a third-grader’s grasp of English would think it did not modify the verb phrase “using someone else’s ID.” In fact, to read the sentence the way the feds wanted to would make no sense whatsoever.

The feds, for their part, could not present a single example of a statute being interpreted the way they wanted this one to be interpreted. Their arguments were just lame. And so all nine Justices agreed that this conviction needed to be reversed.

But not all nine could agree with the rest of Breyer’s reasoning. And neither can we. If Breyer had stopped right here, this would have been a great opinion. But he didn’t stop there. Instead, as pointed out by (still concurring) Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito, he added some unnecessary extra bits of reasoning that only serve to weaken the Court’s opinion.

All three properly called him out for making a baseless statement that courts “ordinarily” read the mens rea of “knowingly” to apply to every element of the crime. Breyer said that there are certainly examples where “knowingly” does not apply to every element. For example, it’s illegal to knowingly transport someone under 18 years old across state lines for prostitution. But you didn’t have to know that the victim was under 18 to be convicted of this crime. The law doesn’t care whether you knew that element or not. All you had to do was know that you were transporting the victim across state lines for prostitution.

Scalia remained “agnostic” on whether courts “ordinarily” interpret laws this way. But Breyer seems to imply that courts should interpret laws this way, and Scalia cautioned against that firmly. “It is one thing to infer the common-law tradition of a mens rea requirement, where Congress has not addressed the mental element of a crime,” he said (a tip of the hat to one of Breyer’s own dissents last week). But “it is something else to expand a mens rea requirement that the statutory text has carefully limited.

Scalia also raised another good point, that Breyer shouldn’t have gone on about the legislative history here. “Relying on the statement of a single Member of Congress or an unvoted-upon (and for all we know unread) Committee Report to expand a statute beyond the limits its text suggests is always a dubious enterprise.” That is especially bad, he added, when doing so would criminalize acts that the text would otherwise permit.

* * * * *

It is clear that the feds improperly charged Flores with identity theft here. Although he clearly used a false identity, and absolutely tried to pass off counterfeit identification documents, it was equally clear that he had never stolen or used anyone else’s ID.

Why did the feds charge him with a crime he clearly hadn’t committed? It’s not as if they didn’t have other stuff to charge him with. Were they just not thinking? Did they just not understand what the law said in plain English? Did they just not care? Or were they intentionally trying to stick it to him?

Hmm… that’s a nice little mens rea question. Their reasons determine their culpability. Were they idiots (and therefore bad at their job, but not bad people), or were they abusing their power (and therefore bad prosecutors, and bad people)? What do you think?

Upcoming New Hate-Crime Law — Nothing Wrong With the Idea, But This One Has Problems

Friday, May 1st, 2009

hate-crime.png

The other day, by a vote of 249 (59%) to 175 (41%), the U.S. House of Representatives voted to expand the scope of federal “hate crimes” to include crimes against gay people, transgender people, the mentally disabled and the physically disabled. With strong support from the White House and from Senate democrats, we expect to soon see this become law without many changes.

We frankly don’t like hate crimes, but from a jurisprudence perspective there really isn’t any problem with them. More on that below. At the same time, however, this particular bill is problematic. More on that below, as well.

The bill, H.R. 1913 (text here), imposes up to 10 years in prison if you to commit violence because you thought someone was black or gay or whatever. (It also authorizes grants of up to $100,000 per year in federal money to the various state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies. The money is to go towards investigating and prosecuting hate crimes, and programs to reduce the occurrence of hate crimes.)

In the form passed by the house, the hate crimes portion of the law would now do the following:

1. With respect to:
Race,
Color,
Religion, and
National Origin

…A. In general.

………1) If you attempt to cause bodily injury to someone, or if you willfully cause such injury, AND

………2) If you did so with fire, a gun, a dangerous weapon, an explosive, or an incendiary, AND

………3) If you did so BECAUSE of the actual or perceived race/color/religion/national origin of the victim, THEN

………4) Your maximum sentence goes up to 10 years.

…B. If someone died or you tried to kill, or you kidnapped or tried to kidnap someone, or you also committed or tried to commit aggravated sexual abuse, THEN

………1) There is no maximum sentence, and you can get anything up to life in prison.

2. With respect to:
Religion (again),
National Origin (again),
Gender (I guess they’re referring to biological sex, as opposed to foreign grammar),
Sexual Orientation,
Gender Identity, and
Disability

…A. In general.

