Archive for September, 2015

Q&A Roundup Part 6

Friday, September 18th, 2015

My comic was on hold for a bit this summer during a trial and the run-up to trial beforehand. I periodically reassured my readers that I was still here, and would be back once the “work” work was done. This spawned its own variety of reader comments. I had to reply to this one:

I have this wonderful feeling that as the trials drag on the story of the “sorry for the delay” notes will be a searing tale of one lawyers descent into madness and redemption, maybe with some hot gypsies thrown in.

That’d be pretty funny. Sadly, I don’t have time for madness. Maybe gypsies, ha!

[UPDATE: Trial’s still going, but everything’s on schedule. Can’t complain. I’ll get back to this soon enough.]

[UPDATE: Ditto today. Keep the faith.]

[UPDATE: You know, I thought this would have been over by now. Screw it – I’ll spend some time on the comic tonight. Just a little. Just to keep it fresh in my mind.]

[UPDATE: I didn’t get much sleep last night, but it was so worth it. Good to feel the words and pictures flowing again. They’ll have to wait some more, though. Too much to do for court.]

[UPDATE: I lied. Couldn’t wait. Comic called last night, and I answered. Bad lawyer! No coffee!]

[UPDATE: Christ. Today the judge actually stopped things to ask if I was paying attention. Apparently there’d been a question. Fortunately I had the wit to give an answer, because truth be told I’d been rewriting that stupid page in my legal pad. For the nineteenth time. I think I covered pretty well, but oh god how am I going to make that page make sense when I never said that other stuff ten pages ago when I should have and it’s too late to bring it up now. Stress.]

[UPDATE: Tonight the wife kept pestering me to come to bed. Yeah right. She only means to sleep. I don’t get why I have to be there sleeping at the same time. Doesn’t she see I’m working?]

[UPDATE: So sleepy. I swear I saw Lady Justice and The State gossiping in front of the courthouse today. But of course it’s just the statues. Statues hardly ever gossip, ha!]

[UPDATE: So tonight she was all “come to bed, and I don’t mean just to sleep” but then of course she turned it into a rant and was all “jeezus when was the last time you slept through the night” and “you’re killing me here” like SHE is the one suffering. I didn’t even reply right away because 1) Rude. And 2) I had to get this freaking line art just the right kind of sloppy. And of course as soon as I turn around to answer she’s gone. Well, I guess whatever it was couldn’t have been THAT important, amirite?]

[UPDATE: Hey, sorry the delay is just going on and on. Trial kinda sucks up your whole day, 24-7, except for sleeping. Though I’m giving up just a tiny bit of that sleep to work on the comic so you don’t have to wait for-freaking-ever! ‘Cause I love you guys. You guys are the best.]

[UPDATE: Was looking for cheese tonight. Don’t know why, just craved cheese for some reason. Couldn’t find it in the fridge. Called out to She Who Must Be Obeyed to ask where she’d “hidden” it (ha!) but no answer. Guess she’s out with the girls. Actually haven’t seen too much of her lately. Nice of her to let me work, though.]

[UPDATE: I must say this trial is going really well so far, but you’d think the government would have run out of witnesses by now! How many people even LIVE in that neighborhood? Oh well, back to the grind tomorrow. And I really shouldn’t comment like that on an ongoing case. Forget I said it, okay?]

[UPDATE: It’s probably nothing? But late last night I felt a, you know, *presence* in the room with me. Kind of like someone was looking over my shoulder at my drawings. And judging me. No, seriously, I was kinda creeped out.]

[UPDATE: Had to go to the store after court today. All out of coffee. Too bad they don’t sell it in I.V. bags! Ha ha ha ha ha!!!]

[UPDATE: It happened again. I felt the presence. So I spun around in my chair real fast, and there was nothing there. Except there was. I could have sworn I saw, just for a moment, a little gnarled old lady watching me in the dark from the far corner of the room. I might not have been getting enough sleep lately (ANYTHING for you guys!) so it could have been one of those “microsleep” waking dreams you hear about truckers getting, where they *had* to swerve on that deserted highway in Utah because of the dragon in the middle of the road. Though my money’s on the dragon being real. But not this old lady. She was just a figment, for a fraction of a second, and then she was gone. Just my imagination. But you truckers out there, you watch out for those dragons, okay?]

[UPDATE: It’s been a few days since I checked in, just wanted to let you know the trial is STILL going on. The court reporter even said it’s starting to seem surreal to him. Nobody remembers a case going on this long. The prosecutor doesn’t even acknowledge us, just keeps plugging away, calling witness after witness. I’m tempted to not even cross-examine the next one, just to kinda move things along.]

