Archive for the ‘Policy’ Category

Standing to Sue the NSA?

Monday, November 2nd, 2015

A couple of weeks ago, Wikimedia’s lawsuit against the NSA got thrown out. Wikimedia (and the ACLU, NACDL, Amnesty International, and many more) claimed the NSA was violating everyone’s rights with its “upstream” surveillance of internet communications. The court dismissed the case because nobody could prove that they had “standing” to bring the case in the first place. The plaintiffs failed to establish that the NSA had actually intercepted any actual communications. They relied on statistics — there are gazillions of communications that go over the wires being monitored, so there must have been improper interceptions. The court said “must have been” isn’t good enough, there isn’t standing, good day.

This isn’t the first time that’s happened. A few weeks before that, a Pennsylvania divorce lawyer had his case against the NSA shot down for the same reason — he couldn’t prove that he himself had been harmed, because he couldn’t show that any of his communications had actually been intercepted. So no standing, case dismissed.

These cases rely on the 2013 Supreme Court ruling in Clapper v. Amnesty International, which held that merely “possible” injury isn’t enough to assert standing in a case like this. You need to show that the injury is real, and either actually happened or is truly imminent. Even if there’s a reasonably good chance that your communications were intercepted, that’s not good enough. There’s no res ipsa loquitur when it comes to standing here.

Of course, that’s nonsense, because the whole doctrine of res ipsa is basically “yeah, the plaintiff can’t prove you harmed him, but come on! It’s pretty obvious you must have.” It’s rebuttable, but the doctrine at least lets the plaintiff into the courthouse. [Yes I know Fourth Amendment and First Amendment jurisprudence aren’t exactly the same as that of negligence in Torts, but come on.]

It doesn’t matter, though, because this is what the Supreme Court always does in cases like this. None of this is a surprise to anyone.

In Clapper, the appellants wanted the Court to say  §1881a of FISA is unconstitutional, as is the NSA’s surveillance of communications. The Supreme Court did not want to deal with these issues. This “no standing” decision is their way of saying that.

An important fact about the Supreme Court is that it doesn’t have to take every case that comes its way. It gets to pick and choose, for the most part. They exercise this discretion, for the most part, based on purely nonpolitical considerations such as how busy they are. Or because a given case isn’t the right one to make a ruling with, and they’re waiting for a better one to come along. (Sometimes they do appear to cross the line with their discretion, see Bush v. Gore, and when that happens the entire authority of the Court gets called into question. A lesson that has to get re-learned every now and then.)

Prudence is another consideration that the Court takes into account when accepting or rejecting a case. In other words, “we’d better not get involved in this issue.”

If you look back at all the times the Court has skirted an issue by saying a party had no standing, it’s hard to find a definition of standing that reconciles them all. I’ll go so far as to say that they are irreconcilable. There is no consistent theory that explains them all. Except, that is, the consideration of Prudence. When you take into consideration the Court’s desire to not go sticking its nose in a sensitive matter, everything becomes clear.

It’s been the Court’s practice to do this for a long time, now. This very fact was taught in the very first class of my first year of law school, back in 1993, and it was already an old habit long before then. So it cannot have come as a surprise to anyone. I’ll bet you a dollar that even if you did find proof that your personal communications had been intercepted — and after Snowden and all the other post-Clapper revelations, it’s easier to meet some of the Court’s conditions — they’d still find a way to say you lacked standing. They’ve left themselves plenty of wiggle room, there.

That doesn’t mean you don’t keep trying! Just don’t be surprised if they keep refusing to get to the merits. They don’t want any part of it.

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.

A Modest Proposal

Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

Yesterday, the New York Senate voted to pass “Brittany’s Law,” to create a new public registry of offenders. Think “sex offender” registry, only for anyone convicted of any violent felony. People with a conviction in their past would have to register for ten years or more (under penalty of another felony conviction). Local law enforcement would be notified of who these people are and where they’re living (makes it easier to harass and arrest them and put them back in jail again). If there’s a fear of re-offense (evidenced by such things as being out on parole, or whether the original violent felony involved violence), then the public could be notified with their photo, details of what they did, where they live now, and more.

Why? Because, you know people who were once convicted of a violent crime? Sometimes they commit another one later! Gasp! Think of the children! The public must be informed and protected, so we can protect our children and our neighborhoods and our workplaces from all those people, some of whom might commit another violent crime later perhaps! Who cares if it had just been a domestic dispute, or they’d shouted “fire” in a crowded theater, or they’d defended themselves in a fight by kicking while wearing shoes, or they moved here from another state and brought their gun with them? (All potential violent felonies in NY.) We need to be protected from all violent felons, if the law’s going to protect us from rapists and murderers and terrorists! That’s what this law’s trying to do: protect us.

But some people complain that this is a bad thing.

Some folks say it punishes people all over again, after they’ve already served their time. Some folks say it makes it harder for these people to reintegrate into society, find a place to live, and get a job. Some folks say this only increases the chances that these people will return to crime.

Some people object on the grounds that any law named after a victim is de facto overbroad, unjust, and a nightmare waiting to happen.

Other people, however, point out that some violent criminals do commit subsequent crimes after they’ve done their time. They can pose a threat. We can’t just rely on criminal law to deal with it, because that only punishes people after they’ve committed a crime. We want to prevent those crimes from happening in the first place. Honest to god, think of the children!

Well, if you put it that way, it all makes sense! Let’s punish people — not for what they did do, but for what they might do. We don’t want a law that reacts, we want a law that protects.

When you put it that way, though… The problem is, this new law just doesn’t go far enough.


The central premise of this law, and others like it, is that rehabilitation doesn’t work. It’s a nice idea, but in reality rehabilitation’s just a pipe dream.

That’s kinda true. Criminal penalties — whether they be jail, prison, probation or what have you — simply don’t prevent recidivism. The vast majority of people who get arrested will never ever commit another offense, regardless of whether their case is prosecuted or dismissed. Either it was a one-off mistake in an otherwise blameless life, or the mere arrest and arraignment was enough to scare them straight. The few who do go on to reoffend don’t seem to stop. At least, their punishment seems to have little measurable effect on whether they stop or not. (Ignoring drug treatment and mental health treatment, which aren’t technically punishment anyway.)

No, nobody with a halfway-decent understanding of our criminal justice system thinks that punishment rehabilitates anybody. It just doesn’t happen.

It doesn’t deter anything, either. Very few criminals decide not to offend after sober reflection of what the consequences might be. Even fewer violent criminals. (Those people who are deterred are those for whom the mere fact that punishment happens is enough to scare them away from contemplating crime. The possibility of a conviction alone is deterrence enough. The nature of the punishment is irrelevant. More importantly, these are not the people we’re worried about.)

If jail doesn’t rehabilitate, if it doesn’t deter, then what good is it?

It’s great for removal — getting the criminals off the streets so they can’t commit further crimes. Inmates can’t mug people on the street. They don’t kill us. They don’t rape… the rest of us. We’re safe from them.