………1) The exact same stuff as above applies, but only if you acted under any of these circumstances:

…………..a) Either you or the victim crossed state lines or a national border.

…………..b) Either you or the victim used an instrument of interstate or foreign commerce.

…………..c) You used a weapon that had traveled in interstate or foreign commerce.

…………..d) Your conduct interferes with the victim’s economic activity.

…………..e) Your conduct otherwise affects interstate or foreign commerce.

Finally, to forestall the criticisms that hate crime laws infringe on First Amendment rights, the statute says it shall not be construed to prohibit any expressive conduct protected by the Constitution. Nor to prohibit any activities protected by the Constitution.

* * * * *

So, what does this mean?

Critics of hate crimes laws, like Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), say that such laws undermine the principal of equal justice for all. “Justice will now depend on the race, gender [gah!], sexual orientation, disability or other protected status of the victim,” Smith said during debate. “It will allow different penalties to be imposed for the same crime.” House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio said that this “places a higher value on some lives compared to others. That is unconstitutional, and that is wrong. All life was created equally, and all life should be defended equally.”

Such criticisms miss the point, a little bit.

As written, this law does not put greater value on a victim’s life because of their race, sex, religion, or what have you. The victim’s actual status has nothing to do with it. The law doesn’t care if the person actually was black or female or Methodist — it only cares whether the offender thought so.

The focus is not on the victim. It is on the offender’s state of mind. In other words, all this law does is insert a new form of mens rea into criminal jurisprudence.

Mens rea is the legal word for an offender’s state of mind, and is almost always a crucial element of a crime. A harmful act that was committed without the requisite mental state is not going to be a crime. For the most part, society doesn’t want to punish people when they weren’t trying to do something wrong, or when they weren’t breaching any duty to be careful.

The traditional mens rea have coalesced over time into a continuum that looks something like this:

…FAULTLESS. There is no culpability here. You weren’t doing anything wrong, or you can’t be held accountable for your actions. Society doesn’t want to punish you, because it would serve no purpose. It would be mere retaliation, and that’s just not civilized. (Don’t start thinking we’re too evolved, however — we do still have STRICT LIABILITY laws, like statutory rape and certain weapon and drug possession crimes, where society couldn’t care less whether you meant to do it, or even knew that you were doing it. So we still have some holdovers from the old “eye-for-an-eye” days of punishing even mere accidents.)

…NEGLIGENT. This is the lowest level of culpability. You were supposed to be careful, and you weren’t and now someone got hurt. You weren’t trying to do anything wrong, but you did anyway, and you ought not to have. Society wants to punish you for this, but only a little. We want to make sure people are careful when they’re supposed to be. Not paying enough attention while driving, then running over a pedestrian, is a crime of negligence.

…RECKLESS. This is punished somewhat more severely. You knew what you were doing might hurt someone, but you did it anyway. Society wants to punish you more for this, because you were just indifferent to the consequences of your actions. You were putting your own interests above those of the rest of us, and someone could have gotten hurt. Shooting a gun indiscriminately out a window is reckless. Driving so fast that you can’t safely react is reckless.

…KNOWING. This is even more severe. When you were reckless, you disregarded the mere chance that something bad might happen. But when you had a pretty good reason to believe that something bad would happen — even though it’s not what you were mainly trying to accomplish — then society wants to punish you much more. Let’s say you caught your spouse cheating on you, so that Saturday night you cut their brake lines. You’re trying to kill your spouse when they take their mother to church the next morning. The resulting accident kills your mother-in-law as well. You weren’t trying to kill her, but you knew she could die as well.

…PURPOSE. This is the most severe. You were actually trying to do it. Society punishes intent the most severely of all, as it’s the most culpable of the mental states. When you severed your spouse’s brake lines in the example above, you intended to kill your spouse.

There are other mens rea out there, which sort of come at this continuum from right angles. ATTEMPT is the big one. It’s a form of intent, of purpose, but it slips in between each of the standard categories. You were trying to commit a crime, but for whatever reason it failed. If you tried to shoot a gun randomly out the window, but it jammed, you’re guilty of an attempted crime of recklessness — you intended to commit a crime with a reckless state of mind. If you tried to purposely shoot someone, but the gun jammed, you’re guilty of attempted murder, attempting to commit a crime with an intentional state of mind. Attempts aren’t punished as severely, because the state of mind is not the only reason for enhanced punishment — the events themselves also play a part in determining culpability (a fact that some on the Supreme Court seem to have forgotten).