[UPDATE: Spoke to her last night. I’d been building up the courage for a couple of nights. Just lost it and demanded that she tell me what she wants! The old lady spoke back!!! Her voice was like honey that’s crystallized and cracked with disuse. She wanted to tell me the future, what my jury was going to do, warning me about a strategy I’ve been contemplating. But I shut her right up. Tell me what’s going to happen next in the comic, I demanded! But the evil thing just vanished in disgust. That’s okay. The characters talk to me now. I bet if I’m nice to them, they’ll clue me in on what they’re planning to do. Maybe I’ll draw Pi that pony she wanted as a little girl…]

[UPDATE: Today the judge made a REALLY inappropriate comment about hygiene, looking right at my table. As if *I* have any say over whether the jail let my client shower before coming to court. Ugh. The old lady was back again last night. First she just looked at me, like she was considering something. Her big hoop earrings lay awkwardly against this big scarf she wears around her hair. Then she changed. Kind of filtered into a much younger her. Now she looked maybe sixteen. Same earrings, but now her hair was free and long and wild. She danced barefoot, though there was no music, in ruffled skirts that billowed about her like an ancient sea creature. Then she put a finger to her eye and dissolved into nothing. I had been wondering when she’d finally leave. I have a COMIC to write, you know?]

[UPDATE: So I spat coffee all over the morning paper. Did you see it, too? They said my trial had ended over a month ago, for reasons they didn’t disclose, and it was being – get this – RE-tried in a couple of weeks. These reporters never get anything right. If they’d bothered to, you know, actually come to COURT they’d have seen we’re still slogging away. Idiots.]

[UPDATE: Last night when I was talking to the characters, the narrator guy (what the hell is his name, anyway?) opened up a door I must have drawn, and invited me in. That was really nice of him, but I had to say no. Too busy!]

[UPDATE: You know what? If they invite me in tonight? I’ll say yes. I’ll go.]

[UPDATE: I hope they have coffee!]

Q&A Roundup Part 5

Friday, September 18th, 2015

I made a thing for Radley Balko at the Washington Post on Qualified Immunity. Some people had questions about it over on my comic, which was about something completely different. One of the WaPo pages mentioned the elimination of the KKK under President Grant.

Wait I thought that the KKK and Knights of the White Camilla weren’t so much defeated as succeeded in implementing policies after the compromise that brought Rutherford B Hayes into the White House?

There’s no doubt that Reconstruction failed, and racist policies were certainly implemented as a result — but the KKK itself did cease to exist as an organization. Another KKK would eventually be formed in 1915 or thereabouts, but that original one was gone.

The failure of Reconstruction is a fascinating area of our nation’s history that can be difficult to piece together, because almost everything written about it until maybe the 1960s was revisionist as hell. And even a lot of modern sources can be equally revisionist, just on the opposite swing of the pendulum. I think of the fiasco as a long string of failures and miscalculations, worsened by the economic depression of the 1870s, of which Hayes was only the last. (And speaking of revisionism, until the 1950s or 60s Hayes was lauded as the man who reunified the country, one of the greatest presidents!)

That is very interesting. However, what does any of this stuff about reconstruction have to do with law? Or the neuroscience of memory?

What, we haven’t had digressions here before? Just run with it.

As to the Qualified Immunity thing – is that the same doctrine that allows prosecutors to avoid any punishment when they do things like withholding evidence during discovery?

Nope. Different doctrine.

Prosecutors have something else called “absolute immunity.” They can’t be sued for stuff they did in their role as prosecutor, even if it was really really egregious and caused great injustice. They lose their absolute immunity only when they start doing the actual police work, at which point qualified immunity would instead apply. Apart from that, they have absolute immunity.

It can be a real problem: Prosecutors have insane power, and complete discretion as to how to use their power. But there’s no accountability for misuse or abuse of that power. Sure, there’s professional discipline for prosecutorial misconduct, but it’s rarely enforced. And it’s not the same as allowing the victim to sue the malefactor.

[A few states do allow suits for some prosecutorial misconduct. The damages are (I think) always paid from tax money in those cases, though, so even then the prosecutor herself isn’t at risk.]

We’ll cover all this in more detail when we get to Advanced Criminal Procedure. But that subject — what happens once you’ve been charged with a crime — is more about what the lawyers and judges can and cannot do. So I’m not going to get to that until I’ve at least done Constitutional Law and Torts, which are much more relevant (and interesting) to everyone else. So in the meantime, feel free to bring that stuff up here in the comments!


[If you want to read what I actually said about Qualified Immunity, click on the link at the top.]

Q&A Roundup Part 4

Friday, September 18th, 2015

The officer gets his overtime. The defendant gets his freedom. But the victim doesn’t get his property back. If someone steals all of the money in my bank account, the police find a paper trail that shows who did it, but the courts suppress the evidence because the evidence was acquired unlawfully, then can I still sue them in civil court to get my money back or does the money become the thief’s property for all intents and purposes? Or is there a third option that I do not know about?

The victim’s reaction is irrelevant to criminal law.

Criminal law is about whether the state can punish an offender. The victim isn’t a party to the case, but is merely a source of evidence. The prosecutor doesn’t represent the victim’s interests in restitution, but the state’s interest in punishment. Restitution may be ordered as part of a sentence, but it doesn’t have to be.

But just as the victim’s rights aren’t part of the criminal case, whether the criminal case pans out or not has little bearing on the victim’s rights. Even if the criminal case gets dropped or dismissed, the victim can still exercise his rights. He seeks justice, not in criminal court where he is not a party, but in civil court.

It is civil court, not criminal court, that is about righting wrongs. If someone harms you, you can sue them in civil court for money damages to “make you whole” and compensate you for the harm. If someone stole a particular thing, you can ask for a court order compelling them to give that thing back.

