Archive for September, 2009

Supreme Court to Decide Whether Second Amendment Applies to the States

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

 

For the record, our position on gun control is to use both hands, relax, and control your breathing. But let’s talk about the law.

Last year, the Supreme Court historically decided that the Second Amendment gives individuals a constitutional right to possess firearms. The ruling, in District of Columbia v. Heller, was that the right of the People to bear arms was an individual right (so it wasn’t limited to militias or the military), and that it was a pre-existing right (recognized by the Constitution, and not created by it). The Court said there’s room for reasonable regulation, but an outright ban is unconstitutional.

The District of Columbia, however, is not a state. The Heller decision only directly applies at the federal level, which includes D.C. Whether the same rule applies to the states hasn’t been formally decided yet. And what counts as reasonable regulation at the state level is also an open question.

Obviously, there are plenty of folks who would like these things to be decided. Some want this to remain strictly a federal issue — the Bill of Rights originally did not apply to the states, and only gradually over the years have most (but not all) of the individual rights therein been incorporated by the Fourteenth Amendment. The Second, Third and Seventh Amendments have not yet been held to apply to the states.

Others, of course, want this individual right to be incorporated by the Fourteenth Amendment’s “privileges and immunities clause.” (That clause is what gives individuals the Bill of Rights protections from governmental intrusions, at the state and local level, by virtue of their national citizenship. So it protects you from your local cops’ infringement of speech, unreasonable search and seizure, etc.)

The Circuits are split on the issue. The Ninth Circuit ruled earlier this year that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Second Amendment to the state level. But the Seventh Circuit said no, it doesn’t. So it’s certainly a ripe issue for certiorari.

Any number of cases have been percolating in the system, really, to give the Supreme Court a chance to decide the issue. The NRA alone filed five cases on the issue in Illinois alone. So it hasn’t been so much a question of whether the Court would decide it, but which case it would choose to hear.

Well, this morning, the Supremes announced the case. McDonald v. Chicago (08-1521) involves pretty much the same issues as Heller. Chicago’s gun-control laws are practically identical to those D.C. had, so it really is a good case to narrowly decide whether the rule should be extended to the states. (The various court filings can be found here.)

The Court’s calendar is full for the rest of the year, so oral arguments won’t be scheduled until January at the earliest.

Pre-emptive Self Defense and International Law

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

sherman tank

Last year, for reasons we’re not entirely clear on, Hamas-led Palestinians started firing rockets and mortars at civilian populations in Israel. Israel put up with it for a while, but then after Christmas it finally responded with a bunch of air strikes on targets in the Hams-controlled Gaza region, and blocked shipping into the area.

As usual, there was a U.N. outcry against Israel’s actions, and a commission was formed. Last week, after several months of review, the commission came out with its report. Although it did say that Hamas shouldn’t have fired rockets at civilians, it came down hardest on Israel, concluding that Israel had committed major violations of international law, probably war crimes, and its actions did not count as self defense.

There have been the usual cries of unfairness all around, what one would expect in any such matter. The whole matter seems to be just par for the course, and we admit to not paying all that much attention to any of these goings-on.

But this morning, a piece in the WSJ by notable criminal law scholar Paul H. Robinson caught our eye. In his article, “Israel and the Trouble With International Law,” Mr. Robinson argues that, although the U.N.’s report might strike many as “a bit unsettling or even bizarre,” in nonetheless is probably correct, in terms of international law.

Mr. Robinson argues that the rules of international law forbid the kind of self defense that American criminal law would allow. Under international law, he says, if a gang of thugs is openly preparing to rob your store and kill your security guards, and is assembling in the parking lot across the street, and there are no police, you still cannot act in self defense until they actually start their attack. But under American criminal law you would be allowed to use such force as is “immediately necessary” to prevent the attack from happening, without waiting to be attacked first.

Similarly, he says, if a neighbor was letting thugs use his house, from which they regularly attacked your family, and there are no police, then international law would forbid you from using force against the thugs and the house they’re taking sanctuary in. But American criminal law would let you do it.

And as a third example, he says that international law only allows force against those thugs when they’re presently in the act of attacking your family, and not during the periods in between attacks, even though it’s an ongoing series.

So, he concludes, by going after the source and trying to prevent further acts of violence against its civilian population, Israel probably did violate international law here. The rules only let it use force to stop the individual attacks, and only while they’re actually happening.

-=-=-=-=-

We admire Mr. Robinson very much, but he’s not precisely correct here. He focuses on Article 51, but that’s not the only source of law here. The law on pre-emptive self defense is a non-Charter use of force, but which is nonetheless permitted by customary international law.