More than that, we know that it works! Crime is down nationwide — violent crime, too — not merely because of demographic shifts but because in recent decades we’ve been locking people up for longer and longer chunks of their lives, keeping them off the streets. The prison population is soaring despite the drop in crime not because we’re shoving more people into prison, but because once there they’re staying longer. Sure we have more people locked up per capita than anywhere else on Earth, but aren’t we safer? Yes, TV shows and the news make people think crime is astronomically more likely than it really is, but you and I aren’t stupid people swayed by that nonsense — we’re the cognoscenti. We know that crime is down, and locking people up is why.

We’re safe from them… For as long as they’re locked up, anyway.

Most of the time, incarceration is sadly temporary.

Which means we’re not safe. And even Brittany’s law can’t protect us. Not really.

Which is why I have a modest proposal:



Punish all violent felonies by death.

Think about it: Removal is the only thing that works. The whole point of Brittany’s Law is to make removal more permanent — to keep them out of our communities and workplaces long after the justice system was forced to release them from custody. Removal’s what we want. The only way to really get that removal is to… you know… remove those people. For good. For once and for all. And execution’s really the only way to go.

Life sentence, you say? But why go to all the expense of feeding and housing and protecting and providing care for a dirty stinking nasty criminal for the rest of his life? First they hurt their victim, and now they’re going to suck our taxes dry for the rest of their days? Don’t forget, most violent offenders are young men between 17 and 30, with a long life ahead of them. And what’s the point of a life sentence, anyway? If you’re going to take away a man’s liberty permanently, if you’re going to remove him from the world permanently, what’s the point of keeping him alive? Death is more certain, efficient, and (if actually carried out instead of jammed up with decades of appeals) cost-effective.

What about exile, you ask? How historically-minded you are. There once was a time when you could ship off your criminals to another land, with a realistic expectation that they’d never get back. Sadly, in these modern times, there aren’t too many countries out there willing to let us ship boatloads of violent criminals to their shores. Plus how expensive would that be? And then they could always escape and sneak back through our borders like any illegal immigrant, and you just did all that for nothing. No, it’s just not workable in this day and age.

Execution is the only way to make sure these people never commit another crime again.

It’s the only way to be sure.

This isn’t an original idea, of course. For hundreds of years, our legal predecessors punished minor crimes with a fine, and major ones with death. (Jail was where you waited until the sentence was handed down, to make sure you didn’t flee in the meantime.) It only became a problem in England when they started criminalizing too many things and people started being killed for stuff that didn’t seem so major. We only invented prison sentences more recently, in an enlightened attempt to match the severity of the penalty to the severity of the crime, taking away a portion of your life that could be measured with scientific exactitude. And also to give you a chance to ponder your misdeeds and make yourself a better person, so you could come out a valuable contributing member of society once more. But now we know that rehabilitation is hogwash, and figuring out how many years a crime is “worth” only heightens the impermanence of the removal. It defeats the whole purpose! No, let’s go back to the tried-and-true. And if there do happen to be a few crimes that shouldn’t be punished with death, it shouldn’t take much time at all to identify and amend them.

Think about all the tax dollars we’d free up from the prisons. Think, liberals, of all those for-profit prisons we’d put out of business, along with the corruption they breed. Think, conservatives, of how low our crime rate would plummet, once we start keeping the bad guys off the street for good. Think, libertarians, of the smaller government we’d enjoy with far fewer agencies and bureaucracies and social programs and social workers and defense lawyers and the rest of the whole long tail of woe that trails behind each of these losers counterproductive members of society. Think, jurists and lawmakers, of the respect for the law we would instill when any potential lawbreaker has a gas chamber waiting for him. Think, everybody, of the children!

It’s a modest proposal, I know. But seriously, if we’re going to give up on every purpose of punishment but removal, then let’s be serious about it and remove them.



That’s not what you want?

Well, make up your mind. Because it’s exactly what you’re trying to accomplish. Your representatives say so every time they vote for something like this. Obviously it’s what you, their voters, want. Otherwise they wouldn’t do it.

Tell you what: You figure out why my modest proposal is wrong. Then explain in the comments why your Brittany’s law (or what have you) is somehow, nevertheless, right.

Go ahead. Just don’t forget to think of the children.



[Inspired by reading the back-and-forth after this tweet by Scott Greenfield]

A Fundamental Disconnect

Friday, May 1st, 2015

Your smartphone has a lot of private stuff on it. Passwords, photos, messages, files. You want to keep it private. So it’s a good thing that companies are building better encryption into their phones, right?

Not according to law enforcement. They complain a lot about encryption. Encryption is pretty good, these days, which means law enforcement can’t easily get stuff that’s encrypted. It used to be you have to be kinda tech-savvy yourself to encrypt your stuff. But now phones are encrypting your stuff by default. Cops, prosecutors, spies, and regulators want those passwords, photos, messages, files. And now they can’t get them. They’re frustrated. Like a spoiled brat throwing a tantrum, telling her dad to make Willy Wonka give her what she wants, they shout at lawmakers to make the nasty companies give them access. Maybe they don’t go “if you loved me, you would” (though they might), but echoing the rallying cry of governmental overreach everywhere, they scream “think of the children!”

Seriously, that’s their argument. Eric Holder, our recently-departed Attorney General, cried “think of the children!” last autumn at the Global Alliance Against Child Sexual Abuse Online conference. Law enforcement can do its job while “adequately protecting” your privacy (whatever he thinks that means), he said — but “when a child is in danger, law enforcement needs to be able to take every legally available step to quickly find and protect the child and to stop those that abuse children. It is worrisome to see companies thwarting our ability to do so.”


Damn those evil, evil companies for helping child abusers!

It’s a common refrain. Just the other day, a Massachusetts district attorney testified before Congress that “when unaccountable corporate interests place crucial evidence beyond the legitimate reach of our courts, they are in fact placing those who rape, defraud, assault and even kill in a position of profound advantage over victims and society.”

Damn those evil, evil corporations!

What law enforcement needs, they say, is a “backdoor” — they demand and insist that tech companies build flaws into their encryption, so that government can get those secret files and catch bad guys. We can trust law enforcement to only use those encryption flaws for a good cause. And it’s not like any of those bad guys will be able to use those flaws to commit more crimes.


Of course this is pure nonsense. And fortunately there was at least one congressman present on Wednesday who knows it.

California Rep. Ted Liu called B.S., in no uncertain terms. Tech companies aren’t doing this to help criminals, he said, but to protect their customers. “Because the public is demanding it.” And by the way, the public is demanding it because it “does not want an out-of-control surveillance state.” That’s right, the public is demanding protection from the government.

Which is what the Fourth Amendment’s all about, after all. Protecting our privacy from government intrusion.

This may seem obvious to you. That you have basic privacy interests in your stuff. And just because the government wants to see it, that doesn’t mean they should be able to.

But law enforcement doesn’t see it that way. Nope. Cops and prosecutors and spies and regulators honestly believe they are entitled to it. If evidence of a crime exists, they honest to God think there oughta be a way for them to get it.

That’s the fundamental disconnect that’s driving this debate. Because they’re wrong.


Let’s set aside the colossally stupid assumption that only good guys will be able to exploit backdoors to encryption. But only after noting that this alone demonstrates an enormous lack of understanding about how data tech works. That the folks who are supposed to be protecting us from malicious hackers want to give those very crooks a way to steal our private data, our bank accounts, our private photos — this alone should be alarming as hell.