The outcome — or even existence — of a criminal case doesn’t have much effect on exercising your rights in civil court. Different rules apply, they have different standards of proof, and they really are like apples and oranges, so what happens in one court doesn’t really carry over to the other one. It would be unjust to deny people their right to civil justice just because a prosecutor exercised her discretion not to prosecute someone, or because evidence strong enough for a civil case wasn’t enough to meet the higher burden in a criminal one. That’s how someone like O.J. Simpson can be acquitted and unpunished by the criminal courts, and found responsible and liable for money damages for the same act in civil court.

In the example you’re responding to, the guy apparently stole a coin collection. We don’t know that the collection itself was ever recovered by the police. If it was, it was probably saved to be used in evidence. Regardless of the outcome of the case, police departments typically have a procedure for property owners to reclaim their stuff afterwards. If the thief had already sold the coins, however, there’s nothing for the police to return, so the victim would have to sue the thief for the value of what was stolen.

People do forget sometimes that civil law and criminal law are two entirely different and separate things (heck, I never knew this myself until after I started law school). That can lead to confusion when they expect the criminal law to enforce their rights against the offender. In criminal law it is the offender who has rights, not the victim. The only “justice” a victim typically gets from a criminal case is a sense of retribution — the offender got harmed, too. For the more meaningful justice of being restored or at least compensated, you need to take it to civil court. That’s what it’s for.

Q&A Roundup Part 3

Friday, September 18th, 2015

Hey Nathan,

I’m ≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡, an AI MSc student. Your comic is great! : ) I have some questions.
(1) The Good Wife, a show about lawyers, makes law knowledge seem a bit like a weapon to be used for attack and defence to help one navigate the civilized world. To what extent is this true? That is, what exactly is the utility of law knowledge without a license to practice it? Does being the best unlicensed lawyer in the universe turn you into a superhero or just an interesting dude?
(2) Suppose hypothetically that the AI apocalypse will be upon us in 5-20 years. Will laws about AI rights be passed? Will the development of AI systems in uncontrolled environments become illegal in an effort to prevent it?
(3) Along similar lines, it might, in the not too distant future, be trivial to surveil everything, everywhere, all the time. How does the legal system address this? How do you see the law evolving as these waves of technology hit us?

Thanks for writing, ≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡! Each of your questions could make for a long article in a law review, but here are some quick off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts:

1) I haven’t seen the show, but there are certainly people out there who try to use knowledge of law (and rules in general) as a tool to get their way. Sometimes it’s to prevent other people from doing something, sometimes it’s to make other people do something, and sometimes it’s to get money from people. Obstruction, compulsion, and extortion. They’re rare, in my experience, but they do exist.
If you think of life in a given society as a game, then the law is simply the rulebook for playing that game. And it can be hard to play the game if you don’t have at least a basic understanding of the rules (which is what I’m trying to give folks with my comic). The better you understand the rules that apply to you, the better you’ll be able to play the game, the less likely another player will be able to cheat you, and the better your understanding of the game itself. Similarly, the better you understand the law that applies to you, the better you’ll be able to make informed decisions, protect yourself from those who would use law as a weapon, and the deeper your understanding of our society and culture. The utility of law knowledge is the ability to navigate life.
The reason why lawyers exist, and why there is such a demand for them, is because we keep adding to the rulebook and rewriting it and making it ever more complex and arcane. Nobody can know all of it, so we hire people who understand the bit that affects us right now, and pay them for advice and to make decisions on our behalf. But that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t bother learning at least the basics of law, and just leave it all up to the lawyers. That would be like downloading a bot to play the game for you. And not even knowing which kind of bot to get.
I don’t think a fundamental knowledge of the law makes one either a superhero or extra interesting. I think it’s a basic prerequisite for functioning in any society.
2) The less we understand something, the more we fear it. The more we fear something, the more we try to prevent it. Often, this means passing laws to prohibit something when we don’t understand what we’re prohibiting. Laws like that are typically both overbroad, punishing those it wasn’t aiming at, and ineffective against the intended target.
Most people have even less understanding of technology than they do of law. Politicians and regulators are no different. I’d expect all kinds of laws trying to regulate and prohibit scary tech, and I’d expect blameless people to be prosecuted and punished simply because they’re easy to catch and easy to convict according to poorly-thought-out laws, and I’d expect people who want to develop the tech to find ways of doing so regardless.
In other words, we’ll do what we always do.
3) The concern with surveillance is mostly with how the government can do it. For individuals and businesses, the main concern is not breaking laws against wiretapping – recording someone’s voice without their knowledge. This is why many security video cameras don’t have a microphone.
When it comes to the government, all these extra cameras everywhere are a potential source of evidence that the government could subpoena – and because it wasn’t the government taking the videos, there’d be no issue about whether the government violated your rights when the video was taken. Free evidence that won’t be suppressed. The expense would be in tracking down useful videos and subpoenaing them before they’ve been deleted.
But what I think you’re getting at is whether there may be an erosion of our “expectation of privacy” – and therefore our protections against government surveillance – as surveillance in general becomes more ubiquitous and technologically advanced. I think that’s extremely likely. After all, if a reasonable person would have to expect that he or his stuff could be detected by any private individual or entity, then how can it be reasonable to prohibit the police from detecting it? Not just security video and things people capture with their cell phones, but also code that tracks behavior online, and other details yet to be imagined.
As surveillance technology advances and its use gets more ubiquitous, we’ll have two options: (a) prohibit people from using or making advanced devices; severely restrict public photography and video recording; and restrict the production and use of software that can analyze it; or (b) let the government see what any private person or organization could see. The first option is impractical, unworkable, and in my opinion morally wrong. So we’re probably going to have to go with the second. Our expectation of privacy is going to erode, and the government will be allowed to see more and more of what we do.
I’d be interested to hear what other people think about these questions. All the best!