So all “hate crimes” laws like this one do is define a new mens rea. This one does not fall within the standard continuum, however. It does not care so much whether you were negligent, reckless, knowing or purposeful. It only cares what you believed to be true of the victim, and that you acted because of that belief.

This really doesn’t even come at the continuum from right angles. It’s wholly separate and apart. It’s a one-off. It’s not even on the same piece of paper. It’s a new kind of mens rea, because it has less to do with your mental state with respect to your actions, and more to do with the reasons why you’re committing them in the first place.

But does that make this new mens rea improper? Not really. It just so happens that, over the past couple hundred years, our national culture has gradually come to consider harmful — actually harmful to society — mistreating people based on attributes beyond their control. People can’t help what color they are, or where they were born, or what religion they were raised in, or what turns them on, or whether they have Down syndrome. Mistreating them because of such things is, to modern eyes, harmful to society.

Society punishes harm to itself by criminalizing it. So it’s a simple step to criminalize mistreating people because you thought they possessed certain attributes beyond their control. That belief, the reason for the criminal act, is just a new form of mens rea, and a harmless one at that.

* * * * *

However, just because we don’t have a problem the concept of this hate crime law, that doesn’t mean we think it is a good one. In fact, there are significant problems with it.

For example, there is a real vagueness with respect to religion and national origin. On the one hand, they’re the same as race, and don’t require additional circumstances. On the other hand, they are grouped in with the new categories requiring additional circumstances. It has to be one or the other, and this vagueness could make hate crimes based on religion and national origin void, under the Rule of Lenity.

Of course, the Commerce-Clause-related circumstances could make this merely a distinction without a difference. But if it there was no difference, then why did Congress go to the effort of writing those conditions for certain victims, but not for others? A savvy defense attorney might well argue that these particular hate crimes are unenforceable.

In addition to this unnecessary vagueness, the law is also overbroad.

Let’s back up. The policy underlying this (and pretty much any other American law against discriminatory behavior) is that we don’t want people being singled out for mistreatment for reasons they have no control over. Again, people can’t help what race they are, so it’s bad to mistreat them for it. It now seems pretty clear that people can’t help what their sexual proclivities happen to be, so it’s bad to mistreat them for that as well.

But there are sexual proclivities that society still wants to punish. There are those who can only get sexual gratification from acts involving children. For the most part, they can’t help this, which is why they usually cannot be rehabilitated. So we have two competing interests here: society’s desire to protect those who can’t help being the way they are, and society’s desire to protect children from sexual predation. It should be obvious to most who read this what the policy ought to be on this. But this law doesn’t go there.

So you could have a situation where a father catches a sexual predator making moves on his young child, and beats him severely with a metal baseball bat. The act was committed primarily because of what the victim was, and it was based on his sexual orientation, so now the father is facing prosecution for a hate crime in addition to the assault.

Or you could have a religion whose believers are sworn to kill all redheads on sight. You happen to be a redhead, and members of that religion just established a temple down the street from your house. You willfully torch the temple, and someone gets hurt. Now, in addition to the arson, you’re looking at a hate crime.

These are extreme examples, to be sure. It’s not something that’s likely to happen. It merely shows that the law is inartfully written, and that it is conceivable that it could therefore be applied in ways that were not contemplated by Congress. These merely illustrate that the law could serve to protect those whom the law does not wish to protect, and penalize those whom the law did not wish to penalize.

These examples also raise a policy question as to defenses. In the first, the father could raise a defense of temporary insanity to challenge the assault claim. In the second, the arson might be challenged with perhaps a Bush-doctrine preemptive self-defense.

But is there room for such defenses in this law, the way it’s written? Temporary insanity is a defense to mens rea. It posits that the necessary mental state did not exist, because circumstances were such that the offender could not have been thinking that way. But here, the temporary insanity would be proof that the necessary mens rea did exist. It’s the result of the knowledge that the victim was a sex offender, and tends to show that the violence was inflicted because of it.

* * * * *

In short, we don’t have a legal or constitutional problem with hate crime laws. They actually seem to be a natural extension of our criminal jurisprudence. But this one seems to have been passed without anyone actually reading it (not surprising, as it hardly spend any time in committee).

An administration and the same-party majority in Congress just want to push a law through, and so they will. And they will wind up passing a law that probably doesn’t mean what they wanted it to mean, and which might not stand up under scrutiny.

So what’s new?