Article 51 of the U.N. Charter says that nothing in the Charter is to be construed so as to impair the “inherent right” (meaning it pre-existed the U.N.) of nations to use self defense against armed attack.

“Armed attack” does seem pretty limiting. Not every act of aggression counts as an attack, after all. Merely threatening force doesn’t count. The enemy may in fact be involved in a use of force, and it may even be an illegal use of force, but it still might not be an armed attack.

So Robinson cites the Nicaragua case, where the Sandinistas in Nicaragua were unlawfully supplying arms and sanctuary to insurgents trying to topple El Salvador’s government. Even though this was an illegal use of force, El Salvador had no right under international law to use force itself in order to stop Nicaragua’s violations of its sovereignty.

But an armed attack can be taking place if the enemy is massing across the border. Like his example with the thugs across the street, who are just waiting for night to fall before they attack your store. If that massing of troops is just an exercise, well then you’re not allowed to attack them.

But if it truly is preliminary to an imminent attack, then by all means strike them. Read on to see why it’s okay to do so.

Remember, though, you need to immediately report to the Security Council that you are under armed attack. And you need to promptly report your response actions to the Security Council.

The main things to keep in mind are that your force must be necessary, and it must be proportional.

-=-=-=-=-

The most famous case in international law, The Caroline (1906), deals with the hot-button issue of preemptive self defense. This one predates Article 51, and it is certainly part of customary international law.

The United States had a bunch of nasty battles with Canada during the War of 1812. There was a lot of bad blood, and the two countries remained hostile for many years thereafter. Unlike now, Canada was the major power, and the U.S. was the little guy. Nevertheless, the U.S. kept trying to take bits of Canada, and the border between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario was heavily militarized. Sound familiar?

The Canadians learned that the U.S. was planning a military incursion across the border into Canadian territory. Before the U.S. began its attack, however, the Canadians struck first.

The Canadians crossed the border first, grabbed the U.S. ship The Caroline, and killed everyone on board. Then they set the ship on fire. Then they launched it over Niagara Falls.

The U.S. Secretary of State at the time was Daniel Webster. He and his British counterpart Lord Ashburton began writing back and forth about what constituted proper self defense. It resulted in a letter from Webster saying:

The President sees with pleasure that your Lordship fully admits those great principles of public law, applicable to cases of this kind, which this government has expressed; and that on your part, as on ours, respect for the inviolable character of the territory of independent states is the most essential foundation of civilization. And while it is admitted on both sides that there are exceptions to this rule, he is gratified to find that your Lordship admits that such exceptions must come within the limitations stated and the terms used in a former communication from this department to the British plenipotentiary here. Undoubtedly it is just, that, while it is admitted that exceptions growing out of the great law of self-defense do exist, those exceptions should be confined to cases in which the ‘necessity of that self-defense is instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation.’

The law arising from this case is that, for pre-emptive self defense to be lawful:

1) The necessity must be immediate;

2) The necessity must be overwhelming;

3) There must be no other choice;

4) There must be no time to deliberate; and

5) It should also be proportional. (This comes from an earlier letter. Here, killing everyone, burning the ship, and sending it over the falls was found not to have been proportional.)

The Caroline keeps coming up again and again whenever the question of anticipatory self-defense is proper. These five criteria are the ones that get cited by pretty much everyone.

The Nazis, for example, when they invaded Poland, went out of their way to make it look like Poland had started it, so as to justify their invasion. They even dressed up Polish prisoners in German uniforms, shot them and filmed it, and blamed it on Poland. They were trying to make the facts appear to fit the requirements of The Caroline. The Nuremburg tribunal, however, did not buy it.

In the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States went out of its way to say its actions were not self-defense, but merely a quarantine of Cuba on the high seas to keep the missiles out. A blockade certainly is a kind of use of force, but it is less intrusive than other kinds. The United States proposed this theory in the U.N., and it was representatives from Ghana (who, unlike ours, had been well-educated in international law) who stood up and cited The Caroline case, asking “is this emergency instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation?”

When the Israelis bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 (because it could have been capable of making weapons-grade plutonium), that also led to lengthy discussions of whether the standards for preemptive self-defense attacks had been met. Of course, the act had already been done by then.

-=-=-=-=-

So if one reads the U.N. report more closely, one finds that it goes out of its way to find Israel’s strikes to have been disproportionate to the threat, primarily by including the blockade of shipping. The reasoning goes that the blockade punished the entire population, and wasn’t necessary to self defense.