Q&A Roundup Part 2

Friday, September 18th, 2015

I’m writing a response to an essay on “consent as a felt sense” and looking for a deeper explanation of mens rea and the reason why it ought form the basis for not just a legal system, but for the social norms of a community. I know there is some good discussion in the Elonis v. US case, but who are some good sources to read that really lay out the reason why we should (or should not) examine an actors mindset when judging culpability?

Mens rea isn’t really the basis of our legal system, nor is it really the basis of social norms. Mens rea is the legal term for the mental state that makes an act punishable by the state. If I accidentally tripped on a crack in the sidewalk and fell on you, bruising your arm, yes I caused injury to you, but because I had no culpable mental state – no mens rea – that’s not an injury the law wants to punish me for. Whereas if I intentionally whacked you on the arm and bruised it, the state could send me to jail. Same act, same harm, but only punishable because I was trying to harm you.

That’s a very small subset of the law. Mens rea doesn’t come up much in, say, corporate law or contracts or wills or real estate, etc. There may be some question of what parties intended or meant to do, but that’s not the same analysis as whether (or to what degree) they were being evil.

Mens rea doesn’t underlie social norms, either, but is instead a way of looking at why they were broken. It’s the difference between merely being rude or awkward and criminal stalking or harassment. It’s the difference between an accidental killing and murder one. The social norm would be what is or is not done, whereas mens rea is how purposefully you violated it.

Rather than mens rea forming a basis for “just a legal system,” it is instead a basis of “a just legal system,” ensuring that we only punish those who deserve it, who chose to break the rules. Injustice often arises when we punish without caring about mens rea. (See my chapter on strict liability, “Guilt without Fault,” for example.)

As for “consent as a felt sense,” be careful discussing it in the same breath as the law. That phrase is an attempt to redefine “consent” to mean something else. The law is very clear about what consent means.

“Consent” means voluntarily agreeing (or acquiescing) to something, so that it can now happen. If you ask me if you can borrow my bicycle, and I say yes, then I consented to you borrowing my bicycle. Even if while riding my bike you hit a pedestrian, and oh my god if I’d known you were going to do that I’d never have said yes, it doesn’t change the fact that I let you do it. The future doesn’t change the fact that I gave consent now. By the same token, if you steal my bicycle and later ask me if it was okay, even if I say yes I still did not consent to you taking it in the first place. You still committed theft. The fact that I’m okay with it now doesn’t change the past. That’s ratification or something like that, not consent.

“Consent as a felt sense” is really the opposite. It’s a way of saying consent works backwards in time, rather than forwards. It lets me “take back” my consent to you riding my bike, after I find out you later hit a pedestrian. If it was internally consistent, it would let my later acquiescence convert your crime of theft into a non-criminal borrowing, after the fact. The law doesn’t work like that.

It usually comes up in the context of rape – specifically wanting to call consensual sex nonconsensual rape, if afterwards one of the participants feels like he/she wouldn’t have agreed to it if they knew how they’d feel about it now. In other words, “taking back” one’s consent because they regret what they consented to. The law doesn’t work that way, but those who speak of “consent as a felt sense” tend to say “so what,” and say we shouldn’t be so concerned with whether the rules were obeyed at the time as with how people felt afterwards.

The problem in that world – and it’s a big one – is that mens rea is irrelevant. Who cares whether you were trying to do anything wrong or whether you were trying to do the right thing. The important thing isn’t your culpability then, but my feelings now. In that world, you could be punished even though you did everything right, and did nothing wrong. It embodies all the injustice of strict liability crimes, with all the unpredictability of a world without rule of law, where nobody knows what they might go to jail for or why. Can you imagine what kind of a hell that would be?

This is why lawyers – especially criminal lawyers – are super leery of this kind of sociological definition-changing. Utopians tend to make misery. Especially when they don’t understand the law and why it is the way it is.

Another reader’s response: I’m clearly not as experienced as lawyer as this guy (two thirds of a 1L criminal law class woo!), but I thought I’d share my two cents.

I think the above lawyer’s analysis fails in regarding consent as something that is given once, rather than a continuous process.  It is not precisely analogous to the bike-giving example because that’s a bailment created for a limited duration of time; meanwhile, in order for an act to be truly consensual there must be consent at each individual action that occurs, and at each moment.  To clear up some possible strawmen, I’m pretty sure that the above lawyer thinks that people can verbally revoke consent in the middle of a sex act.  Conversely, I don’t mean that explicit verbal consent must be gotten every time e.g. someone goes from touching one body part to another.