Who’s accusing whom of aiding and abetting the bad guys?

But let’s set that aside. Let’s focus on that disconnect. That fundamental misunderstanding of the role of law enforcement, of the Constitution they’re sworn to uphold, and what law enforcement is “entitled” to.


Here’s the deal: Law enforcement isn’t entitled to a damn thing.

Yes, we’d love for them to be able to get all the evidence they lawfully can. Absolutely. If there’s evidence of a crime, and the government can find it without violating anyone’s rights, then by all means the government should do so. Society wants criminals to be punished for their crimes, and that can’t happen without evidence to prove that they did it.

Society wants that. But it demands that government not violate our rights in the process. There’s nothing in the Constitution granting law enforcement the right to collect evidence. But there’s plenty in there specifically protecting individuals from the government, specifically limiting what the government can do when it tries to gather evidence. Why? Because although catching and punishing the bad guys would be nice, it’s not as important to us as making sure the government doesn’t use its awesome power to do bad things to us.

We’ve balanced it nicely with our Exclusionary Rule. If law enforcement crosses the line, then they’re not allowed to use evidence they got by crossing that line. But they can still use the other stuff they got lawfully. This encourages them to gather all they lawfully can, without any fear of repercussions, and only takes away stuff they shouldn’t have had in the first place. And our courts bend over backward to say evidence was lawfully gathered.

But not everything can be lawfully gathered. It just can’t. Just because it exists, that doesn’t mean the government can see it.

“But private actors can see it!” you hear law enforcement cry. “Where’s the justice in a system that prevents the police from seeing stuff a civilian or a company could see?”

One: You are also civilians. No matter how much you arm yourselves with military gear and dress up like soldiers, police are not the military. You’re us. We’re not “them.”

Two: As Representative Ted Liu pointed out in a strong rebuke to the D.A. at that hearing, “here’s the difference: Apple and Google don’t have coercive power. District attorneys do, the FBI does, the NSA does.”

It’s simple. Private actors aren’t restricted by the Fourth Amendment, because private actors aren’t the government. They can’t throw you in jail. Maybe they can sue you or ding your credit rating, but the government can destroy your life and even take it away. The Constitution tries very hard to limit what the government can do with all that power. And as Rep. Liu concluded, “it’s very simple to draw a privacy balance when it comes to law enforcement and privacy: just follow the damn Constitution.”

So no. You can’t whine and cry that you’re not allowed to see things the rest of us can see. We need to be protected from you. Our founding fathers knew it. The Constitution you’re sworn to uphold exists to protect us from you. From you, not from Google.


“But what about the children!”

What about them?

“What about a kid who’s in danger of being horribly abused by a bad guy?”

And you have his phone, but not… him?

“Didn’t you hear us? A kid could have been horribly abused!”

That would be sickening and awful, and we’d love it if you caught the guy who did it.

“Well, what if the evidence we need to prove the bad guy did it is encrypted on his phone?”

And you’d know this… without having other evidence?

“For the sake of argument, yes! My God, we won’t be able to punish the man who made this child suffer!”

And this is different from every other case where you can’t find the evidence you need… how?

“We know it exists! Probably!”

And this is different from any other case where you can’t find the evidence you need… how?

“But tech companies can design their products so we can find the evidence! Government should compel them to do that!”

Well, how about private safes and security vaults, should those manufacturers be forced to design inherent flaws so cops can open them easily?

“That’s a great idea! Yes!”

Wait, I didn’t-

“Yes! And lawyers and doctors and priests — we should be able to force them to tell us what the suspect told them! And…”

You’re starting to scare me. This is the kind of government overreach we’re afraid of. Don’t you get it?

“But think of the children!”

Undoing overcriminalization

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

So I saw this opinion piece in USA Today by Glenn Harlan Reynolds, titled “You Are Probably Breaking the Law Right Now: When lawmakers don’t even know how many laws exist, how can citizens be expected to follow them?” It joins a growing tide of public awareness about overcriminalization in the U.S. — especially at the federal level — and that’s a good thing. (It also joins a growing number of pieces that use bird feathers as their lead example of serious stupid crimes ever since my little comic on the topic went mildly viral back in 2012 — and that’s also a good thing.)

What struck me was that this was in USA Today, of all places — arguably the nation’s most accessible newspaper, with the broadest audience. It’s not the paper of snooty elites or masters of the universe — it’s Everyman’s paper. That means the word is starting to get out for real. Once the general population starts hearing about overcriminalization, and more importantly realizing that it can affect them personally — it’s only a matter of time before they start calling their congressmen to do something about it.

The time seems more ripe than ever. The past few years have seen a rapidly growing public awareness of police abuses. Something happened to the police while we weren’t paying attention, and now we’re all starting to see a nation filled with highly militarized police forces, police who see the rest of us as their adversaries rather than their masters, police eager to swipe our assets and make collars for dollars… and a realization that this excessive power is being used against “good guys” just as much as those bad guys nobody cares about. Add some basic familiarity with overcriminalization in this country, and you’re going to get a lot of people worried about militarized SWAT teams taking them down for crimes they didn’t even know they’d committed. (In other words, what’s already been happening for years.)

Awareness is necessary before anything can change, of course. So more articles like this (and podcasts and blog posts and hashtags and…) would be a good thing. Spread the word. And then maybe we’ll be able to make some headway. Maybe over a generation or two we might see some moderation of our criminal laws. Or who knows, maybe even take our foot off the accelerator of police powers a smidge? (It’s happened before, after all.) Maybe these could start to be realistic goals to shoot for!

Those were the initial musings I had when I first saw Reynolds’ piece today. But here endeth the serious part of this post, because my thoughts that immediately followed were just, well… silly.

I started to daydream. I imagined such a public outcry against too much police power, too many crimes on the books, and other abuses of the criminal justice system, that critical mass was reached. The tide turned. Progressive politicians who previously clamored to outlaw everything they didn’t like, now fought to shout loudest against the use of criminal law to punish human beings for mere civil and regulatory ends. Reactionary politicians who had once competed to look “tough on crime” by ratcheting up police powers and punishments, now vied with one another to deflate the excessive might of the State and protect individuals from unlimited government.

Far-fetched, I know. But it got worse.

A president was elected on a platform of total reform. Congress was tasked with completely overhauling the federal criminal code — throwing it all out and starting from scratch, eliminating everything that was duplicative, poorly thought out, vague, and stupid. Eliminating every regulatory crime created by the unelected bureaucrats, and requiring that only elected representatives could criminalize anything. Requiring a mens rea element for every offense. Standardizing the terminology and drafting of criminal statutes. Withholding federal funding from states and municipalities that failed to adopt policing reform grounded on the principle that police are civilians, and all the other civilians are on their same team, and most importantly requiring that there be zero financial incentive whatsoever — either to the officer or to the police department — to engage in any detention or seizure. And so forth and so on.

And the people rejoiced. Things got better.

Silly, right? Well, at least a guy can daydream. Now back to work.