We’re not particular fans of Israel, but that simply doesn’t wash. Gaza doesn’t produce its own rockets and mortars. Hamas gets them from Iran, Syria or other sources. So a blockade to prevent the ongoing attackers seems perfectly proportionate and necessary here.

Going through the five factors, what do we have?

1) Was the necessity immediate? Certainly. Israel had been under ongoing attack for months, with no sign of it letting up.

2) Was the necessity overwhelming? Sure. Civilians were being targeted for strikes by military weapons, and sovereignty was at stake as well.

3) Was there no other choice? It sure looked like it. Negotiations and diplomacy seemed only to be encouraging further attacks, as they always seem to do in that part of the world.

4) Was there no time to deliberate? Hmm. On the one hand, the Israelis seem to have been deliberating for months already, but if that precludes them from eventually saying enough is enough, then such a rule would encourage less deliberation, not more. Their population was under attack, and there was reason to believe it was going to happen again immediately, so it seems justifiable to call this as being no time to deliberate.

5) Was the response proportionate? The blockade was, to the extent it was focused at preventing Hamas from making further attacks. The air strikes targeted Hamas command, control and munitions, using precision-guided weapons to minimize collateral damage. It sure seems to have been proportional within the meaning of the law. Although many non-Hamas civilians were killed or wounded by the strikes, that does not change the fact of their limited purpose and execution.

So yes, if one only has the U.N. Charter to go by, Israel would seem to have violated international law. But there’s more to international law than just the U.N. charter. And under customary international law, it looks like Israel’s use of force was a lawful act of pre-emptive self defense.

Rats!

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

rats

On our first day as a young Manhattan ADA, we were assigned to the office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor for NYC. The purpose of Special Narcotics is to investigate and take down large-scale drug trafficking across the city. There were two parts to the office — the Special Investigations Bureau did tons of wiretaps, and was staffed by experienced prosecutors; the Trial Bureaus handled mostly street-level arrests, tons of them, in the hopes that some of those defendants would “flip” and provide information that could lead to a long-term investigation. We were assigned to a trial bureau.

We had competing feelings, at first. On the one hand, we were all gung-ho to do whatever small part we could, and were frankly itching to start trying cases. On the other hand, we were not at all eager to use informants. “Rats,” we believed, were not merely distasteful and disloyal, but were of dubious actual value. We were told in no uncertain terms that, if we weren’t going to use informants, then there was no way we’d ever be able to develop a big case.

(And just to be clear, by “informants” we don’t mean mere witnesses to a crime. We’re talking about defendants who are trying to get a more lenient sentence by helping to convict someone else.)

We spent the next five years in Special Narcotics, and sure enough dealt with more informants than we can count. Then we moved up to the Rackets Bureau of the Manhattan DA’s office, where we continued to develop and use informants for another five years. And though we were no George Smiley, we still got pretty good at it.

And sure enough, what they’d told us back on Day 1 was the truth: We never saw a case of any size that didn’t get started because of an informant. An informant is truly a prerequisite.

But at the same time, our gut feeling on Day 1 had also been correct: The vast majority of potential informants have zero value. We can’t imagine how many NYPD resources and sleepless ADA nights have been wasted dealing with useless informants, drafting and executing worthless search warrants, and running fruitless investigations.

-=-=-=-=-

These days, we’re on the defense side, and we simply don’t represent informants. If a defendant wants to flip, that’s their business, but they can find someone else to represent them. We like to think our job is to keep people out of jail, not to help the prosecution put someone else in jail.

Now that’s just us. There are plenty of decent and honorable defense attorneys who represent informants. We’re not disparaging them in any way. It’s just our own personal preference not to do so ourselves.

And that’s not to say we won’t have clients who cooperate, especially in federal white-collar cases. Cooperation doesn’t need to mean informing on others or trying to get someone else in trouble. There are all kinds of ways for a corporation or executive to cooperate with an investigation without being a rat or a turncoat.

-=-=-=-=-

So did we learn anything in all those years of developing and handling informants? Sure. More than enough to write a book or two, and certainly too much to set down in a blog post. But we don’t mind jotting down a few cautions that might be useful to our readers who might be working with or representing informants. (Defense counsel representing an informant has similar interests to those of the prosecutor — the informant only gets rewarded for results, so allowing him to screw the case is not in the client’s best interest.)

So here are a few things to be wary of:

* If it sounds too good to be true, it isn’t. The more kilos your informant claims to have seen inside that apartment, the more likely it is to house an elderly priest who’ll die of a heart attack when his door gets busted down. A street-level numbers runner who claims to have information about the leaders of an O.C. family is probably little more than a wannabe.