I think the “consent as a felt sense” can be better understood to modify the actus reus of rape, rather than the mens rea.  Rape is then redefined as “any sexual act done without the subjective experience of consent with another person.”  I think this is the proper definition, since it focuses the crime on where the harm actually occurs; e.g. inside the mind of the person being victimized.  Of course, in order to be morally culpable, much less criminally answerable, there must also be a mens rea; was someone intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or negligently violating someone’s subjective experience of consent?  Or did they have no way of knowing?  Obviously if someone has no clue that consent was no longer experienced, and had no way of knowing it, they’re not culpable.

So far this looks pretty similar to today’s rape law, but I’d like to bring in an example from my own life to illustrate.  When I was 17, I engaged in my first relationship with a 39-year old man.  Things proceeded pretty quickly, and we started having sex.  When we finally got there, I was clearly distressed; I was shaking, not just trembling, and drenched in sweat that went beyond normal sexual aerobics.  My voice caught in my throat.  I think it’s far to characterize that situation as one where the subjective experience of consent was no longer there, but I also did not have the means to verbalize that to my partner.  My partner, to his credit, stopped what he was doing, we had a discussion, and two weeks and a couple drinks later I had the best experience of my life.

But was it simply to my partner’s credit?  I think what the people who define consent as a felt experience would say that it’s not.  It’s the bare minimum of morally acceptable behavior.  Even if I had given verbal consent prior, anyone who would continue having sex with someone who is clearly in distress merely because they met the empty formalism of rape law is morally culpable.

Spreading the idea of consent as a felt experience, or encoding it into law, is about crystallizing that insight.  Torts law is often about placing the burden of preventing harm on those who are in the best position to be able to do so (to be fair, I got this from my heavily law-and-economics torts professor, so I have no idea if this is the mainstream view).  Surely that’s the person who lost felt consent, since they can verbalize it, but the initiator is also in a position to minimize harm by stopping if they think felt consent has been lost.  It makes sense to incentivize people to stop if they have reason to believe consent is no longer present.

Rape law, and current mores around rape, would say that what my boyfriend did was not obligatory.  I think it is, which is why I want to spread the idea of consent as a felt experience.

You raise a couple of really intriguing points.

The first is the concept of consent as a continuous process. There are at least two excellent classroom discussions to get out of that. First would be whether it’s actually a continuing process. If you have happily consented to have sex with your boyfriend, must you really consent to each tickle, touch, or thrust before it can take place, or have you actually consented to the experience as a whole, however it may unfold? I suspect that the common understanding is the latter, rather than the former – in which case, if your understanding is the former, it might behoove you to so inform your partner, lest there be any unfortunate misunderstandings that ruin your experience or his life.

Still on that first point, another excellent discussion could be whether, and at what point, such consent is revocable. Is it a hard-and-fast rule that, no matter when, the moment you withdraw consent any further continuation of the act is rape? Or is there more of a continuum? Take these three situations: (a) You say “let’s go to bed” and you partner eagerly agrees, but before anyone’s jeans are off you change your mind and say not tonight. (b) You’ve been happily having intercourse, well past the penetration stage, and while he’s going hot and heavy you remember something he did that upset you, you immediately lose interest in continuing and tell him to stop, but he doesn’t stop immediately so you push him off. © You had sex and it was great. Now it’s the next day and you feel really bad that you had sex. Maybe he turned out to be a jerk in the morning, or whatever. The point is you no longer want it to have happened. The question would be, do all three of those acts count as revocation of consent, do only (a) and (b) count, or does only (a) count, and why? The trick with these discussions, of course, is to dig down to the underlying principles behind people’s different positions, to ensure that people aren’t talking past each other despite using the same language.

The second intriguing point you raise is when you say you think it is obligatory for sex partners to do what your boyfriend did. You were exceedingly nervous at the prospect of losing your virginity, but never made it known that you didn’t want to go through with it. Your partner picked up on the fact that this wasn’t very enjoyable for you, and had the good grace to wait until you were more comfortable with it. You would make mandatory his ability to distinguish your distress from the normal apprehension and excitement that accompany many first forays into sex. You would make mandatory his ability to correctly interpret your internal feelings when you have not communicated them. You would make mandatory the gentility and wisdom of an experienced, middle-aged man, and impose them on every 17-year-old trying sex himself for the first time, possibly as distressed as you were.

And to be clear, you’re saying that anyone who gets it wrong, anyone who mis-reads the cues, anyone who isn’t as sensitive or mature as this ideal, should have his future taken away, should be branded a felon, should be imprisoned, should be registered as a sex offender and despised for the rest of his life, denied the opportunity for most education, employment, social involvement, and relegated to an underclass of citizens we like to pretend don’t exist. Because that’s what happens when you make this stuff obligatory.

Hey, maybe that’s exactly what you want. Maybe it isn’t. Don’t let me put words in your mouth. But as someone who’s defended both men wrongfully accused of sex crimes and women charged with making false accusations, I’d caution anybody urging such mandates to be very clear on the outcome they desire. Good intentions, and all that.