[H/T Walter Olson]

Training and Experience

Thursday, December 4th, 2014

This has been another one of those years with a heightened awareness of police violence against unarmed black men. Awareness is a good thing. Understanding, however, is better. You can’t solve a problem until you know what the problem is.

The problem isn’t really racism, though. The problem is fear. These shootings don’t happen because the victim was black. These shootings happen because the officer was afraid.

The overwhelming majority of police officers, of course, will go their entire careers without ever pointing their weapon at another human being, much less shooting at one. Of the few officers who do pull the trigger, the majority are justified — they’re using deadly force to protect themselves and the public from deadly peril. That’s the norm. But some police shootings shouldn’t have happened — the victim wasn’t armed, and wasn’t posing a serious threat to anyone.

When those shootings happen, it’s because the officer was afraid. He saw danger where it didn’t exist. Maybe he panicked when the victim reached for his wallet. Maybe he was scared in a dark staircase and was suddenly startled by someone appearing out of nowhere. Maybe he wasn’t scared witless, but simply rationally assessed an indignant shouting person as being a vicious attacker. Either way, he pulled that trigger out of fear.

That fear is real. It doesn’t justify anything, however. Fear is the problem that needs to be solved. So where does it come from, and what can be done about it?


Police often use the phrase “training and experience” in court, to explain their judgment calls. “I suspected that the defendant was getting ready to rob that store, based on my training and experience.” “I determined that the substance he was selling was probably cocaine, based on my training and experience.” It’s a catchall phrase, but not a meaningless one. Training and experience, after all, are how any of us know anything. We know that 2+2=4 because we were trained in elementary school to do addition. We know that the sun rises every morning and sets every evening because we’ve experienced that every day of our lives.

Experience is stronger than training. I can lecture you until I’m blue in the face that the sky is red, but that’s not going to change what you already know from your experience, that the sky is blue.

This fear that police officers have comes from experience. It is ingrained in an officer’s brain from his lifetime of experience. His perception is that this kind of person, looking like that, behaving like that, in this kind of a situation, is probably a threat. Right or wrong, justified or not, that is what he’s learned. It’s what he instinctively knows. You can give sensitivity lectures until you’re blue in the face, but the only thing that’s going to change that perception is real-life experiences demonstrating that he doesn’t need to be afraid.

That’s important, because this fear is not something that can be intellectually or rationally changed. It’s purely unconscious. It’s coming from the unthinking part of the brain, before the thinking part ever gets involved. The emotional parts and ingrained memories of past experiences are saying “this is a threat,” and are pumping fight-or-flight signals all over the nervous system without any conscious control.

On top of that, the brain is unconsciously creating a perception based, not on what’s really going on, but on what it expects is probably going on, based solely on what that brain has experienced in the past. We don’t have much room for attention at any one time — our brains can only keep track of a handful of things at once, and the area of our visual focus is (astonishingly) no bigger than your thumbnail held out at arm’s length. Our brains create the illusion of a continuous experience, and of seeing all the things we think we see. And that’s what it is: an illusion. To do this, our brains fill in all the blanks with what’s probably there, based on the experiences we’ve stored. This happens without our awareness, without our control, and it happens constantly. We perceive what our experience expects to see.

And in the case of unjustified shootings, the police officer very often saw a threat where none existed because in his personal experience, that was a threatening situation.

It’s worsened when an officer’s experience is extremely limited. And it very often is. But it’s all he’s got to go on. Someone raised in a quiet suburb, who whose only experience with certain people has been of a violent or threatening nature, is going to know, based on his training and experience, that people like that are dangerous.

This fear can be racial — police officers are generally more likely to use violence against blacks and hispanics than against whites or asians. Even police officers who themselves are black or hispanic. But that doesn’t necessarily make it racist. And in fact race is less important than socioeconomic status — police are more likely to shoot at low-income, low-prestige individuals regardless of race. But that, too, doesn’t necessarily make it classist. It’s not blind racism or classism, but rather a prejudice based on limited life experiences. An officer may have a real prejudice that black people (say) are more likely to be dangerous than white people, and that poor people are more likely to be dangerous than middle-class or rich people.

We can spout statistics until we’re blue in the face again, that these prejudices do not in any way reflect reality, but that’s like telling him the sky is red. They reflect the officer’s reality, the only one he knows.

On top of that is the “us vs. them” mentality that many police officers can’t help but develop over time. Nobody’s on their side — the politicians whose rules the police are enforcing are the first to throw them under the bus if there’s ever any outcry. The citizens whose lives they’re protecting, for whom they’re risking their lives, call them names and march in outrage. The communities they police scream bloody murder when they don’t like what an officer did, but don’t utter a peep about the people in their communities who are killing children and driving businesses away. Nobody organizes marches against the criminals, against the real bad guys. The only people on their side are fellow cops. Not even prosecutors are really on their side. It doesn’t take long for an officer’s training and experience to prove to him that the citizens he serves are actually his opposition. And when any of us look at people as outsiders, we’re even less likely to notice individual differences. An officer who no longer sees himself as “one of us,” but rather sees any of us as “one of them,” is far more likely to rely on internal prejudice when assessing an individual. This is what we all do, by the way — it’s yet another unconscious function of our brains over which he have little or no control. Members of an “other” group just get lumped together into a stereotype, without much attention to individual differences.


Stereotype is the right word here, but not in the way it’s normally used. It means “the things our brains expect to see.” Most of the time, stereotypes are great — they’re a real survival skill without which we couldn’t function in a complex environment. “That car was coming right at me last time I saw it. It’s in my blind spot now, but it’s probably still coming this way. I’d better get out of its way.” In a panic situation, when there’s no time to think and assess, they’re a real time saver, as the T-shirt says. Your brain falls back on what it already knows, to determine what is probably happening, and what is probably the best thing to do about it. Most of the time, it’s right. Which is why you’re probably still alive to read this.

But sometimes instinctive reactions are tragically wrong. An inexperienced motorcyclist, for example, who suddenly needs to veer left, will do the obvious thing and steer the handlebars to the left. Which is unfortunately the opposite of what he needs to do, and so he goes down and slides into that oncoming truck. A more experienced biker, however, will have trained herself to overcome that instinct and do the counterintuitive thing — she pushes the left handlebar away from her, and veers to the left as she wanted.

Similarly, a police officer whose experience with certain people is limited can easily misinterpret a harmless situation as a dangerous one. Like the motorcyclist, the only cure is more experience.

Training helps a little bit, but it only goes so far. You can lecture to the inexperienced motorcyclist until your face assumes a certain hue, but he’s not going to believe it until he tries it. And it will take a lot of practice to make the counterintuitive decision the ingrained instinct. Similarly, you can give all the cultural sensitivity training you want, but for it to have any real effect the officer is going to have to see for himself that most people who look like that, talk like that, dress like that, live in that neighborhood, etc… most of them are okay. And he must gain enough experience to be able tell those few who are threats from the majority who aren’t.

That doesn’t come from a lecture. That comes from spending time in the community and getting to know the people. That comes with walking the beat with a more experienced cop who knows the people, who can share his knowledge and insights. That comes from giving police officers experience, not just of the criminal element, but of the community as a whole.