* Desperate people take desperate measures. Plenty of defendants would love dearly to be able to provide useful information, but unfortunately they don’t know any real crooks. At least none that they’re willing to inform on. It’s a sad truth that informants only get rewarded for results, not for efforts. So one frequently comes across the would-be informant who winds up trying to entrap friends and acquaintances into committing crimes. You run a serious risk of being duped yourself, and being party to that entrapment, if you’re not careful.

* Desperate people take even more desperate measures. Forget entrapment. Sometimes the would-be informant outright lies. Now your own integrity is at stake. So if a target letter went out, or an arrest has been made, be especially receptive to vociferous claims of innocence.

* An informant is never reliable. His information may be, on a given day, but he himself never is. He is an informant precisely because he is a criminal who is willing to sell out his friends and family. He is an informant in order to manipulate the system to his benefit. He is just as capable of manipulating you, and rest assured that is precisely what he’s trying to do.

* Watch out for an “informant” who is the actual culprit. Or who is a big fish trying to sell smaller fry.

* Ferret out whether the cops have made any promises on the side. Or worse yet, made payments or benefits to the informant beyond the scope of the deal. It’s a credibility-killer, especially if it comes out for the first time during testimony at trial.

* Nobody wants to make themselves look bad. So informants always, always hold back. Right about the time you think you’ve got the full story out of them, that’s where you need to presume there’s something serious they’ve held back that’s going to cause problems down the line.

* If it’s uncorroborated, presume it ain’t true. The best corroboration is physical evidence, photographs, and other non-testimonial items.

* Informants readily believe that law enforcement needs them, rather than the other way around. It does them no good to believe this. It should go without saying that the prosecutor should shut this attitude down at every opportunity. But the informant’s defense counsel should also make sure to hammer home that the informant is in charge of nothing in this relationship.

Finally, for the law-enforcement folks out there, do not rest your case on the informant. As soon as you can, drop the informant and build your case using other means. Ideally, you want a case where the informant never has to testify at all. Get the informant to introduce an undercover agent. Use the informant to get you started on a pen register or wiretap. Use the informant to launch physical surveillance or whatever. But get that informant out of the case as soon as possible.

That’s enough for one post. Time to stop before this turns into either a rant or a dissertation. We’ve got work to do.

Math Students Ace the LSAT, Pre-Law Students Suck

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

Avg LSAT Scores by Major

The LSAT is essentially the law school entrance exam in the United States. One’s score on that test is a big factor in determining which law school one will get to attend (if any). The law school one attends has an enormous influence on what sort of jobs will be available on graduation, and thus one’s entire career. So the LSAT is kind of a big deal, if one is considering a career in the law.

The college students most likely to be considering a legal career, of course, are those majoring in “Pre-Law.” So one would expect that, after four years of undergraduate preparation, they’re the most likely to ace that LSAT.

But as it turns out, Pre-Law and Criminal Justice students have the worst average scores out of 29 college majors. The students with the best scores? Math majors, Economics majors, and Philosophy majors.

The data has recently been published in a study by Michael Nieswiadomy, an Econ professor at the University of North Texas. The study, “LSAT Scores of Economics Majors: The 2008-2009 Class Update,” can be downloaded here.

Here’s what’s going on: The LSAT is mainly a logic test, with some reading comprehension thrown in. The logic problems aren’t terribly challenging — the logic puzzles one finds in the supermarket checkout line are much harder. But to answer them correctly, one needs to have an analytically-trained mind.

This is precisely the kind of mind that Math majors, Econ majors and Philosophy majors have formed during their four years of undergrad. (Physics is lumped in with Math because that’s all Physics is any more.) Philosophy is all logic and reasoning. These majors, in fact, essentially teach students how to think.

And that is precisely what law school does. Law school doesn’t teach you how to be a lawyer, but how to think and reason like one.

So really, it’s hardly surprising that the LSAT scores are distributed this way.

-=-=-=-=-

College students have often asked us what courses they ought to take, to best prepare themselves for law school. Our answer has always been “History, Philosophy and Economics.” History, because that teaches you to analyze your sources and root out details, and also because the common law is nothing but history. Philosophy, because it teaches you to think and analyze and reason out an argument. And Econ, because half of the legal principles out there these days come from Economics, whether you realize it or not. All three of these, if mastered reasonably well, provide a rock-solid foudnation for the practice of law at the highest levels, as taught in the finest schools.

And apparently, they help you get in, too.