Q&A Roundup Part 1

Friday, September 18th, 2015

I get a lot of questions over at my comic and on Tumblr, and try to answer most of them as best I can. Some get answered privately, but some are out there for all to see. It occurs to me that there may be readers of this blog who may not want to be seen reading a comic, or be caught dead lurking on Tumblr. Fair enough. But my ego’s strong enough that I think there’ve been a few exchanges you might be interested in.

So I’m basically going to just cut-and-paste this and the next few posts from stuff I’ve already written in response to questions elsewhere.


First off, I love your comic and your blog. Reading your analysis has made me feel more informed when I read the results of court cases or existing law.

Second, I have a question for you. From what I understand, many of the initiatives meant to overturn Citizens United ( have as part of their text “human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights.”

Am I correct in reading this as overthrowing Dartmouth College v. Woodward ( and invalidating contracts held by corporations? Would this mean that contracts of employment would also be invalidated?

I tried looking through your blog to see if you’d written about Citizens United before, but didn’t find anything.

Thanks, I really appreciate it!

As for the Citizens United issue, the phrase “human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights” flies in the face of a lot of constitutional law. Dartmouth v Woodward was perhaps the beginning of corporate personhood, but there’s much more to it than that.

Corporations are fictional persons created by the state, and in order for that fiction to make sense the courts have recognized that corporations have to have at least some of the protections our Constitution grants to individuals against the government. But not all of them. Importantly, they are not “citizens” for the purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment (the big one when it comes to whom the Bill of Rights protects). They cannot vote. They don’t have the right against self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment. They don’t have “personal” rights that human beings would have, such as the right to get married, to travel, to run for office, to sit on a jury, etc. The Privileges & Immunities Clause doesn’t apply to corporations, nor do they have the right to Liberty that is protected by Due Process.

The difficulty is that the courts really haven’t given us much guidance on what rights can apply to corporations and which belong strictly to human beings. When they say a corporation has a right, the reasoning usually boils down to “because we said so.”

If you look at all the various constitutional rights, some may seem obviously personal and some may seem obviously applicable to corporations, but there’s a lot of gray area that’s not so obvious. That’s why reasonable people differ. And that’s why “because we said so” case law only breeds frustration. Citizens United and Hobby Lobby are only the most recent instances of frustration and disagreement. Until the courts come up with an underlying principle to guide their jurisprudence, there’s only going to be more.

In a case like Hobby Lobby, you could reduce the confusion and frustration by limiting a corporation’s standing to sue. In Hobby Lobby, for example, the issue was that the corporation’s human owners didn’t want to have to do something. Hobby Lobby kinda sued on their behalf. But you can’t sue on someone else’s behalf. To have standing, you yourself had to be harmed. The individuals should have tried to enforce their own right not to be forced into doing something, rather than the corporation saying it shouldn’t be forced to do something its owners didn’t like. Then you don’t have to worry about whether the corporation is “closely held” or whether it can practice a religion or what have you.

Still, that doesn’t do much for a case like Citizens United. There, the corporation would have been harmed by not being able to support candidates and policies that could affect its bottom line. It has standing, and the issue is whether the government can prevent it from supporting candidates.

Some say the corporation should not be allowed to do that, because it amplifies the support of its shareholders – they can all support a candidate individually one time, and then a second time in the aggregate. If that is the principle, then corporate taxation should go out the window. The shareholders are already being taxed once on their income, and taxing them a second time in the aggregate violates this ideal.

Some say the corporation simply shouldn’t count as a person at all. But that principle would also mean a corporation could not be sued or held criminally liable for its acts – something very few who profess this principle would like to see. Generally, those who want to abolish corporate personhood also want to be able to hold corporations liable for their misconduct and even their mistakes. You can’t have it both ways.

What seems to make the most sense to me is to say yes, corporations are fictional people, and yes, in order to function they need certain rights. And we can pick and choose which rights apply and which don’t. BUT, in so doing, we don’t have to say those rights apply to corporations in the same WAY that they apply to people.

There’s no reason (other than judicial laziness) why rights couldn’t be applied to corporations differently than for humans. If allowing corporations to donate to politicians leads to unwanted distortions of our politics, there is no reason why we couldn’t limit the corporate right in such a way as to minimize those distortions. The First Amendment right to fund political speech doesn’t have to work exactly the same way as it does for humans. The corporation is a creation of the state, after all, and the state can fiddle with it without harming any actual citizens.

A simple guiding principle could be that a corporation’s rights can never outweigh the rights of human beings, and if the protection of a corporation’s rights would give it greater weight than humans then that protection would have to give way. Sort of a “your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins” analogy, with the added sense that humans outrank fictional entities. You’d still have plenty of wiggle room and gray area in which to draw lines, but principled jurisprudence would do away with much of the unpredictability and frustration our “because we said so” case law has created.

Anyway, that’s my quick two cents off the top of my head. Better stop now before I get in too deep and start spending hours researching policy arguments and case law to support what I’m saying.