That’s hard to do. And it’s getting harder in recent years. Police are less and less likely to come from the communities they police, and cultural dissonance and misunderstanding are ever more likely. Community outrage against police is getting louder, and the “us vs. them” mentality is only getting stronger. Policing policies are less about understanding the community and making judgment calls, and more about arresting every infraction. Police are using more and more overwhelming force to ensure compliance with their commands and improve their chances of getting home safely. Cultural awareness has never been greater, and yet police officers have less opportunity to experience it firsthand than ever.

Giving officers the necessary training and experience is harder than ever. But it’s the only real solution.

Let’s Make a New Law!

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

Any moderately well-informed person these days is aware of the shocking injustices that happen whenever criminal laws get written by people who don’t really understand what criminal law is, or how it works. (Brilliant summary here.) They tend to create crimes that are ill-defined, overbroad, and usually an overreaction to the perceived harm. The results can be pretty bad.

How much more cause for concern, then, when the proposed crime violates not only the fundamental principles of criminal jurisprudence, but cherished individual rights that have nothing to do with crime?

And how much more cause for concern, then, when those who catch potential problems are not engaged in thoughtful debate, but are instead shouted down and accused of malicious and reprehensible conduct?

It looks like that’s what’s been going on recently in an ongoing debate over proposed “Revenge Porn” legislation that’s floating around out there. At first the shenanigans were amusing to watch, but lately it’s turned into a distressing train wreck online. A law has been proposed in reaction to something with a lot of emotional pull, thoughtful people have voiced concerns that it may be a bad law, and its proponents have responded less with reasoned debate than with emotional backlash. Those who disagree are shouted down as stalkers and assholes; their comments are deleted so that others may not see them.

Ignoring whether either side is right or wrong, what a terrible blow this has been to the credibility of the law’s proponents. Think how insecure they must be in their own assertions to react so defensively. How much confidence can than inspire in the rest of us?


“Revenge Porn” is pretty much what it sounds like. You’re in a relationship with someone, they let you have some nude pix, then there’s a breakup and you feel bitter and to get back at them you post their nudes online for the world to see. It’s a nasty, cruel thing to do. It’s not hard to imagine society thinking the practice to be so bad that it deserves to be punished. It’s easy, in other words, to see Revenge Porn as something that might be criminalized.

Some law professors have been pushing a model statute that would criminalize the practice. So far, no big deal. This is something that law professors are expected to do.

None appear to be professors or practitioners of criminal law, though. That’s not encouraging. Those reviewing the language will therefore probably want to keep an extra-sharp lookout for things like imprecise (or missing) mens rea, over-inclusive definitions, and conflated or confused concepts, etc. Nothing personal, just a normal precaution. You get this stuff all the time.

An extra wrinkle comes from the fact that posting a nude picture of your ex counts as “speech” for First Amendment purposes. And the First Amendment doesn’t let the government criminalize speech, except in very tightly controlled circumstances. Even the most awful, painful, hurtful and distressing speech (such as that of the Westboro Baptist “Church”) is not something that gets criminalized in this country.


This is a criminal law blog, not a First Amendment forum, and so it’d be somewhat off-topic to get into whether or not Revenge Porn is something that can be criminalized without running afoul of Freedom of Speech. But it is pertinent to note that the professors’ interpretation of the 1st Amendment here is not universal — and it is also relevant to examine how they have reacted to the ensuing disagreement.

To be fair, the law’s proponents are from academia, where disagreement (often) = bullying and criticism (sometimes) = hate speech. Where speech is generally not very well protected, in the first place. Where debate can be frowned upon and contrary points of view shouted down, removed from newspaper bins, at times even persecuted and hounded out. You ain’t seen petty vindictiveness until you’ve seen someone challenge the orthodoxy. You don’t get this from the better professoriate, of course — there are plenty of wonderful academics who welcome healthy debate, the chance to make their case or (as the case may be) get a new point of view. But there are plenty of others who prefer to point to their credentials and their peer-acceptance as proof of their correctness, and who get the most defensive when challenged.

You can usually tell which kind of academic you’re dealing with based on how they react to a contrary position. The ones who are pushing the Revenge Porn law, sadly, seem to be falling into the lesser camp so far. This is not good for their credibility.

So to the extent that First Amendment practitioners are in dispute with these particular academics, one might be inclined to conclude that the practitioners could perhaps be more likely to be correct.


But again, this is a criminal law blog. So how does the law look from the perspective of our criminal jurisprudence?

Not… not so great.

Here’s what the model statute says:

Whoever intentionally discloses a photograph, film, videotape, recording, or any other reproduction of the image of another person whose intimate parts are exposed or who is engaged in an act of sexual contact without that person’s consent, under circumstances in which the person has a reasonable expectation of privacy, commits a crime. A person who has consented to the capture or possession of an image within the context of a private or confidential relationship retains a reasonable expectation of privacy with regard to disclosure beyond that relationship.

(a) Definitions: For the purposes of this section,
1) “disclose” means sell, manufacture, give, provide, lend, trade, mail, deliver, transfer, publish, distribute, circulate, disseminate, present, exhibit, advertise or offer.
2) “intimate parts” means the naked genitals, pubic area, buttocks, or female adult nipple of the person.
3) “sexual contact” means sexual intercourse, including genital-genital, oral-genital, anal-genital, or oral-anal, whether between persons of the same or opposite sex.

(b) Exceptions:
1) This section shall not apply to lawful and common practices of law enforcement, the reporting of unlawful conduct, or legal proceedings.
2) This section shall not apply to situations involving voluntary exposure in public or commercial settings.


Holy cannoli, where to begin…?

The first problem is one of good old mens rea: It criminalizes disclosing the image without the subject’s consent, regardless of whether the actor knew about it one way or the other, or meant to do so without consent. It criminalizes the act where the subject had a reasonable expectation of privacy, regardless of whether the actor knew or had any reason to know it. The only mens rea here is whether the image was disclosed intentionally.

It’s a strict liability crime. Whenever you see that, huge red flags should be popping up in your head screaming “INJUSTICE AHEAD!” Sure it doesn’t criminalize accidentally dropping a photo out of your wallet, but it does criminalize showing it to people with the mistaken belief that your wife was cool with it — or without the knowledge that she had since changed her mind.

The second problem is one of conflated concepts. “Reasonable expectation of privacy” is a concept of Fourth Amendment law — of procedural rights, not of criminal liability. It is a term of art that has been defined in a fairly convoluted fashion over the years in such a way that the average layman couldn’t give you an accurate definition of the phrase if his life depended on it. His liberty would depend on it, here. The authors probably don’t mean for this phrase to have the meaning & baggage it carries in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. They just think it sounds good. And so there is inherent confusion in the statutory language. It is not clear what is actually meant here. And where there is vagueness in criminal law, where there is room for interpretation, there is room for cops and prosecutors to screw over the regular Joe. And if you don’t think that happens, you’re not getting out enough. When you see conflated concepts and room for interpretation, those red flags ought to be screaming at you even louder.