(Hat tip: TaxProf Blog)

Ninth Circuit Bungles Math, Can the Supremes Fix It?

Tuesday, September 1st, 2009

Prosecutor's Fallacy

The “Prosecutor’s Fallacy” is one example of why we think Statistics should be a required course in college. Let’s say the police have the DNA of a rapist. Only 1 in 3,000,000 people chosen at random will match that DNA sample. Your DNA matches. At your trial, the DNA expert testifies that you have only a 1 in 3,000,000 chance of being innocent. That is not correct, however. That’s an example of the Prosecutor’s Fallacy.

Yes, there is a very small chance that someone’s DNA would match if they were innocent. But that is not the same as saying there’s a very small chance that someone is innocent if their DNA matches.

This is basic conditional probability. And if you think about it, it’s just common sense. What you’re doing is switching the conditions around, and leaving the result unchanged. You can’t expect to change the conditions and not change the result.

To illustrate with an extreme example, we drew the picture you see above. A black circle indicates a DNA match. All guilty people are going to have a DNA match, obviously. And a tiny fraction of innocent people are going to have a DNA match, as well. But if the number of innocent people is large enough, then the number of innocent people whose DNA matches could actually be larger than the number of guilty people. Someone whose DNA matches is actually more likely to be innocent in that scenario.

-=-=-=-=-

Prosecutors and DNA experts aren’t the only ones who get this wrong. Courts do, too. The Ninth Circuit recently made a hash of it in their decision in McDaniel v. Brown, which will now be one of the first cases to be heard by the Supreme Court at the start of this year’s October term.

In McDaniel v. Brown, Troy Brown was prosecuted for the alleged rape of a little girl. The facts are pretty gruesome, but irrelevant here. What’s relevant is that, at his trial, the DNA expert testified that Brown’s DNA matched the DNA in the semen found on the girl, that there was a 1 in 3,000,000 chance that someone’s DNA would match, and that therefore there was a 1 in 3,000,000 chance that Brown was innocent.

Brown got convicted. He later brought a habeas petition to the District Court. He introduced a professor’s explanation of how the prosecution had screwed up. The District Court expanded the record to include the professor’s explanation, and found that the DNA expert had engaged in the Prosecutor’s Fallacy. In part because of that (there was also a chance it could have been his brother’s DNA), the District Court found there wasn’t sufficient evidence to convict.

The government appealed to the Ninth Circuit.

Now, the Ninth is known for being touchy-feely. It’s not known for its analytical prowess. Posner, they ain’t. But they bravely tackled this statistical conundrum. And they screwed up.

In trying to deal with the prosecution’s error, the Ninth swung too far in the other direction, finding that the DNA evidence at Brown’s trial couldn’t establish guilt, period. No jury could have found Brown guilty.

So the government took it to the Supreme Court, making two arguments. One is procedural — that the habeas court shouldn’t have been able to consider the professor’s explanations, but only the trial record, in determining the sufficiency of the evidence before the jury. The other argument is that even though the chances of Brown being innocent weren’t 1 in 3,000,000 they were still pretty damn low, and the DNA evidence is still plenty sufficient.

Brown’s lawyers, to their credit, don’t seem to be arguing that the Ninth Circuit did it right. Instead of characterizing the decision below as ruling on the sufficiency of the evidence, Brown’s attorneys argue that it was really a Due Process ruling. The testimony wasn’t so much insufficient as it was incorrect. It was unreliable. This is bolstered by the fact that the Ninth Circuit ordered a new trial (which Double Jeopardy would preclude after a finding of insufficient evidence, but which is standard after a Due Process finding of unreliable evidence.)

That’s not the way the Ninth characterized its ruling, however, so Brown wisely suggested that the Supreme Court might simply kick the case back for the Circuit to explain its ruling better.

-=-=-=-=-

Oral arguments are scheduled for October 13. We haven’t made any predictions yet about the upcoming term, so we’ll start here.

We think the state will convince Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsberg and Alito of the following:

(1) The Ninth Circuit improperly remanded for a new trial, which is improper after a finding of insufficiency; and

(2) At any rate, the Circuit improperly found the evidence to be insufficient, when there was plenty of evidence of guilt.

We think that Justices Stevens and Breyer (we have no clue about Sotomayor) will dissent, arguing that the jury was totally thrown by the DNA expert’s mischaracterization, that this was a Due Process violation at the very least, and that the DNA evidence probably should have been thrown out entirely, so the Ninth Circuit should be reversed and the District Court’s original ruling should be reinstated.

What are the odds that we’re really right? Who wants to do the math?