Paranoia from the PBA President

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

Over lunch today, the head of one of the NYPD’s powerful police unions* emailed a shrill “open letter” to the press, blaming the “armchair rhetoric” of columnists and pundits for the worsening relations between the police and the communities they serve.  Here’s the email:

To all arm-chair judges:

If you have never struggled with someone who is resisting arrest or who pulled a gun or knife on you when you approached them for breaking a law, then you are not qualified to judge the actions of police officers putting themselves in harm’s way for the public good.

It is mystifying to all police officers to see pundits and editorial writers whose only expertise is writing fast-breaking, personal opinion, and who have never faced the dangers that police officers routinely do, come to instant conclusions that an officer’s actions were wrong based upon nothing but a silent video. That is irresponsible, unjust and un-American. Worse than that, your uninformed rhetoric is inflammatory and only serves to worsen police/community relations.

In the unfortunate case of former tennis pro, James Blake, — who was clearly but mistakenly identified by a complainant — there certainly can be mitigating circumstances which caused the officer to handle the situation in the manner he did. Do they exist? Frankly, no one will know for sure until there is a full and complete investigation. That is why no one should ever jump to an uninformed conclusion based upon a few seconds of video. Let all of the facts lead where they will, but police officers have earned the benefit of the doubt because of the dangers we routinely face.

The men and women of the NYPD are once again disheartened to read another the knee-jerk reaction from ivory tower pundits who enjoy the safety provided by our police department without understanding the very real risks that we take to provide that safety. Due process is the American way of obtaining justice, not summary professional execution called for by editorial writers.


Patrick J. Lynch

Here’s where that’s coming from:

  1. Last week, retired tennis player James Blake was at the entrance to the (very nice) Grand Hyatt hotel in midtown Manhattan, waiting for a car to take him to an appearance at the U.S. Open. Out of the blue, an armed man in a white t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers attacked him, shoved him against the wall, then twist-slammed his body face-down onto the pavement.
  2. The armed attacker was a police officer, James Frascatore, who mistakenly thought Blake was a suspect in a credit card fraud. Frascatore did not identify himself as a police officer until after Blake was in handcuffs.
  3. Video of the attack surfaced (seen here). Frascatore was widely criticized for excessive and unnecessary force, word spread that he’s had a long record of overdoing it.
  4. To stem the public-relations disaster, Frascatore was placed on desk duty while an investigation could proceed.
  5. The public-relations disaster only got worse, with Blake calling for Frascatore to be fired, and many thought leaders joining in that wish.
  6. Lynch is now responding to all that, saying that it’s too soon to judge Frascatore, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions until we know the whole story, he deserves the benefit of the doubt because police officers have a dangerous job, the people calling for him to be fired enjoy the benefits of policing without the wisdom that comes from understanding what police officers risk, and that Frascatore deserves due process before being tarred as an offender.

A lot of people are going to knee-jerk dismiss Lynch’s email as a load of horseshit at best, and at worst a dangerous defense of a dangerous man that exemplifies the corruption of police unions and the thin blue line’s blind eye to evil within its ranks.

A lot of people are going to knee-jerk cheer Lynch’s email as a necessary breath of fresh air, a much-needed skewering of those who god knows why insist on attacking the freaking good guys, who give aid to the enemy by fanning the flames of anti-cop sentiment, those namby-pamby assholes who put good cops’ lives in danger to further their petty political points.

I’ll try not to be too knee-jerk here, but Lynch is wrong. He’s hypocritical, foolish, and wrong.


Look, nobody doubts that the police have a risky job. It’s nowhere near as risky as they sometimes think, with fewer cops being shot these days — despite there being far, far more cops and criminals on the streets — than there were more than half a century ago. (Sorry, that link was from 2013. They’re even safer now.) But the fact remains that police officers do sometimes, occasionally, rarely, get killed on the job. Even by people suspected of nonviolent crimes like credit card fraud.

You think I’m going to say that’s irrelevant. But it’s not. I’ll get to that in a moment.

But holy cow, the hypocrisy. Once again the refrain that “we can’t judge this officer until all the facts are in.” “Don’t rush to judgment.” “Don’t jump to conclusions based only on the evidence you’ve seen.” “Don’t ruin his reputation and career before he’s had the due process of a full and fair investigation.”

Oh, please.

When police officers start living by those maxims, maybe then they can expect to benefit from them. Rushing to judgment, jumping to conclusions based on limited evidence, is what cops do. It’s what they’re trained to do. It’s their blasted job description. And they immediately do their best to destroy the lives of those they’ve arrested, before any evidence is in, before any due process has even begun, by hauling their victims through perp-walks and holding press conferences specifically designed to condemn people who haven’t even been arraigned yet, much less been convicted.

Whenever a police representative makes any of these claims, you have my permission to vomit on their shoes in disgust.

That’s the hypocrisy, and it’s obvious. What’s the foolishness?

Lynch is foolish to attack the punditry in this way. The opinion writers and journalists of America have been the best friend of the police since forever. Including the lefty anti-establishment types who flocked to journalism after Watergate. Yes, them too. They’re the ones who made the police into heroes. It sure wasn’t the people on the street who actually interacted with cops and batons and TPF goons, and it certainly wasn’t the people safe in their offices and houses and dorm rooms whose only encounter with the police was a speeding ticket. It’s been the storytellers — the journalists, the screenwriters, the comic-book artists — who’ve reliably instilled the ideal of the noble police officer.