The third problem is one of unclear writing. Seriously, what do the “consent” and “reasonable expectation of privacy” clauses modify? Does this refer to images that are disclosed without consent, or taken without consent? Does this refer to images that were disclosed under circumstances where someone had an expectation of privacy, or taken under such circumstances? Is it criminalizing pictures of sexual acts that were nonconsensual? What about images that were taken by someone else, and then given to you by your ex? What about images that someone else forwarded to you, or you found online, and had no way of knowing whether they were consensually/privately taken or disclosed (whichever verb applies)? It can be read all of these different ways.

There is literally no way of knowing for sure what conduct is criminalized here. As written, it outlaws all kinds of behavior its authors probably didn’t mean to punish. It is overbroad as hell. You hear those red flags? Since when do flags scream? These are. Get some earplugs.

Strictly from a criminal perspective, this is a god-awful statute. It’s another one of those “think of the children” “take back the night” “let’s name a statute after the victim” kinds of legislation that pave an eight-lane superhighway to hell with their good intentions.


You want a statute that works? (Again, ignoring any First Amendment concerns.) Here’s one I banged out in court this morning while waiting for a case to be called. Zero research or deep thought went into it:



(A) “Private Sexual Image” = any media containing:

(i) an image taken in a non-public place, and in a non-commercial setting…

(ii) of a living person whose identity is readily ascertained from the contents of the image…

(iii) and depicting that person’s unclothed genitalia, buttocks, or female breasts, or depicting that person engaged in sexual intercourse, oral sex, manual-genital contact, or other such sexual behavior…

(iv) and which has not previously been “distributed” as that word is defined herein.


(B) “Distribute” = make publicly available by any means, including displaying in public or in a publicly-accessible medium, sharing via any communication or peer-to-peer arrangement, and any other method that makes a duplicate of the image available to others. Excluded are private acts of showing the image, without duplication or transmission, to individuals or small groups of people.



Any person who, with the intent to harass, shame, or defame another person:

(1) distributes an image he knows, or a reasonable person similarly situated would know, to be a Private Sexual Image of that other person;

(2) when he knows, or a reasonable person similarly situated would know, that he does so without the consent of that other person; and

(3) thereby does harass, shame or defame that other person

is guilty of a Fucking Nasty Crime.


Any person who, with the intent to harass, shame, or defame another person:

(1) distributes an image he knows, or a reasonable person similarly situated would know, to be a Private Sexual Image of that other person;

(2) when he knows, or a reasonable person similarly situated would know, that he does so without the consent of that other person

is guilty of a Nasty Crime.


Any person who

(1) intentionally distributes an image he knows, or a reasonable person similarly situated would know, to be a Private Sexual Image of another person;

(2) when he knows that, or recklessly disregards whether, he does so without the consent of that other person

is guilty of a Crime.



It shall be an affirmative defense to all of these crimes that, when the image in question was originally taken, it was reasonable to expect that it would later be viewed or possessed by people other than those who were a subject of the image, the person taking the image, and the person accused of distributing the image.

It shall be an affirmative defense to the Fucking Nasty crime that the image in question was transmitted to the accused via electronic or other means whereby the image could be “forwarded” or otherwise duplicated and transmitted to third parties.


There, quick and easy. There’s probably stuff to fix in there, as well, and again who knows if it’d pass constitutional muster on other grounds, but it’s hardly as overbroad or prone to injustice as the one those professors are promoting.

I bet you can do it even better. You are cordially invited to tear my suggestion apart in the comments, and provide your own language. Have at it!

Is Ray Kelly a Complete Idiot?

Monday, August 19th, 2013

As we all know, Judge Scheindlin ruled that the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program was unconstitutional. This should have come as no surprise.

Our Fourth Amendment law forbids a police officer from stopping you without first having reasonable suspicion to believe that you are up to no good. Police officers were stopping people without any reason to believe they might be up to anything. That this was unconstitutional should surprise nobody.

Once you’ve been stopped, Fourth Amendment law forbids a police officer from frisking you without first having reasonable suspicion to believe that you are armed and dangerous. Police officers were frisking people without any reason to believe they might be armed. That this was unconstitutional should surprise nobody.

It is also unconstitutional for the government to single people out for this kind of treatment based on their race. Police officers were stopping and frisking Black and Hispanic people almost exclusively. On purpose. That this was unconstitutional should surprise nobody.

These were not the random errors of wayward officers, but institutionalized behavior directed and commanded by the police department. It was a program. That the NYPD has been given an injunction to knock it off should surprise nobody.

And yet Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has done nothing but act shocked and offended ever since.

Kelly made the rounds of TV news shows yesterday, angrily asserting Judge Scheindlin doesn’t know what she’s talking about, and claiming that this ruling is going to make violent crime go up. He argued firmly that the stop-and-frisk program is just good policing. It works. It’s effective. And now the NYPD can’t do it any more. It works. It’s effective. And so they should be allowed to keep doing it.

He firmly believes that, just because something is effective, the police should be allowed to do it.

This is the same guy who’s gunning for Secretary of Homeland Security. You thought you were living in a cyberpunk dystopia now? Just you wait until someone like him is in charge.


Forget whether he’s even correct that this is an effective policing strategy. (I already told you why it isn’t.) Let’s just, for the sake of argument, presume that stop-and-frisk actually worked to keep crime down.

That doesn’t mean the government should be allowed to do it. Effective does not mean constitutional.

The government is a mighty thing, with overwhelming power and force at its disposal. But one of the most beautiful things about America is that our government is constrained. It cannot use its might against you unless the Constitution says it can. There are plenty of things it might like to do, but it isn’t allowed to. (People being people, government folks will try to bend the rules or skirt them or even ignore them. Hoping nobody will notice, hoping nobody will say anything, hoping they’ll get away with it. Very often even believing they’re doing nothing wrong, and believing that in fact they’re doing the right thing. Still, the fact remains that they’re no allowed to do it.)

Of course there is a tradeoff. There’s always a tradeoff. If we gave the government unlimited power to snoop into our homes and search our persons, they would certainly catch a lot more criminals. If we took away the exclusionary rule and rules of evidence, they’d convict more of them, too. Ignore innocents wrongly convicted — let’s presume that the police would be inhumanly perfect about all this. It is a certainty that, without that pesky Bill of Rights, more wrongdoers would get punished, and more severely.

But we have decided that a lot of things are more important than catching and punishing criminals. Privacy is more important. Free will is more important. Fair hearings are more important. We as a society are willing to accept a certain level of crime — even violent and horrific crime — as a consequence of protecting these rights.

And so the government is forbidden from violating those rights, no matter how effective such a violation might be.

Kelly does not get this.

This is not rocket science. This is not obscure ivory-tower theory. This is a basic core principle every rookie police officer should know. Is Ray Kelly a complete idiot, here?


Kelly defends targeting Blacks and Hispanics because statistically, they commit a disproportionate amount of the crime in this city. And statistically, they do. But that doesn’t justify stopping individuals just because they happen to have been born into those groups.

Just as “effective” does not mean “constitutional,” the statistics of a general population don’t give you reason to stop that particular individual over there. His being Black does not give you reasonable suspicion. You need reasonable suspicion to believe that this guy is up to something. Ours is a system of individual justice. You need a reason to suspect this particular person, not a belief about people like him in general.