The exceptions used to be exceedingly rare, and only in reaction to exceedingly awful conduct.

What would a wise police establishment do? A wise establishment would co-opt these writers eagerly, and make sure that these rare exceptions were known to be exceptions, were disavowed as unpolicemanlike, and that real police officers neither behave that way nor tolerate those who do.

What the unions have consistently done, however, is to double down each time it happens. With every case of police brutality, the police back the wrongdoer. And each time they do that, the police themselves, turn the outcry, bit by bit, against the police themselves. By identifying with the wrongdoers, the police have gradually become the wrongdoer in many eyes. Some say the anti-police demonstrations in Ferguson last year marked a tipping point, and that anti-cop sentiment is becoming systemic. But they said that after Amadou Diallo, after Abner Louima, after Rodney King, a generation ago, and it never really snowballed. But if we are at a tipping point or near one, how much wiser to stop it by co-opting the opinion makers? Not antagonizing them and proving to them that everything they suspected and feared is in fact true.


Video is not the policeman’s friend, necessarily. It’s easy enough to edit out the bits that show the threat a police officer was reacting to, to make his reaction look senseless and out of the blue. There are plenty of videos making the rounds that do just that. It’s unfair when that’s all we see, and yes when we jump to conclusions based on such videos we jump to the wrong conclusions. But the solution to that is not the same old doubling down, locking arms, and spouting the same mindless defense of wrongdoing and hypocrisy. That only breeds more skepticism and cynicism. The correct thing to do is provide the rest of the facts, so the public knows not only what’s what, but also that someone tried to manipulate them. People don’t like that. You can do this without undermining an officer’s legal defense. He doesn’t have to say a word on camera. That’s what you union mouthpieces are for, right?

Video is also not always the policeman’s friend when viewed by an untrained eye. You officers on the job right now, how many videos have you seen of a justified shooting, where it all happened too fast or at the wrong angle for the camera to pick up on the gun? Happens all the time. Joe Public sees a video of a cop shooting an unarmed man for no reason. But if you defend the bad shootings along with the proper ones, how is he to know?


As Radley Balko recently wrote, “Once again: There is no ‘war on cops.’ And those who claim otherwise are playing a dangerous game.


So what about the danger, then?

Police training and experience can be pretty dysfunctional. In fact, it’s amazingly similar to the socialization and experience that trains street thugs to behave the way they do.

You take a kid being raised in the inner city by a young, uneducated, single mom. Surround him with those who would hurt him or take advantage of him. He learns not to trust the people around him to have his best interests at heart. When someone tries to make him do something, the best response may well be to deny that person any authority over him, to fight back. The world is a dangerous place, in which he must assert himself forcefully if he is to survive. The other guy doesn’t count. All that counts is getting home okay, and if he can make a little money all the better. [For more on that, read this (or listen to the authors’ Freakonomics podcast or this unrelated Ted talk), or pick up any recent textbook on delinquency.]

In the Academy, police are trained that they are surrounded by those who would hurt them or take advantage of them. On the street, they deal almost exclusively with the violent, the broken, the unpredictable. They very rarely get asked directions by kids out of a Norman Rockwell painting. They learn to assert their authority immediately and forcefully. Otherwise a perp might fight back, and they might get hurt. The perp doesn’t count. All that counts is getting home okay, and if the officer can make a little overtime along the way, all the better.

Dysfunctional? You bet.

But that explains why Frascatore did what he did.

You or I or James Blake can look at the arrest of someone like, say, James Blake, and see a shocking unnecessary use of force. We wonder aloud “why didn’t he just show his badge, explain that Blake was suspected of a crime, and make the arrest peacefully, and only elevate the force used if — and to the extent that — the other guy first made it necessary?” (What, you don’t say sentences like that aloud?)

The dysfunction of a police officer’s training and experience explains why you or I might think that, but it would never even occur to an officer.

His automatic, learned behavior is to attack the suspect with overwhelming force and subdue him above all else. This may be perfectly rational when dealing with a violent or crazed thug. But when dealing with a perplexed honest citizen, the citizen’s confusion gets misinterpreted as resistance, and the officer’s reaction just gets worse.

This dysfunction is what Lynch is trying to defend when he accuses the punditry of ill-informed armchair quarterbacking. If they only knew the realities, they’d understand why this was no big deal, why this was understandable and indeed proper arrest behavior. (Hypocrisy, again. Somehow the police themselves have been granted a dispensation not to have to understand the behavior of those they are arresting.)

The solution, of course, is to think. To take a second and decide whether this person needs to be jumped with shouts of authority and a gun in his ear, or whether a discreet arm on the shoulder and a word in the ear might suffice. To take a second to figure out whether this well-dressed man at a swanky hotel is resisting your authoritah (do people still quote Cartman?) or whether he is in fact frightened and confused by an apparent armed assault.

It seems to work with violent anti-authoritarian inmates (see the above-linked study). Who knows, it might work with cops, too.

But what won’t work is more of the same knee-jerk hypocrisy and paranoia from the PBA.


*The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which represents uniformed patrol officers. There’s a different union for uniformed sergeants, another one for detectives, and yet another one for lieutenants.