Again, this is stuff you learn your first week at the Police Academy. It’s pretty basic.

If the statistics showed that people of Italian descent committed a disproportionate amount of bribery, or that Jewish people committed a disproportionate number of frauds, would that give the police reason to target Italian or Jewish people just because of their heritage? Of course not. It would be as absurd as it would be abhorrent.

And yet that’s essentially what Kelly’s saying about the racial discrimination.

Does he not see how blatantly wrong this is?

Is he a complete idiot?


You sort of have to hope he is.

Because if he’s not an idiot, then he knows exactly what he’s saying. He knows exactly why he’s wrong. Not just intellectually wrong, but morally wrong and contrary to everything this country stands for. And he’s still saying it. Hoping to convince you he’s right. Hoping you’ll let him continue to have those powers.

Pray he’s only an idiot.

On the DEA’s Special Operations Division

Monday, August 5th, 2013

It should be clear by now that I’m no apologist for governmental overreach or law enforcement abuses. But after the news broke this morning about the DEA’s Special Operations Division, and everyone has been freaking out about yet another erosion of the Fourth Amendment, I feel like I ought to tone it down just a little bit. I have a little inside info here, because back in my days as a narcotics prosecutor, I dealt with them. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to divulge anything I shouldn’t.)

A lot of international drug trafficking takes place outside our borders, so the idea was to take advantage of intelligence data to make the drug war more effective. You just can’t use the intelligence  data in court. So SOD was formed as a way to make the information known, without compromising criminal investigations.

As reported, what the SOD does is get evidence from sources that can never see the light of day in court — usually from intelligence services here and abroad. Wiretaps conducted without regard to Title III because they’re not intended for criminal prosecution, top secret sources, and the like. If something comes up about some big drug trafficking — not at all uncommon to hear about in the intelligence world — then the SOD hears about it. Then they clue in law enforcement. It’s up to law enforcement to figure out how to gather the evidence legally. SOD’s involvement and its tips are rarely shared with prosecutors, and almost never with the defense or the courts.

So there’s a lot of understandable brouhaha that Obama’s eroding our privacy, the Fourth Amendment has been eroded even further, it’s unfair to the defense, this country’s going to hell in a handbasket, etc. People are concerned that law enforcement is “laundering” its evidence so it can use stuff that should have been inadmissible, and lying to everyone to cover it up.

First of all, this didn’t start on Obama’s watch. It got started under Clinton, back in ’94. And its existence has been fairly common knowledge in criminal law circles ever since. It’s even been reported on before.

Second of all, the whole “evidence laundering” thing isn’t quite accurate.

When I was dealing with them, back in the late ’90s and early ’00s, we in my office only half-jokingly called them “the dark side.” It was well understood that you couldn’t build a case off of their information. We’d never know where their information came from, for one thing. Without a source to put on the stand, the information couldn’t even be a brick in the wall of any case we wanted to construct.

And to be fair, the SOD folks themselves were very clear in their instructions: Their information was not to be used as evidence. It was only to help us figure out what we were looking at in an investigation, and let us know about other things we might want to be looking for. It was all along the lines of “how you gather your evidence is up to you, but you ought to know that this Carlos guy you’re looking at is part of a much larger organization, and his role is… and their shipment chain appears to have nodes here, here, and here… and your subject Gilberto over here is looking for a new local dealer.”

So what would you do? You’d realize Carlos wasn’t the top of the food chain, and start looking at your evidence in a different way, maybe change the focus of your investigation. And you’d pay more attention to traffic going to certain places. And you’d try to get an undercover introduced to Gilberto as his new dealer. You weren’t being spoon-fed evidence, but being clued in on where to look for it and what it might mean.

The Reuters article everyone’s citing quotes former DEA agent Finn Selander as saying “It’s just like laundering money — you work it backwards to make it clean,” in reference to a practice called “parallel construction.” He makes it sound like law enforcement obtained its trial evidence illegally, and then went back and tried to think up a way to make it look admissible. That would indeed be cause for much concern. And you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think that’s something police do on a daily basis.

But that’s not what “parallel construction” means. It means “dammit, I have this evidence that I cannot use. Is there another way to go get this evidence that is lawful? Why yes there is! Let me go do that now.”

So let’s say you know that a blue van with Florida plates XXX-XXXX will be going up I-95 this weekend, loaded with heroin in a variety of clever traps. But you can’t just pull it over because you can’t introduce that information in court for whatever reason. Instead, you follow it in a series of unmarked cars, until it makes a moving violation. Which is very likely to happen, no matter how careful the driver is (it’s practically impossible to travel very far without committing some moving violation or other). You now have a lawful basis to pull the van over. And a dog sniff doesn’t even count as a Fourth Amendment search, so out comes the convenient K-9. And tada! Instant lawful search and seizure, and the original reason why you were following him is not only unnecessary but irrelevant.

It doesn’t matter if the original reason you wanted to pull the van over came from the dark side or from an anonymous tip or from a hunch. It’s a legal stop, and the original reason doesn’t matter. This is a very common scenario in day-to-day law enforcement, and isn’t specific to the SOD.

Or think of this equally very common scenario: Someone inside an organization has given you probable cause to go up on a wire and to arrest a lot of people. But you don’t want that person’s identity to ever come out, or even raise any suspicion that there was ever an inside informant. So you get that guy to introduce an undercover. Who maybe introduces yet another undercover. And you only use information that the undercovers themselves develop to build your probable cause and build your case. The original informant’s identity need never be disclosed.

Those examples are parallel construction. It’s not about going back and laundering your evidence. It’s about going forward to gather it lawfully this time.

I’m not saying the dark side isn’t cause for concern. Law enforcement and intelligence are supposed to be two entirely different things. We have given the government amazing intelligence-gathering powers on the understanding that it won’t be used against our own citizens, and won’t be used for law enforcement. A very good argument can be made that the SOD program subverts that super-important limitation on government power.

But it’s harder to argue that it violates the Fourth Amendment or gets evidence in court that should have been inadmissible.

If you’re gonna complain about it, at least complain for the right reason.

No, that’s not what the Fifth Circuit said.

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

The internet is abuzz over yesterday’s Fifth Circuit decision on cell-site data. And hardly anyone seems to know what they’re talking about, as usual.

It’s to be expected when sources like Wired say “cops can track cellphones without warrants, appeals court rules.” Which is not what the court ruled at all. After all, you can’t expect tech zines to be accurate on the law. And it’s to be expected when tons of people get all upset on sites like Reddit, because they only saw the inaccurate headlines and are now freaking out about something that never happened. But when the usually responsible New York Times jumps in with “warrantless cellphone tracking is upheld,” it might be time to get concerned.

Yes, there is a lot of concern these days with government access of our data. A lot of that concern is legitimate, and a lot is misplaced, but the fact that the conversation is even happening is a wonderful thing. Except the conversation is downright counterproductive when nobody knows what they’re talking about. And such lazy (or deceitful?) reporting isn’t doing anyone any good.

Here’s what the court said, in a nutshell:

1) The government wanted to get historical data of cell sites that were used by certain phones. Not real-time data. Not tracking.

2) Existing law says this is allowed when the government can provide specific and articulable facts that make it reasonable to conclude that the data will be relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.

3) The government did exactly that.

4) The lower court screwed up, and applied the rule for getting real-time data. The lower court needs to do it over again. Period.

All the court did was apply existing law, correctly.

What the ACLU and EFF and others wanted, however, was for the court to break new ground, and create a new legal standard. I am in favor of such things — a court’s not going to do that unless you ask, and I encourage making such arguments at every meaningful opportunity. But this court said it wasn’t going to touch that issue with a ten foot pole. (It did suggest going to Congress, to change the law. Congress passed the statute that enables such requests of phone companies, and right now the statute simply tracks existing Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. But the statute could always impose greater burdens on the government than are required by the Fourth Amendment. The Constitution is a floor, not a ceiling, after all. So why not lobby Congress to amend the relevant statute?)

Or they could, you know, take it up with the Supreme Court and ask them to change their mind on what’s reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

The problem, of course, is that the existing rule fits neatly within the general principles of how the Fourth Amendment works.

Basically, the Fourth Amendment comes into play when the government intrudes on something that you would reasonably expect to be private. They’re allowed to do it when they have a warrant based on probable cause to believe they’ll find evidence of a crime or catch a criminal. And they’re also allowed to do it without a warrant if it’s reasonable to let the government do so — when your privacy interests are outweighed by some other concern like public safety.

So the first issue is whether historical cell-site data is something you would reasonably expect to be private. The ACLU and EFF and others say it is. The government says it isn’t. And existing law says that it isn’t. This is the new ground that the court was being asked to break.

Cell site data is not something that you create. The government isn’t going into your phone or your computer to access the data. It’s not yours. Instead, it is a record kept by your phone company. They create the data, and they retain the data.

Cell site data does not contain the contents of your communications. What you’re saying and texting and emailing and posting are not being accessed. It only says what cell tower your phone was using at the time. Which can give a general idea of where your phone was at the time.

Historical cell site data does not tell the government where your phone is right now. It’s not a tracking device. It’s not real time. It just lists the towers your phone was using back then.

This cell site data is created by the business, not by you. And it’s about a transaction which that business engaged in. It’s not just about you. It’s a record of its interaction with your phone. It’s nothing more or less than a routine business record, of the business’s own activity, kept in the ordinary and regular course of business. It’s not about you.

And the government did not compel the business to collect that data.

So when the government goes to the business and says “give us those business records,” it is not so much your privacy that’s being invaded as it is the business’s privacy. The act of getting the data, the act itself, does not require any intrusion into your own privacy. They’re not going into your phone or home or computer to get it.

And the data itself is not something that’s yours to claim as your own private information. You didn’t create it, you didn’t keep it.

But the law does recognize that you do have some expectation of privacy here. Just not anywhere near as much as if you were the one who created or kept the data. So the government has to make some showing that it’s actually relevant to an actual criminal investigation. They just don’t have to show there’s probable cause to believe they’ll get evidence of a crime. It’s a similar standard as for getting a pen register — real-time data of the numbers you’re calling, without overhearing the contents of the communications.

Also, stepping away from your interests for a moment: We don’t want law enforcement* just randomly poking through records for no reason, hoping to chance on evidence of a crime — the Fourth Amendment hates it when that happens. It’s not about your privacy, but everyone’s. So they can’t demand records in bulk. They have to be records of a specific phone, that they have specific reason to believe will be useful. It’s arguable that this consideration is even more important than your privacy interests, when it comes to setting the standard the government has to meet.

In the end, the law just isn’t on the ACLU & EFF’s side right now. They need to change the law, if they want the government to have to jump through the probable cause hoop here. They made a game effort of asking the Fifth Circuit to take the plunge, but the Circuit punted (I love mixing metaphors, don’t you judge me). They can lobby Congress to increase the government’s burden, and whip up public support for it (which is entirely possible), or they can try to get the Supreme Court to reinterpret the Fourth Amendment here (yeah, good luck with that).

But this decision broke no new ground. It did not give law enforcement new powers. It did not undermine the Fourth Amendment.

Please, if you’re going to get up in arms about it, do so for the right reasons. Not because you didn’t understand what happened in the first place. And don’t misrepresent what happened to try to foment misinformed popular outcry.

I’m looking at you, New York Times.

*Not the same as national security or intelligence, by the way, but that’s a whole nother discussion.

Ray Kelly on Stop-and-Frisk: You saved HOW many lives?

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013

NYC’s Police Commissioner Ray Kelly wrote a piece for today’s WSJ titled “The NYPD: Guilty of Saving 7,383 Lives” and subtitled “Accusations of racial profiling ignore the fact that violent crime overwhelmingly occurs in minority neighborhoods.” In it, he makes a great case for the fact that his cherished stop-and-frisk program is not effective policing, and may in fact lead to more crime.

That’s not his intent, of course. His purpose is to defend the NYPD’s much-maligned stop-and-frisk program (and also its surveillance of political dissidents). He doesn’t succeed. In fact, he does a great job of discrediting himself right off the bat. Which is a shame, because he makes it too easy to roll your eyes at him, and that would be a mistake. This stuff demands serious discussion.

He starts off with a burst of illogic and bad math, to wit:

(A) During the 11 years Bloomberg’s been mayor, unspecified tens of thousands of weapons have been seized by the police;
(B) During those same 11 years, there were 7,383 fewer murders than in the preceding 11 years [though he cites 13,212 and 5,849 as the figures, so the actual difference would be 7,363];
(C) The NYPD has saved 7,383 lives.

Uh huh. Right.

Well, he IS right that crime is way down. A careful statistician might even observe that crime in this city is way WAY down. And this is a good thing.

But to what extent is it a result of the police seizing all those weapons? (And how many weapons did they seize in the 11 years before Bloomberg? He doesn’t say.) In fact, to what extent is the drop in crime the result of policing policies at all? Most research I’ve read seems to support demographic shifts and maturing community attitudes as its primary causes.

Kelly makes this “we saved lives” point in order to justify the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program. He makes other arguments, too. Taken together, his arguments all boil down to “it works, therefore it’s justified.”

No. Wrong.

Just because something works, that doesn’t make it right. Or even legal. Just think of the atrocities the State could commit if mere effectiveness was all the justification it needed. Better yet, don’t think of them. I don’t want to give you nightmares.

But put that aside for now. Is he even right to claim that it’s working, in the first place?


It is silly to deny that good policing can affect crime rates. When the police are effective — when criminals stand a good chance of being caught and punished — then that effectiveness serves as a deterrent. People who otherwise might have committed a crime are more likely to think twice about it.

Then again, we are talking about violent crime, here. How much violent crime is even capable of being deterred? Most assaults and murders are unplanned, spur-of-the-emotions stuff. The odds of being caught and punished aren’t exactly being weighed. Even an effective police force will have an iffy deterrent effect there, at best.

But that’s not what stop-and-frisk is about. And it’s not really about getting weapons off the streets, either.

Stop-and-frisk is about making the risky people take their risky behavior somewhere else.

The NYPD is doing it because they think it will work. That it has worked. That it is working.

And they are wrong.


First things first: It is (more…)